Illinois: Hull-House, Chicago Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This is the most renowned of American social settlement houses. Its founders attempted to alleviate the conditions of poverty in the surrounding neighborhood through cultural and educational programs, eventually becoming active in politics and labor movements while pioneering urban sociology and social work.

Site Office

Jane Addams’ Hull-House Museum

The University of Illinois at Chicago

800 South Halsted Street

Chicago, IL 60607-7017

ph.: (312) 413-5353

fax: (312) 413-2092

Hull-House, the museum, is a monument to progressive liberal ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States. It can also be regarded as a memorial to Jane Addams, one of its founders and its most famous resident, and to the cult of personality that has developed around her. Hull-House, the social service agency, which since its decentralization in the 1960’s has continued to serve the communities of Chicago, is a monument to the ideals as stated in Hull-House’s original charter: to provide the neighborhood of poor immigrants of the area of Halsted and Polk Streets with a “center for a higher civic and social life, to initiate and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”

Creation of Hull-House

Hull-House was founded in 1889. It was not a mission, a charity, or a shelter, as early observers tried to explain it. When its founders moved in, their stated purpose was to be neighbors to the poor, helping to improve their lot by understanding and experiencing their condition. Neither was Hull-House the first settlement of its kind. Having been inspired by Toynbee Hall, a university settlement in London’s East End, Hull-House was part of a larger movement in the United States to establish settlements of college-educated women and men working among the poor to fight poverty and social injustice.

Hull-House is the most famous example of the settlement movement, largely because of the speeches, articles, and books written by Jane Addams, one of its founders. Through her lectures and publications, Hull-House rose to international prominence and Addams became a cult heroine, a role she encouraged. Yet it was only because of the prodding of Ellen Gates Starr, Addams’s friend and cofounder of Hull-House, that the two women moved to Chicago to implement their plans. They moved to an apartment on Washington Place in 1889 to enlist support and to prepare for their “Toynbee Hall experiment.”

By 1889, the mansion that Charles Hull, a real estate dealer, had built as a country home in 1856 was in disrepair, having narrowly escaped the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. An office, a saloon, and a storage room occupied the first floor, with rooms for rent on the second. Addams and Starr were able to sublet the entire second floor, with use of the reception room on the first. They moved in on September 18, and furnished the house with their own furniture, heirlooms, and art reproductions.

At first the two women’s plans were vague. They began by inviting their neighbors to a reading in Italian of George Eliot’s Romola (1862-1863); the need for more practical diversions soon became apparent. A kindergarten was suggested. Organized by Jenny Dow, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family, the kindergarten had twenty-four children enrolled in the first year, with seventy more on the waiting list. Other activities quickly followed. Clubs for children and classes in sewing were organized. Art exhibitions and classes, arranged by Starr, brought neighbors in great numbers to Hull-House.

Hull-House attracted wealthy and influential supporters. Helen Culver, owner of the Hull mansion, eventually gave the property to Addams. Wealthy and dedicated women, such as Louise deKoven Bowen and Mary Rozet Smith, donated their time and money. Scholars Henry Demarest Lloyd, John Dewey, Albion Smith, and Charles Zueblin, clergymen Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Graham Taylor, architects Allen and Irving Pond, and numerous businessmen, lawyers, and labor leaders lent their support in a variety of ways.

Hull-House at Work

Hull-House offered accommodation for its teachers and supporters, so that they could live in the neighborhood they served. Early residents included Gerard Swope, the future president of General Electric; Charles Bond, the historian; and William Lyon Mackenzie King, who went on to become prime minister of Canada.

Yet it was the female residents who made it a renowned center for social research and reform. They went on to become active in a variety of government agencies, civic organizations, and educational institutions both within and outside of Hull-House. Julia Lathrop, who helped organize the first Juvenile Court and the Immigrants’ Protective League and who became head of the Children’s Bureau, came in 1890. In 1892, Florence Kelley moved in. She pushed the residents of Hull-House toward the reform movement. During her first year, she was appointed as a special agent for the State Bureau of Labor Statistics to investigate sweatshops in Chicago. Mary Kenney was a labor leader and founder of the Jane Club, a cooperative living arrangement for working women. Alzina Stevens became the first probation officer of the Juvenile Court. Grace Abbott became the director of the Immigrants’ Protective League and succeeded Lathrop as head of the Children’s Bureau. Alice Hamilton became the first female professor at Harvard Medical School. Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott were professors at one of the first schools of social work, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.

Hull-House quickly became a community center for the neighborhood, a “think tank” and arena for progressive liberal ideas, and a center for social research. Classes and clubs continued; impractical college extension courses were supplanted by courses in English. In 1891, the Butler Art Gallery was established. In 1893, a coffeehouse and gymnasium were built, and the first public playground opened. In 1896, a rooming residence for men was added to the Butler Gallery, and the Jane Club was erected in 1898. A new coffeehouse and a theater were built in 1899.

The severe conditions of poverty that surrounded them on the Near West Side of Chicago, which included child labor, the sweatshop system, and municipal neglect, motivated the residents of Hull-House to become researchers and reformers. The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depression further inspired activism. Reports filed by Florence Kelley in her role as special agent investigating labor conditions in the slums, led to the idea of a book modeled after Charles Booth’s Labour and Life of the People of London. Hull-House Maps and Papers was a cooperative effort, led by Kelley, which detailed the nationalities and incomes of Nineteenth Ward inhabitants. It also included articles by Kelley and Alzina Stevens that exposed the sweatshop system and the deplorable conditions of child labor. While the book sold poorly, it helped to pioneer the developing field of urban sociology.

Neighborhood conditions also pushed Hull-House into politics. As a result of attempts to clean up the filthy streets and foul smell of the Hull-House area, Addams was appointed garbage inspector by Chicago’s mayor. In 1896 and 1898, she and other residents tried to unseat the ward boss, John Powers, without success. The reporting of their experience gave Hull-House national prominence.

The Progressive Era

The “progressive era” began in 1900 and lasted until the start of World War I. Hull-House was at the forefront of progressive and reform movements. Residents helped implement the first important survey of Chicago’s housing conditions in 1901. Other investigations included the licensing of midwives, infant mortality rates, children’s reading habits, cocaine abuse, and juvenile delinquency.

The Hull-House group was active in local politics, helping to stimulate the development of public playgrounds and recreation centers. Addams and other Hull-House supporters served on the Chicago school board from 1905 to 1909. Nationally, Hull-House residents and graduates led the way in women’s and labor movements, progressive education, Americanization of immigrants, and solving the root problems of juvenile delinquency.

Locally, Hull-House expanded its services to the community. The Labor Museum was opened in 1901; one of its purposes was to demonstrate to native-born Americans and, especially, to children of immigrants the importance of immigrant cultural resources. The Hull-House Players, a theater troupe that was to achieve international recognition, began in 1900.

A succession of buildings was completed in the first decade of the twentieth century. These included the Hull-House Apartment Building in 1902; the Woman’s Club Building in 1904; the Residents’ Dining Hall in 1905; the Boys’ Club Building in 1906; and the Mary Crane Nursery in 1907. The completed thirteen-building Hull-House Complex would remain until 1963.

Jane Addams’s Memoirs

In 1910, Jane Addams published Twenty Years at Hull-House. Up to the publication of this book, the subjects of her writings tended to be social concerns. Twenty Years at Hull-House, however, was her autobiography. Much of it centers on Addams’s early life and her reasons for founding Hull-House, her father, her schooling, a period of depression, subsequent trips to Europe in which she discovered Toynbee Hall, and eventually her decision to open a settlement in Chicago. According to Allen F. Davis, Addams’s biographer, the book “is a conscious attempt to focus the reader’s attention on Jane Addams.” The story of Addams, not entirely factual, passed into popular mythology so completely that it was repeated, albeit more poetically, in a 1932 article by Edmund Wilson.

The book, which was a critical and commercial success, drove into the popular mind the notion that Jane Addams was Hull-House and vice versa. One review put it this way: “[Twenty Years at Hull-House] is an inspiring exhibit of what one brave and determined spirit has done and may still do in making rough ways smooth for sorely beset humanity.” Yet Hull-House was not the effort of one brave and determined spirit, but of many. It was left to others to pioneer in such fields as art education for the masses (Starr), labor activism (Kenney), and urban sociology (Kelley). Addams was a founder and head resident of Hull-House. She was an excellent administrator and fund-raiser, and an effective crusader for Hull-House concerns–social justice, free thought, and Americanism. With Twenty Years at Hull-House, however, Addams also became a self-promoter.

A great deal of what Addams wrought through her involvement with Hull-House is profoundly good. However, the reality of Hull-House differed somewhat from the myth that grew up around Addams.

Opposition to Hull-House

Many immigrants openly resisted her and were hostile to her. In her thesis, Pluralism and Progressives, Rivka Shpak Lissak analyzes how many of the programs designed to “help” the new immigrant population were in fact attempts to assimilate them into the dominant Anglo-American culture. Organizations like the Immigrants’ Protective League were meant to supplant established service agencies run by immigrants themselves. It is telling to note that no immigrant was elected to its executive board until 1920. Similarly, Hull-House’s fight with the ward boss, who, while corrupt, represented immigrant concerns, was a well-resisted attempt to wrest control from lower- and lower-middle-class immigrant leaders and to replace them with Americanized immigrants with bourgeois values. Hull-House’s cultural programs reflected a bias toward Anglo-Saxon art, music, and theater. The result was that the more ethnically oriented immigrants ignored the settlement, creating their own agencies, banks, schools, and community centers.

The fact that many immigrants were unimpressed with Addams and the Hull-House group did nothing to belie the myth that Addams was creating for herself. If she was not a heroine to the people she presumed to serve, she was to the rest of America. By admiring and praising Addams’s work, many Americans could assuage their guilt over the conditions of poverty and quell their fears of new immigrant power. Addams was not to remain a heroine indefinitely, however.

In the years immediately following publication of her autobiography, Addams was at the height of her popularity. That popularity enabled her to become more involved in politics. She became a spokeswoman for woman suffrage, and in 1912 she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party ticket. She became leader of the Women’s Peace Party and an advocate for pacifism when war broke out in 1914. She was a representative to the International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915.

Decline of Addams’s Reputation

Addams’s star began to fall when she returned from The Hague and gave a speech at Carnegie Hall opposing the war. At the end of her speech, she related how she had been told that soldiers hated the bayonet charge and had to be given alcoholic beverages to induce them to it. That comment was but one small part of her talk, but it was the one that attracted the most press attention, disastrous for Addams. Addams had always spoken her mind, but up until then her mind and the public mind had been united. Now the public rebelled against her. They wanted to believe that soldiers fought because of duty and love of country. They would not accept that soldiers needed to be “doped” to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The public perceived Addams as impugning the bravery of soldiers everywhere, and she was attacked and vilified in the press.

In her further work for the cause of pacifism, Addams gave the public more reasons to mock and vilify her, especially after the United States entered the war, although Hull-House ended up doing much work for the war effort. When the war ended, the country did not return to the progressive ideals of peace, as even President Woodrow Wilson found out, but became obsessed with patriotism and rooting out radicals and Communists. Addams, once a heroine, was seen as the archenemy of America for her opposition to the war. In 1919, military intelligence worker Archibald Stevenson, testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, produced a list of sixty-two persons whom he claimed held “dangerous, destructive, and anarchist sentiments.” Jane Addams topped the list. She also was named in the Senate’s Lusk Report as a Communist sympathizer; the report contained many false and exaggerated accusations against numerous persons who had been involved in the peace and reform movements. The “Red Scare” hysteria increased in the 1920’s. Hull-House was labeled a seat of radical and communist movements.

Vindication of Jane Addams

Jane Addams spent less and less time in the United States, but managed to keep Hull-House solvent. In the 1920’s, Hull-House continued its service to the community, which became increasingly settled by Mexicans, Italians, and Greeks, with a large number of African Americans to the south and west. While social work became a profession and the idealism of the progressive era subsided, the number of people using the settlement services actually increased.

In 1929, the stock market crashed, resulting in the Great Depression. Jane Addams came to be vindicated in the ensuing years; she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 and saw her ideals reflected in the New Deal reforms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Several of Roosevelt’s appointees and advisers were Hull-House graduates. In 1935, the most remarkable era of Hull-House came to a close when Addams died of cancer.

After Addams

Addams had been Hull-House’s chief administrator and fund-raiser, and there appeared to be no one qualified to take her place. Then Louise deKoven Bowen, who had been a chief financial supporter, became president of the board and began solving the problems of funding and finding a new head resident. The Jane Addams Memorial Fund provided partial support, and for the first time Hull-House sought money from the Chicago Community Fund, a group fund-raising venture. Rooms at Hull-House were let at higher rents, although this change involved having tenants who were not interested in Hull-House service. Adena Rich was the first head resident after Addams. Business continued much the same, but Rich initiated the Department of Naturalization and Citizenship and formed the Committee on International Relations and the Housing and Sanitation Committee. Hull-House residents also became involved with New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, which provided sixty-six paid positions at the settlement.

Bowen and Rich were often at loggerheads over funding, staff, and programs, and Rich refused to become the head resident full-time. The difficulties led to Rich’s resignation in 1939. The next head resident–who quickly changed her title to director–was Charlotte Carr, formerly director of New York’s Emergency Relief Bureau. Carr, whose personal style was vastly different from Bowen’s or Addams’s, lasted only five years in the position.

Modern Concerns

In 1943, Russell Ward Ballard became director, and his tenure lasted until 1962, one year before Hull-House was taken over by the University of Illinois at Chicago. During Ballard’s career, Hull-House emphasized programs for children and youth, and service to the neighborhood. He insisted on a multicultural staff, representative of the area’s ethnic groups, which by 1950 included Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, Japanese, Lithuanians, Hungarians, blacks, and Puerto Ricans. Yet gang warfare and racism complicated his efforts to unify the neighborhood.

Ballard believed that delinquency grew out of poor housing and thought that people would be more interested in improving their own condition if they were involved personally in renovation. Hull-House helped to organize the Near West Side Planning Board for this purpose in 1949. From 1949 to 1961, the board struggled against poor funding, politics, and general apathy, yet cooperated with city officials on a plan for the clearing of fifty-five acres of dilapidated property around Hull-House.

In 1960, the city offered this area to the University of Illinois for its new Chicago campus–a slap in the face to those citizens who had worked hard to clear the land, which they believed to be allocated for new housing. An uproar of protest ensued, to no avail. On March 5, 1963, the board of trustees of Hull-House sold the original buildings to the city for $875,000. A new headquarters was established on the north side of Chicago, and Hull-House became a decentralized, rather than neighborhood-based, social service agency.

The Hull Mansion and the Residents’ Dining Hall were restored by the university in the 1960’s and became a National Historic Landmark in 1967. The mansion has been restored to look as it did when Jane Addams and Ellen Starr moved in, with rotating exhibits of the history of the settlement and its workers. The Residents’ Dining Hall contains an exhibit on the history of the Hull-House neighborhood.

For Further Information
  • Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan, 1910. Reprint. Edited by Vicoria Bissel Brown. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. The cofounder’s account of the experiences and motivations that led her to establish a settlement in a poor Chicago neighborhood. This edition includes an introduction by Brown.
  • Bryan, Mary Lynn McCree, and Allen F. Davis, eds. One Hundred Years at Hull House. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. A collection of articles written by Hull-House residents, supporters, neighbors, and detractors, and gives the most complete coverage of the multifaceted story of Hull-House.
  • Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Focuses on the mythology of Jane Addams, both that which was promoted by her, and that perpetuated in the popular mind.
  • Lissak, Rivka Shpak. Pluralism and Progressives: Hull House and the New Immigrants, 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Focuses on the Hull-House ideology of the immigrant’s place in society and its efforts, often thwarted, to be the culture broker and chief assimilator of new immigrants.
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