Jane Addams devoted her adult life to helping the poor, supporting equality for all, and promoting peace. In the late nineteenth century, in response to the needs of people living in overpopulated American cities, Jane Addams cofounded Hull House in the slums of Chicago, Illinois. Addams was among those who established the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Addams participated in the International Women's Peace Conference held in the Netherlands in 1915 and rallied for peace throughout World War I. In 1931 Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1935.
Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in an upper-middle-class home in Cedarville, Illinois. Her mother, the former Sarah Weber, died when Addams was two, leaving her with four older siblings. While still a child she suffered from Pott's disease, or spinal tuberculosis, which left her with a deformity of the spine. The loss of her mother and the spinal condition she endured increased her sensitivity to the misfortunes of others.
John Huy Addams, Addams's father, was a godfearing, hardworking man whose self-discipline, industriousness, and love of learning influenced his daughter's life. When Addams was three years old she went into her father's study, where she saw a young black man. Signaling for her to leave the room, her father later told her to not talk with anyone about the man who had been at their home. It was not until many years later that Addams learned her father had been helping escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad. He also served on the Illinois state senate and was friends with Abraham Lincoln, whose life and ideals influenced the child as well.
Addams's first glimpse of poverty came when she was almost seven years old. While accompanying her father on a business trip to a nearby town, they passed through an impoverished section where small houses were built close together. When Addams asked her father about the neighborhood, he explained that the people living there were poor, uneducated, and lacked opportunities. Addams decided then and there that when she grew up she would live in a large house among small crowded houses.
Five years after her mother's death, Addams's father married Anna Hostetter Halderman, the widow of John Addams's business competitor. Halderman had two sons.
During her second year Addams was chosen to represent Rockford at the Interstate Oratorical Contest in Jacksonville, Illinois. This was a rare opportunity for women to compete. Addams, considered a good debater, found herself up against peers that included William Jennings Bryan, who later became the presidential nominee for both the Democratic and People's parties in 1896. To the disappointment of her classmates, Addams did not win the contest. Putting the event behind her, she wrote for the Rockford Seminary magazine and in her senior year became its editor. Addams graduated in 1881 with honors and was selected to be valedictorian of her class. It was not until the following year, after Rockford had established itself as a college, that she was awarded the degree she had so long coveted.
That summer Addams accompanied her family on a trip to northern Michigan. While traveling, her father died of appendicitis. In the autumn Addams moved to Philadelphia with her stepmother and attended the Women's Medical College. However, she found it hard to concentrate due to her grieving the loss of her father and her constant back pain. After the first term was over she entered a hospital for treatment of a nervous condition. Later that year she had spinal surgery, from which it took months to recover.
At this time there were not many opportunities for women. Addams did not want to return to medical school but was not sure what to do with her life. An inheritance from her father enabled her to live comfortably, and she decided to take an extended trip to Europe with family and friends. They explored the cities, villages, and countryside of Ireland, Scotland, and England during the first part of the tour.
While in London, Addams witnessed an event that made a lasting impression on her. One Saturday evening she and her party were taken to Mile End Road, where they saw the auction of rotting produce to impoverished, starving people who had gathered to bid on decaying fruits and vegetables. It was then that Addams decided upon her life's work of helping the needy, and she thereafter visited poor sections of London whenever she could.
The European tour continued on through France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Austria, and Holland. Although Addams enjoyed seeing the churches, art galleries, and museums, she took time to explore the impoverished areas of the large cities. During her travels Addams corresponded with her good friend Ellen Starr, whom she had met at Rockford, describing to her the scenes of poverty. After nearly two years of travel, Addams returned to Cedarville.
In 1887, Addams joined Ellen Starr, who was travelling in Europe. It was during this time that a definite plan of action took shape in Addams's mind. Her idea was to rent a house in an impoverished urban neighborhood. From there she could reach out and help people in practical ways, filling the house with books, art, and ideas that would uplift and enrich their lives. Starr not only understood what Addams was saying, she vowed to help her with this undertaking.
To gain ideas for implementing her plan, Addams attended a missionary conference in London. She visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house located in a poor section of the city, where male university graduates lived and worked among the poor, helping them in any way they could. Addams also visited the People's Palace, a neighborhood center built in a poor section of London. The Palace contained a library, gymnasium, and swimming pool for the community to enjoy.
Upon their return to the United States, Addams and Starr began to put their plan into action. They decided to settle in Chicago and in 1889 found an empty brick mansion wedged between a saloon and a funeral home. The house had been built by Charles Hull, a businessman, 33 years earlier when the area had been open country. The city had grown around the house, and its first floor was used for offices and warehouses. Behind the mansion a factory had been built.
Addams rented the second floor and a large room on the first floor. She and Starr cleaned and decorated the rooms with beautiful paintings and fine furniture and filled them with books and magazines. The women decided to call their settlement Hull House after its original owner. Word quickly spread about the project, with articles appearing in newspapers and magazines. On September 18, 1889, Addams and Starr moved into this house in the 19th Ward of Chicago.
It was not long before the people in the community turned to the two women for help. Hull House provided something for all ages. There was a nursery and kindergarten for young children, cooking and sewing lessons for young girls, and a club for teenage boys. Addams gave book readings and hosted public lectures featuring speakers such as Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, and Clarence Darrow. Other educated and idealistic men and women were drawn to Hull House, sharing their unique talents and abilities with the community. Each year Hull House served thousands of people in countless ways.
In 1894, Addams and Starr incorporated Hull House, and by the 1960s its work spread to locations throughout Chicago's neighborhoods. The Jane Addams Hull House Association provided services to the community until just recently.
Addams worked within a variety of organizations with the hope that she might improve local, state, and national issues. She desired equality for all and was an early member of the NAACP, founded in 1909. Interested in women's rights, Addams attended her first meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1906 and was elected its vice president in 1911. Calling herself a pacifist, Addams was a proponent of peace. In 1915 the Women's Peace Party was formed and elected Addams as its head. Soon after, the International Congress of Women was formed to promote peace throughout the world. They met in the Netherlands at The Hague and asked Addams to be their leader. In 1931 Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize but was unable to travel to Norway due to failing health. She donated the $16,480 in prize money to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Addams was a prolific writer and wrote many essays, articles, and books, including Twenty Years at Hull-House and Democracy and Social Ethics.
Addams’ health had never been good, but in the 1920s it began to worsen. She had a tumor removed and suffered a heart attack. Soon after being diagnosed with intestinal cancer, she died on May 21, 1935. Thousands of people attended her funeral at Hull House. She was buried by her mother and father in the Cedarville Cemetery.
See also: Progressivism ; Women's Trade Union League (WTUL)
Henwood, Tom, Ron Meyer, and Mark Reeder. A History of Women's Achievement in America. Program Four. New York: Centre Communications for Ambrose Video Publishing, 2006.
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/ . Accessed January 2, 2014.
Knight, Louise W. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Women in History. “Jane Addams.” http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/adda-jan.htm . Accessed January 2, 2013.