Jane Addams on Settlement Houses Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1892, social activist Jane Addams addressed a conference of settlement house proponents and workers. She shared with the audience what she believed to be the three underlying principles behind social settlements: a desire to interpret democracy in social terms, to share the ways of life of people of different socioeconomic strata, and to remain true to Christian humanitarianism.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1892, social activist Jane Addams addressed a conference of settlement house proponents and workers. She shared with the audience what she believed to be the three underlying principles behind social settlements: a desire to interpret democracy in social terms, to share the ways of life of people of different socioeconomic strata, and to remain true to Christian humanitarianism.

Defining Moment

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Rockford Female Seminary, Addams planned a career in medicine. She entered medical school, but she suffered from poor health associated with a congenital spinal defect and had to halt her training. Surgery corrected her spinal curve, but Addams did not return to medical school. Instead, in 1883, she embarked on a journey across Europe, where she studied and explored her future options. She returned home for two years, then decided to return to Europe in 1887. This time, she was accompanied by a friend, Ellen Starr.

During their travels, Addams and Starr visited Toynbee Hall in London. Toynbee Hall was the first settlement house, an institution that housed, educated, and provided resources for the city’s poorest citizens. However, Toynbee Hall was different from other charities: also residing at the settlement house were volunteers from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The premise behind Toynbee Hall was not only to aid the poor but also to foster better understanding between people from different socioeconomic strata. Founded in 1884 by Church of England curate Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta, Toynbee Hall was part of a growing movement in social service and philanthropy that came to be known as the “settlement movement.” An important element of Toynbee’s founding spirit was to help foster within England’s future leaders an understanding and appreciation of poverty in England, so that the policies they would later introduce would be effective in alleviating it.

Inspired by their experience at Toynbee Hall, Addams and Starr returned to Chicago, an industrialized city with a large population of poor residents. In 1889, they rented a large mansion owned by real estate baron Charles Hull. The building was rooted in a neighborhood that was particularly impacted by poverty. Addams and Starr established a social settlement house similar to Toynbee Hall, recruiting wealthy citizens to live there while providing a wide range of services to the neighborhood’s poor. The residents of Hull House were not considered “clients” by the volunteers; they were considered the volunteers’ “neighbors,” an important distinction, as it fostered equality among the house’s diverse resident population. Hull House would quickly grow in popularity: by its second year, it was serving two thousand people every week. Over time, Hull House (which would continue to operate under the leadership of Addams and Starr) expanded to include a wide range of amenities. Among the new wings added were an art school and gallery, full-service kitchen, pool, gymnasium, coffee house, museum, library, and a theater group. Hull House offered educational programs all day and evening, serving students from kindergarten through their adult years.

With Addams serving as the face of the growing social settlement movement in the United States, she was in high demand for presentations and guest speaking engagements. In 1892, three years after Hull House’s establishment, she was invited to speak on the topic of social progress and her successes at Hull House at a summer session at the School of Applied Ethics in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Author Biography

Laura Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois. Her father, John, was a prominent Illinois state legislator and friend to President Abraham Lincoln. Her mother, Sarah, died in childbirth when Jane was two years old. Addams attended Rockford Female Seminary (later Rockford College for Women), graduating as class valedictorian. Due to health problems, she halted her medical school training and instead traveled throughout Europe. After founding Hull House, she became a prominent Chicago city leader and an internationally renowned feminist and activist. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, but was admitted to a Baltimore hospital with a heart condition on the day she was to receive it. She died on May 21, 1935, from cancer.

Document Analysis

As cofounder of Hull House, Jane Addams–speaking to a conference of like-minded social settlement activists–comments on the need for such a house in the city of Chicago. The city was divided into many different neighborhoods, each made up of diverse groups of residents who, without a central institution like Hull House, would otherwise “isolate themselves” within this major city, she says. The driving idea behind Hull House, she adds, is to use social intercourse–bringing these diverse groups and individuals together under one roof–to foster a sense of economic unity in American society.

Addams points to three main “motives” behind the social settlement movement. The first of these is to move the idea of democracy–which she says is considered a predominantly political concept–into a social context. In other words, she says that the political application of democracy has given black Americans the power of the vote and justice to immigrants but has done little to halt ongoing prejudices against these social groups. American political candidates, she argues, frequently buy votes with “drinks and dollars,” paying little attention to the different social groups casting their votes. Such attention, she says, only perpetuates social inequality and disadvantage. Only through social intercourse–the mutual acknowledgement and interaction between leaders and diverse populations–can democracy foster social as well as political equality, she suggests.

Her second motive is to “share the race life.” This phrase refers, she says, to the idea that interaction with other members of the human race fosters a sense of usefulness and purpose for which each person may spend his or her life searching; art and education are among the areas she cites in which this pursuit of purpose is evident. Young people, she says, are particularly receptive to the notion that, in order to find a sense of purpose, they must interact with different members of the human race. The willingness to help others, she says, is prevalent in young people, as it is not necessarily a matter of philanthropy or benevolence–it is simply part of being human. Therefore, she finds great connectivity with younger people as the driving force behind the social settlement movement.

The third motive she cites is a Christian one. The desire to serve the poor–and indeed to live among and share life with the poor–was a concept as old as Christianity itself, Addams says. Love of one’s fellow human beings–“finding the Christ which lieth in each man”–was the core teaching of Christianity, she says, and is not embodied in religious institutions, but in humanitarian social action. Such a principle is pure, she says–there would be no adversarial relationships borne of such attitudes.

Addams states that humanity, particularly young people, were increasingly showing appreciation of this notion as well as the other motivations behind social settlements. She concludes that these motivations were the driving force behind Hull House and a general influence on the social settlement movement.

Essential Themes

Addams was so inspired by the social settlement she encountered at Toynbee Hall that she and her friend, Ellen Starr, decided to create a similar settlement house in Chicago. When she was invited to speak to a group of social settlement proponents, she offered what she saw as the main motivating factors driving the works being performed at Hull House.

The first of these motives was to encourage the expansion of democracy from the political application for which it was best known into a more social setting. Political democracy was limited, she argued, giving nominal legal protections to all economic strata and social groups but not encouraging social equality. By placing people from different sectors of society–the poor and the wealthy, for example–in the same house, Addams believed the social equality anticipated in a democratic nation could actually be achieved.

The second motivation was to make life more fulfilling and to give all members of the human race a sense of purpose. Many young people used art and other diversions to find their meaning and focus in life, but Addams said Hull House and its social settlement approach gave volunteers a connection to their fellow human beings.

The third motivation was the Christian concept of being good to one another. From its earliest roots, Addams said, Christianity encouraged people to share with one another–a principle early Christians embraced, fostering no aversion or antagonism toward any other people. Christianity had been at the heart of the Toynbee Hall model, and Addams said that a similar desire to help and interact with others was a central driving force in the success of Hull House as well.

Addams did not offer these motivations as an exclusive model for other social settlements to follow. Rather, she used this occasion to underscore what she believed to be a major influence on the continued success of her own social settlement house. Similarly, she saw these motivations as generating what she saw as the purely positive characteristics of the social settlement movement.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. London: Penguin, 1910. Print.
  • Barbuto, Domenica M. American Settlement Houses and Progressive Social Reform: An Encyclopedia of the American Settlement Movement. Westport: Greenwood, 1999. Print.
  • Friedman, Michael, and Brett Friedman. Settlement Houses: Improving the Social Welfare of America’s Immigrants. London: Rosen, 2006. Print.
  • “Jane Addams–Biographical.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media, 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
  • Joslin, Katherine. Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2004. Print.
  • Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1935. Print.
Categories: History