Jane Addams

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Article abstract: In hundreds of books and articles and as cofounder and director of the Hull House settlement in Chicago, Addams promoted a variety of social reforms designed to facilitate the adjustment to urban, industrial America from 1890 to 1935.

Early Life

Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in the village of Cedarville in northern Illinois. Her father, John Huy Addams, owned a local mill and had investments in land and other enterprises in several states; his belief in civic responsibility led him to represent his district in the Illinois senate from 1854 to 1870. Her mother, Sarah, died when Jane was barely two years old, and an older sister supervised the Addams household until John Addams remarried in 1868. Anna Haldeman Addams, the widow of a Freeport merchant, was a self-educated woman with a high regard for social position, travel, dress—in general, the cultural aspects of life. Jane received tutelage from her stepmother in these areas, which supplemented the information she gleaned from books in the local subscription library, conveniently located in John Addams’ house. Her formal education began in the village school in Cedarville; in 1877, she entered nearby Rockford Female Seminary (of which her father was a trustee), an institution dedicated to instilling in young women religious piety, cultural awareness, and domesticity. That Jane became president of her class, valedictorian, and editor of the class magazine attests her popularity and intellectual qualities.

Shortly after her graduation from the seminary, in 1881, John Addams died. This shock combined with her indecision about a career to produce several years of irresolution and depression. She began medical study at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but poor health forced her to leave after a few months. She was then bedridden for six months following an operation on her spine to correct the slight curvature caused by childhood spinal tuberculosis. At the urging of her stepmother, she toured Europe for twenty-seven months from 1883 to 1885, absorbing Old World culture with Anna and a few college classmates. Her purposelessness persisted after her return. She accompanied her stepmother to Baltimore for two winters and engaged in some charity work there, but her nervous depression continued. It was not until her second trip to Europe, in 1887-1888, in the company of her former teacher, Sarah Anderson, and college friend, Ellen Gates Starr, that she perceived a means to reconcile her intellectual and cultural interests with a useful career. In London she visited Toynbee Hall, a social settlement in the city’s East End, and discussed the institution’s social and cultural activities with its founder, Canon Samuel A. Barnett. She also toured the People’s Palace, an institute for the working class. These experiences acquainted her with the attempts of other educated men and women to deal with the problems of modern society by living and working in a poor neighborhood. Before leaving Europe she discussed her plan for founding a Chicago settlement with Starr; a few months after arriving home, the two women opened Hull House, on September 18, 1889.

Life’s Work

While the model of Toynbee Hall initially influenced Addams’ establishment of Hull House, the ethnically mixed population around the Halsted Street settlement had a greater impact on its development in the 1890’s. When the two women residents moved into the old Hull mansion, they had no formal program of activities and sought to establish contact with their neighbors by sharing their literary enthusiasms in a series of “reading parties.” Soon, however, the needs of area residents dictated programs. A wide variety of activities evolved in the first decade, including classes, clubs,...

(This entire section contains 2338 words.)

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social and cultural events, and a day nursery. Many of these activities drew on the cultural backgrounds of immigrants; Greeks staged classical Greek dramas at the Hull House Theater, and Italian and German immigrants discussed Dante and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As the functions of the settlement multiplied and Hull House added new buildings, Addams stood as the central figure—still a young woman, her brown hair drawn back into a bun, her pleasant face distinguished by pensive dark eyes—radiating goodwill and competence.

Her changed awareness of the nature of urban problems began to emerge in the 1890’s. While her original impulse in establishing Hull House had reflected the religious and humanitarian principles of her early years, a combination of circumstances now led her to consider the causes of poverty and maladjustment to industrial society. Florence Kelley, who came to Hull House as a resident in the early 1890’s, contributed her infectious interest in scientific investigations of the neighborhood as a basis for reform proposals. Her work culminated in the 1895 publication of Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions, a series of essays by Hull House residents, including “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement,” by Addams. Addams was critical of current labor practices, an outgrowth of her involvement in the unsuccessful mediation of the Pullman strike in 1894. She also criticized the response to the depression of 1893-1894 by existing charitable organizations, which too often stressed laziness and other individual vices as the determinants of poverty. Her developing view was to consider the underlying causes of labor problems and social ills: the dislocation caused by modern industrial organization. Her promotion of scientific inquiry was abetted by members of the new department of sociology at the University of Chicago, particularly Dr. Albion Small, who encouraged her to publish in the American Journal of Sociology, which he began editing in 1896.

Addams’ far-flung activities of the early 1900’s aimed at achieving harmony between industrialism, on the one hand, and traditional ideas of morality and culture, on the other. She was particularly interested in children and their development through educational and social activities. She promoted public parks and playgrounds in Chicago, established a kindergarten at Hull House, and set up a Hull House camp for neighborhood children outside the city. She promoted reform in education, believing that traditional educational methods and subjects insufficiently prepared children for modern life. She served on the Chicago Board of Education from 1905 to 1908 and was a founder of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education. (Founded in 1906, the Society’s efforts culminated in the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act, which provided federal support for vocational education in high schools.) She was also a founding member of the National Child Labor Committee, which supported compulsory education laws as well as restrictive legislation for child labor in factories.

By the time she published her autobiographical masterpiece, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910), Addams was widely recognized as an expert in social problems and a spokesperson for major programs for progressive reform. A leading suffragist (and officer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1911 to 1914), she was attracted by the woman’s suffrage and industrial justice planks of the Progressive Party in 1912. She delivered a stirring speech seconding Theodore Roosevelt’s nomination at the party’s convention in Chicago and subsequently traveled more than seven thousand miles campaigning for the party. When Woodrow Wilson won the election, she opined that he would pursue a program of Progressive democracy. The war in Europe in 1914 impaired Progressive aspirations for reform, however, and directed Addams’ attention to the cause she would pursue for the rest of her life: world peace.

During the period of American neutrality, until April, 1917, she worked for international arbitration, believing that neutral nations could resolve the war’s causes and mediate with the belligerents. With Carrie Chapman Catt, she issued a call to women to attend a conference in Washington in January, 1915, resulting in the formation of the Woman’s Peace Party, with Addams as its chair. Later in the year, she was elected president of the International Conference of Women at The Hague. (When the group reorganized after the war as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, she was elected president and retained the post until 1929.) When mediation did not materialize and the United States entered the war, she did not support the war effort, although in 1918 she worked for Herbert Hoover’s Department of Food Administration, which she viewed as a humanitarian response to the upheaval of war. Her patriotism came under attack, and the Daughters of the American Revolution withdrew her lifetime honorary membership. In the years following the war, she continued to search for ways to ensure lasting peace; her efforts were recognized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, which she shared with Nicholas Murray Butler.

Her final years were marked by tributes and honors from organizations throughout the world. Her activities were hampered, however, by failing health. She underwent major surgical operations and suffered a heart attack in the early 1930’s; she died on May 21, 1935. Following services at Hull House, she was buried in the cemetery at Cedarville.


Jane Addams was in the vanguard of Progressive reformers. Rather than exhibiting a populist-type aversion to modern industrial conditions, she shared with other urban reformers a belief that social, political, and economic relationships could be modified in a democratic fashion to deal with changed conditions. The belief in evolutionary change toward a new “social morality” was the theme of her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), a collection of essays on such diverse topics as charity organizations, family relationships, women in domestic employment, labor-management relations in industry, education, and the roles of bosses and reformers in politics.

Her experiences at Hull House provided her with a vantage point which few other reformers enjoyed. Observations of the ordinary led her to formulate social theories. For example, her reflections on the activities of neighborhood children led to a remarkable book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), in which she discussed the importance of the natural instinct toward play among children and the “urban democracy” exhibited on the playground.

The neighborhood was also a place where social experimentation could occur, where ideas could be translated to practice, for Addams was a rare combination of social theorist and pragmatic reformer. As such, she attracted other educated and talented people to join the settlement, many of whom were young women who faced the same career quandary with which she had dealt in the 1880’s. She was willing to draw upon the observations and ideas of this group in formulating her own programs. This open-minded deference to ideas, including those of William James and John Dewey, may have been her greatest strength in attempting to apply democratic idealism to an urban industrial setting in new ways which represented a profound break from the genteel tradition in which she was reared and educated.

Her attitude toward war rested on the same ideal of Progressive democracy as her social theories. Like other Progressives, she believed that war destroyed social progress and moral civilization. Unlike most other Progressives, however, she could not support the United States’ involvement in the war, citing as her reasons the sanctity of human life and the irrationality of war as an instrument of change. As a practical idealist, she supported such postwar initiatives as the League of Nations, the World Court, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, hoping that they would serve as instruments to direct world public opinion against war. In international affairs, as well as in industrial relations, Jane Addams was always willing to pursue numerous programs, never losing her faith in achieving human progress through social change.


Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. Edited by Anne Firor Scott. New York: Macmillan, 1902. Reprint Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964. Originally published in 1902, the book was a compilation of earlier magazine articles (revised for the book), which addressed the problem of applying ethics to an evolving democratic system. This edition includes an excellent introduction to the life and thought of Addams by the editor.

Addams, Jane. The Social Thought of Jane Addams. Edited by Christopher Lasch. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1965. An excellent introduction to Addams through her published and unpublished writings. Following a biographical introduction by Lasch, the material is organized under five subject headings, which reflect Addams’ diverse interests.

Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House with Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan, 1910. A good source for understanding Addams and the Progressive reform movement, as the book is at once autobiography, publicity for Hull House, and a consideration of reform ideas in the twenty years preceding its publication.

Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A balanced biography that establishes Addams’ writing and other activities in a broader cultural context. The most realistic appraisal of her accomplishments.

Farrell, John C. Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams’ Ideas on Reform and Peace. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. The first study to analyze the thought of Addams, rather than concentrate on her humanitarian sentiments or involvement in settlement activity. Particularly good in demonstrating that her ideas often conflicted with later historical accounts of the “average” Progressive reformer.

Lasch, Christopher. The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. In a perceptive essay on Addams, Lasch examines her early life and motivation for reform; he finds that her gradual emergence as an adherent to the “new radicalism” (marked by interest in educational, cultural, and sexual reform) was based on the conflict between the genteel values of her parents’ generation and her own perceptions of life and society.

Levine, Daniel. Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971. An intellectual biography of Addams, which asserts that she was a radical in urging rapid change. The book deals with three facets of her life: Hull House, her publicizing of social problems, and activism in national affairs.

Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935. An admiring but thorough biography by Addams’ nephew. Not interpretive, but valuable for detail, as the author had access to all of Addams’ manuscripts and files prior to her death, and discussed the biography with her.