Chicago's Hull House: From fine arts to social justice

Chicago's Hull House: From fine arts to social justice

Jane AddamsOur next heroine is Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams. She was born into a very wealthy family in the city of Rockford, near Chicago. She attended the Rockford Seminary and her teachers encouraged her to follow a life of service helping the poor. An excellent student, she read extensively and was inspired by Rev. Richardson and the Gideonites who went to Port Royal. As young women of the upper classes often did at that time, Addams and some other wealthy young ladies took a “grand tour” to visit the sights of Europe. Others in her group marvelled at the magnificent cathedrals and art museums. Jane Addams was shocked to see poverty—ragged children begging in fruit markets, back alley squalor in London’s East End, South Italy and parts of Austria. It changed her life. She returned to Rockford “convinced that it would be a good thing to rent a house in a part of the city [of Chicago] where many primitive and actual needs are found” (Ferris, cited in Quigley, 2006, p, 57).

On September 18, 1889, with her close friend Brenda Starr Gates, Addams took up residence in a house formerly belonging to the Hull family on South Halstead Street in Chicago. This was a move from the wealthiest neighbourhood in Rockford to the heart of the immigrant slums of Chicago.

The women mounted a sign beside the entry door stating: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago” (Linn, 1935, p. 110). They were joined by other women, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley.

The women of Hull House began at a different, almost absurd, starting point. They used their family connections to bring some of Chicago’s most influential families to see what poverty actually looked like. They also brought some of the nation’s wealthiest business leaders, philanthropists, intellectuals, artists and politicians, expecting this would lead to society-wide change. Why? Because the women initially saw their role as educating the elite of Chicago and America. Hull House was, for a while, “a huge spectator novelty” with some 50,000 people coming to the house in the first year and in “the second year the number increased to 2,000 per week” (Linn, 1935, p. 115). But nothing really changed for the immigrant residents living in the miles of squalor that surrounded Hull House.

Chicago's Hull HouseThey then threw themselves into “educating” the immigrants in ways they themselves had been educated. Although many residents could not speak English, the women began reading groups for young women, including courses on Dante and Browning. They began Shakespeare and Plato clubs. They loaned fine art to hang in the tenement houses and established a biannual art exhibit where “Chicago matrons…could loan artwork from their private collections” (Bryan, Bair, & de Angury, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 61).

But again, nothing changed for those living around Hull House.

Appalling health, unemployment, living conditions where children played with rats as pets—all brought the women to rethink their “literacy approach.”

They started craft-making courses: book bindery, dressmaking and millinery. A Boy’s Club was started to teach work in wood, iron, and brass, followed with skills training in commercial photography, printing, telegraphy and electrical construction, among other things. They redoubled their effort to teach literacy, which included English language learning.

However, with no garbage service, no proper sewage, no clean water supply and no policing, the women also began fighting for city services. For citizen rights. They rolled up their sleeves to help in every way possible, including birthing and preparing the dead for burial.

Again, while easing some of the suffering, nothing really changed. This journey now led them to a new understanding of low-literacy. In the words of one of Addams’ biographers, “Addams…came to believe that her mission was to reform society, not individuals” (Davis, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 57). Davis adds: “Jane Addams never became a radical…but she did become a social reformer…and she did come to believe that her main task was to eliminate poverty rather than to comfort the poor [emphasis added]” (p. 57).

In the final stage of their work, the women concluded the answers lay less with the immigrants and more with how power rested in the hands of Chicago’s wealthiest. At that time, the suggestion of an eight-hour work day “was connected in the minds of many employers not only with laziness but directly with anarchy, the blackest word in the vocabulary of the governing minority” (Linn, 1935, p. 101).

Addams and the women of Hull House are today credited with helping initiate the Factory Acts so the youth of America could no longer be exploited. The women also fought for women’s suffrage and marched for union rights. Addams is seen today as the founder of Social Services in America. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams legacy is seen as one of America’s greatest champions of the poor and oppressed.

Addams and her colleagues moved from literacy as culture, to literacy for training, to literacy for daily survival. And they concluded with a focus beyond “individualism,” seeing how external forces and “literacy classism” were key reasons for poverty and illiteracy.

The role of women in literacy

In closing this and the previous stories, we see a pattern often overlooked when discussing the history and international profession of adult literacy. The media has often decried rising literacy numbers and governments have, at times, made literacy a high priority—for a while, but the work of the countless, unnamed women who have not only taken leadership, but have been the very mainstay of this field, is rarely noted. If women had not chosen to step forward through the generations, the high numbers of adults with low-literacy skills we see in today’s statistics would be far, far higher.

Read More

Linn, J.W. (1935). Jane Addams: A biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.