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Life Story: Jane Addams, 1860-1935
Settlement House Pioneer and Nobel Laureate
The story of the college-educated founder of Hull House who went on to inspire a generation of social reformers and peace activists.
Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois. Her mother died when she just two years old. Her father was a prominent businessman, banker, Civil War veteran, and Republican politician who claimed Abraham Lincoln as one of his many friends. His commitment to social reform and women’s education significantly shaped Jane’s view of the world.
With her father’s encouragement, Jane enrolled at the prestigious Rockford Female Seminary at the age of 17. The school’s curriculum was deeply shaped by Christianity and encouraged women to pursue religious and missionary work. Although Jane was not particularly interested in religion, she was drawn to the idea of doing work that served those in need. Jane flourished at Rockford Seminary. She earned excellent grades and participated in extracurricular activities such as debate team and literary society. She fully embraced the autonomy and freedom college life afforded her. In her first year at Rockford, she formed a friendship with fellow student Ellen Gates Starr. Their friendship would prove to be one of the most important of Jane’s life.
Jane graduated in 1881. For most Rockford women, post-graduate life meant marriage and family. Jane, however, wanted something else. A domestic life seemed to be a waste of the knowledge and skills she gained at Rockford. Jane believed there was a world of possibility beyond marriage. She considered traveling, continuing her education, and building a career as options after graduation. Eventually, she settled on pursuing a career as a doctor.
Tragically, a few weeks after graduation, her beloved father died of a ruptured appendix while on a family vacation. Knowing her father supported her education, she continued with her plan to attend the Philadelphia Women’s Medical College that fall. Less than a month into the school year, she became severely ill. Doctors told her that a childhood spinal problem had returned. She left school, underwent surgery, and agreed to a regimen of bed rest.
The combination of her father’s death and her failing health led to a deep depression that lasted almost six years. Jane believed she was a “failure in every sense” and struggled to find a purpose. She worried that her education was wasted, but her health was too fragile to return to school or take on work. Although her stepmother and siblings were grateful to have her at home, she resented her role as the spinster aunt of the family. She frequently wrote to Ellen, sharing how anxious she was about the future.
As Jane’s health improved, Ellen proposed they travel to Europe together in 1887. This trip offered a new beginning. While visiting London, the women discovered a settlement house called Toynbee Hall. Set in London’s poor East End neighborhood, Toynbee Hall offered medical services, classes, and other charitable services to the local community. The work appeared to make a difference and it reminded Jane of the missionary and social work her teachers at Rockford often promoted.
Jane and Ellen returned with a new goal—to establish a settlement house in Chicago, one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Between 1860 and the 1890s, Chicago had grown from a large Western town of 100,000 to a massive modern city of one million. Immigrants and their children made up nearly 80 percent of the city’s population, and many of them faced the struggles of urban crowding and industrialization.
Jane Addams’ Hull House welcomed over 1,000 people each week to its many programs and services.
In 1889, the two women moved into the second floor of an old mansion in a poor immigrant Chicago neighborhood. They persuaded wealthy families across the city to donate the money needed to transform the space into a settlement house. They named it Hull House, after Charles Hull, the building’s original owner.
Hull House offered recreational activities, English language classes, hygiene classes, vocational training, clubs for young men and women, social activities, an art gallery, space for political and labor organizing, job placement services, nursing services, and much more. By the end of the 1890s, Hull House welcomed over 1,000 people each week to its many programs and services.
In addition to helping the local community, Hull House also provided young educated women with an alternative to marriage. By the early 1900s, nearly seventy young women lived and worked at Hull House. Hull House workers were able to put their skills to use, something Jane had struggled to do in the years after her own college graduation. The settlement became an informal training ground for social workers, health care providers, and other reformers.
Although Jane and Ellen began Hull House together, their lives and careers moved in different directions. Jane remained committed to leading Hull House and spreading its model. Meanwhile, Ellen continued to live at Hull House but focused her attention on labor activism. As the two women grew apart, Jane found a new companion in Mary Rozet. Mary joined Hull House in 1890 and became Jane’s partner and confidant for the next forty years.
Moving beyond the walls of Hull House, Jane emerged as a prominent leader in the social reform movement. An ardent supporter of labor unions, she rallied for women’s suffrage. She joined Chicago’s Board of Education in 1905, and was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also traveled across the country lecturing on the deplorable living and working conditions in America’s rapidly growing and overcrowded cities.
Although Jane was an important and successful advocate for immigrants, her own biases did, at times, emerge in her public writings. She sometimes presented immigrants as people who needed help because they were naturally susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, poor financial decision-making, and loose morals. Like many reformers of this era, she was occasionally guilty of stereotyping the very people she served.
By 1910, Hull House included nearly a dozen buildings that provided a wealth of services to the local community. Just as important, it was a model for hundreds of settlement houses across the United States. As the head of Hull House, Jane was the mother of the settlement house movement and an inspiration for young women reformers.
On top of her work at Hull House, Jane was also a vehement pacifist. She was a member of the Women’s Peace Party and strongly opposed the United States’ entry into World War I. She led a peace parade in 1914, and traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., to organize pacifist meetings. During the war, as a direct result of her pacifist stance, her popularity declined. However, she refused to be swayed by public opinion and continued to speak out against the war. In 1931, her commitment to peace was officially recognized on the world stage when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane continued to work until her death from cancer on May 21, 1935. Her funeral was held at Hull House.
For more information about Jane Addams, settlement houses, and higher education at the turn of the 20th century, watch the video below.
This video is from “Women Have Always Worked,” a free massive open online course produced in collaboration with Columbia University.
- domestic life: A life that is primarily defined by marriage, the raising of children, and housework.
- hygiene: Cleanliness and healthy behaviors.
- missionary work: Religious work intended to serve those in need.
- Nobel Peace Prize: A respected international award that recognizes men and women who advocate for peace.
- pacifist: A person who believes in peace and opposes war, regardless of the situation.
- prestigious: Well-respected.
- settlement house: An organization that provided a range of social services to the local community; typically found in poor, urban areas.
- social worker: A person who provides a range of social services, including basic medical care, mental health support, education and training, and more.
- stereotype: An oversimplified (and often offensive) assumption or description of a person or group of people.
- vocation: Occupation or job.
- Why did Jane struggle with depression in the years following graduation? What does this tell us about the challenges young educated women faced in this era?
- What were settlement houses and why were they so central to Progressive Era reform?
- What did Hull House offer to the young middle-class women who worked there?