Jane Addams was almost seven years old when she first sensed that city life was not all ice-cream cones and visits to the toy store. The daughter of a well-to-do Illinois businessman, Jane often went with her father on his trips to the mills that he owned. She loved playing in the great heaps of grain in the storerooms. Such a trip usually ended with a stop at the local candy store.
One day in 1867, her father had business in the town of Freeport. The mill was adjacent (next) to the poorest section of town. As their horse and carriage turned into the street, Jane saw rows of run-down houses crowded one beside the other. Children dressed in ragged, dirty clothing played in the streets. Jane had never seen such a place before. Her family lived in a large house in the country. She always had clean clothes to wear and plenty of open space to play in.
"Papa, why do these people live in such horrid little houses so close together?" she asked.
"Because they have no money to live in better places," he replied.
"Well, when I grow up, I shall live in a big house," Jane said. "But it will not be built among the other large houses, but right in the midst of horrid little houses like these."
Full of Ambition
In 1877, Jane Addams entered the Rockford Seminary, as her three sisters had done before her. By that time, it was a generally accepted idea that women could benefit by going to college. Before, many people believed that college was too strenuous for women.
Rockford had been a "finishing school," where women studied religion and how to become graceful and efficient homemakers. But the curriculum changed while Addams was there. She and her classmates studied regular college subjects, including mathematics, philosophy, Latin and Greek.
Addams graduated in 1881, full of ambition but with nowhere to go. Historian William O'Neill wrote that "graduation was often a traumatic experience for these young women who had been educated to fill a place that did not yet exist." Their education did not give them an entrance to the men's world of politics and business. A woman's choices after college remained essentially the same as before: either marry and raise a family, or stay single and become a schoolteacher.
Neither of these choices interested Addams. Her family was not very helpful, either. If she did not marry, they expected her to settle down and help care for relatives. But Addams wanted to put to work what she had learned in school.
For the next eight years, she drifted, trying to decide on a career. She entered a woman's medical college, but dropped out after one term. Her crooked spine caused her such pain that she was bedridden for six months. Surgeons finally repaired her spine, but she was frail for the rest of her life. When her father died, the inheritance left her with enough money to live on. Addams traveled to Europe. During one of these trips, she decided what she wanted to do with her life.
In 1888, Addams visited Toynbee Hall in London, England. Operated by Oxford University students, Toynbee Hall served one of London's poorest neighborhoods. It offered recreation and educational programs to the poor. Addams left England determined to set up a similar "settlement house" (community center) in the United States.
Addams and Starr hoped that Hull House would bring some light into these people's lives. One of the first things they did was set up a day-care center for small children. Mothers who worked all day had no way to care for their children. So they would tie their young children to a table leg and leave them in the tenement while they went off to work. Older children worked or roamed the streets. The day-care center provided children a safe environment and at least one meal a day.
Hull House also began a kindergarten and a boys' club for older youths. It later opened a coffee shop where adults met and socialized.
These two women alone could not do all this work. Others came to Hull House, offering their help. Many, like Jane Addams, were women from middle-class families. Like her, they wanted to experience the "real world," but had no existing outlet to do so. Hull House offered them a way to serve the community.
More Than Just a Meeting Place
Conditions in Chicago's slums were dreadful. Garbage and sewage littered the streets. Youths even as young as 14 toiled in the factories. Even younger children worked at home, helping their parents sew clothing that would later be sold in stores. These tenement workplaces were called sweatshops because of their overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Her determination paid off: In 1893, Illinois passed a workshop and factories bill, which banned the exploitation of minors in the workplace.
Jane Addams also pushed for the creation of a juvenile-court system. Because they were cold and hungry, immigrant children sometimes broke the law. They stole coal from trucks to heat their homes, and fruits and vegetables from produce stands. If they were arrested and found guilty, these youths could be sent to jail with hardened adult criminals.
In 1899, partly because of Addams' efforts, the Juvenile Court of Chicago was set up. It was the first juvenile court in the U.S. The juvenile court heard cases involving young offenders. If found guilty, they were placed in the care of probation officers or sent to a clean detention center. The first probation officers were the Hull House staff members.
Jane Addams supported other causes, including trade unions and winning suffrage (the vote) for women. Not all of her efforts won public support. During World War I (1914-18) she organized the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which worked to end the war. Many called her an enemy of the people because of her antiwar stance.
In the end, though, Addams was lauded for her life's work. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her work with the peace organization. When she died in 1935, Hull House filled an entire city block. It had inspired the creation of hundreds of similar houses across the U.S. Many Hull House residents went on to pursue other important social reforms. Through Jane Addams' efforts, women had blazed a pioneering role in improving the lives of others. But Addams always insisted that Hull House served her own needs as much as others. "I should at least know something of life firsthand," she said.
By Naomi Segal of Junior Scholastic
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