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Twenty Years at Hull-House

by Jane Addams

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

Jane Addams wrote Twenty Years at Hull-House for two main reasons: to present a record of the founding and first years of the Hull-House settlement in Chicago, and to stop the publication of two biographies of herself. The first four chapters trace Addams’ life from her childhood through college and tours of Europe to her decision to begin Hull-House. The primary influence in these years was Addams’ wealthy abolitionist father, who stressed morality and sensitivity to the poor. The second important influence was Abraham Lincoln. John H. Addams was both a supporter and a personal friend of Lincoln, and although Jane Addams was only a small child when Lincoln was assassinated, she had heard many stories of him from her father. Addams saw Lincoln as the best role model for the new immigrants, since Lincoln too had emerged from humble surroundings without ever forgetting his past and the lessons that he had learned from his experiences. These two men helped to form Jane Addams’ character and influenced the direction that her life took.

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It is in these early chapters that Addams makes clear the problem that the first generation of college-educated women faced: what to do with their lives. As happened to other women of this generation, Addams suffered psychological conflict that resulted in physical distress. One result of her ailment was a physician’s recommendation to visit Europe for two years. Had she been male, a tour of Europe would have been part of her maturing experiences. Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, her college friend, visited not only museums and art galleries but also the wretched poor in the East End of London. Although Addams had spent a year in medical school before illness resulted in her tour, she now realized that there might be other ways to help the poor besides practicing medicine.

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Addams’ experiences in Europe brought into focus the problem that she and other women faced. As she described it herself, they were smothered with advantages and had lost the ability to react to human suffering. The assumption of society was that an educated “girl” could have nothing to do with the poverty that was particularly acute in the large cities. Addams’ trip did not cure her physical ailments, but a second trip with Starr, when she attended a meeting of the striking London match girls, began the crystallization of her plans for renting a house in Chicago where she might live and work among those mired in poverty.

The other fourteen chapters deal with Addams’ life work at Hull-House, which involved a wide variety of activities and an amazing array of exceptionally talented women who were nurtured, trained, and readied there to do social battle on larger fronts than that of the neighborhood of Halsted Street. The activities at Hull-House involved almost every important person of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from John Dewey and Henry George to Prince Peter Kropotkin.

Although these later chapters begin with a chronological chapter telling of the first days at Hull-House, Addams soon switches to a topical approach, discussing poverty, economics, labor problems, immigrants, ideas from European settlements and experiments, local political campaigns, social clubs, and the arts at Hull-House and ending with the story of revolutionaries from Russia. These chapters are filled with engaging stories that illustrate what Hull-House was attempting on these various fronts.


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Addams’ effect on women’s issues was a result of her activities rather than of any specific writings. Addams supported the suffrage movement and worked to secure the vote in municipal elections, but her feminism saw women as morally superior. To such feminists, suffrage was not only a right but also something that would result in a moral uplifting of the political world. It was not Addams’ role in suffrage, however, that had the most long-lasting effect; it was her life, which served as a role model. In addition to working at Hull-House, she was an academic who taught college extension courses, published in professional journals, and at times referred to herself as a sociologist.

Addams’ effect as a role model is best seen in the life of Hilda Polacheck, who wrote of her experiences in I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl (1989). After her marriage, she moved to Milwaukee, where she supported Addams’ feminist activities and invited her to inaugurate Milwaukee’s chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. When she later worked on the Work Projects Administration’s Writer’s Project, she wrote on Hull-House. She gave full credit to Jane Addams for the effect she had had on her life.

Among Addams’ other writings are Hull0House Maps and Papers (1895), Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), Newer Ideals of Peace (1906), Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), Women at the Hague (1915), The Long Road of Woman’s Memory (1916), Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922), Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), and My Friend Julia Lathrop (1935).


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Brieland, Donald. “The Hull-House Tradition and the Contemporary Social Worker: Was Jane Addams Really a Social Worker?” Social Work 35 (March, 1990): 134-138. Based on six objectives from the mission and purpose statement of social workers, Brieland concludes that the answer to the question posed in the article’s title is yes.

Carson, Mina. Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Emphasizes how well Jane Addams exemplified the Victorian cult of personality. Sees her as a master at publicizing her causes. Describes settlement houses as agents of social control and claims that their promotion of industrial education was to keep the immigrants in the working class.

Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A critical yet sympathetic treatment of Addams which explores her self-created legend, relates it to the facts of her life, and shows how the two became intertwined. Includes a good bibliography.

Davis, Allen F., and Mary Lynn McCree. Eighty Years at Hull-House. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. Contains reprinted articles by Starr, Mary Kenney (O’Sullivan), Kelley, Hamilton, Bowen, Dr. Dorothea Moore, and Edith Abbott as well as by men who lived in or visited Hull-House in its first twenty years. Shows Hull-House through the eyes of its residents and those most closely involved in its work.

Farrell, John C. Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams’ Ideas on Reform and Peace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. Contains a superior annotated bibliography and a complete listing of Addams’ writings. Places Addams in the context of the Progressive Era and examines her views on education and urban recreation as well as peace.

Levine, Daniel. Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971. Places Jane Addams and her work in the liberal tradition of alleviating suffering by reforming society. Part 1 (“Jane Addams and Hull-House”) and part 2 (“Rousing the New Conscience”) most closely parallel her work from 1889 to 1909.

Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935. The author, Jane Addams’ nephew, provides insights into Addams’ personality. “Six Women” is a good discussion of Starr, Lathrop, Kelley, Bowen, Hamilton, and Smith.

Lissak, Rivka Shpak. Pluralism and Progressives: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Like Carson, Lissak sees Hull-House as an instrument of social control, pushing assimilation to keep the immigrants in their place for the benefit of the middle class. The work’s focus is on eastern European Jewish immigrants, but some attention is devoted to Italian and Greek immigrants in the Hull-House neighborhood.

Polacheck, Hilda Satt. I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl. Edited by Dena J. Polacheck Epstein. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. A view of Hull-House from the neighborhood. Part 3, “Growing Up with Hull-House,” is particularly valuable. A good counterbalance to Carson and Lissak.

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