Off to Save the World – From Illinois farm girl to Chicago Icon, Jane Addams

October 1st, 2018 by: relatedchicago

From Illinois farm girl to Chicago Icon, Hull House Founder and world peace activist, Jane Addams, set out to make a difference in the world – and boy did she.

Jane Addams, 1915 -From Illinois farm girl to Chicago Icon, Hull House Founder and world peace activist

Jane Addams, 1915

“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world.”
– Jane Addams

When Jane Addams died in 1935, she was considered “the greatest women in the world”, a “priestess to both prince and pauper,” and with good reason. She was literally the mother of all social work. She fought throughout her life for child labor laws, insurance against unemployment, old age and poverty. She was instrumental in the successful lobbying to establish a juvenile court system, better urban sanitation and factory laws, along with the establishment of playgrounds and kindergartens throughout Chicago and the country. She battled for the equal rights of women and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She is considered the first American woman philosopher, a leader in establishing the study of sociology, and was a published author many times over. She was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and is considered a LGBT heroine. A warrior, who battled relentlessly for the cause of disarmament and for world peace, a cause for which she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, becoming the first American woman recipient. And of course, she was most famously, co-founder of the Hull-House in Chicago.

Addams was born September 6, 1860, in the small farming town of Cedarville, Illinois. The eighth of nine children, her mother died in childbirth when she was two, and her father, John H. Addams, a banker who served for nearly twenty years in the Illinois Senate, was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Born into wealth and privilege, she knew at a young age that she wanted to be useful and have a voice in the world. Inspired by the works of Charles Dickens and of Lincoln’s creed “the equality of men,” she focused on her studies. Among the first generation of educated American women when she graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881, she felt an obligation to put her education to greater use. Unlike her classmates, she was more interested in visiting the poor than spending a year in Paris, or going on safari in Africa. And after visiting a settlement house in London with her friend Ellen Gates Starr, her life was set on course.

It was in the early years of industrialization and massive immigration when Addams and Starr founded The Hull House in 1889. They were the first two occupants. Between a saloon and an undertaker, they were situated in one of the most miserable neighborhoods of the city at the time. At its height, it was visited by 8,000 people each month, mostly immigrants, and eventually, it became a 13-building settlement. With all that she accomplished throughout her life here in Chicago and around the world, she never left Hull House, remaining its head resident until her death in 1935. Her friend, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader in the Women’s’ suffrage movement, said upon her death.

“I do not base her greatness on Hull House,” she explained, “important as that contribution is. Far more remarkable is the human trait of sticking to that project all her life. She made it a success. She stuck through when it was a success. That is a rare thing to do–to stick to a success.”

The Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago reopened this month, in honor of this iconic Chicagoan and American, on what would have been her 158th birthday this month (I know, of course she’s a Virgo.) Here are just five contributions that Jane Addams and Hull House made to Chicago and the world.


“America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live.”
– Jane Addams

Addams fought passionately for the rights of children to be children. She felt very strongly that those that were deprived of a childhood, were “likely to become dull, sullen men and women working mindless jobs, or criminals for whom the adventure of crime became the only way to break out of the bleakness of their lives.” Sounds about right. She worked tirelessly to stop the use of children as industrial laborers, and instead fought for playgrounds in Chicago and was part of the movement that rethought the importance of childhood play opportunities. Hull House in Chicago had one of the first playgrounds in the city, and also held children’s clubs and classes of all sorts – including free kindergartens.

Chicago Icon, Jane Addams - Jane Addams with the neighborhood children at Hull House Chicago

Jane Addams with the neighborhood children at Hull House Chicago


“I do not believe that women are better than men. We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislature, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance.”
– Jane Addams

One of the many things that made the settlement house unique, was that it was considered an acceptable site for women’s activism at the time. And that was because – well it was literally and figuratively, a home. So, while it absolutely turned the traditional patriarchal norm that a woman’s place was in the home on its heels, the Hull-House provided a totally socially acceptable alternative to marriage. And, almost incredibly, enabled women to cultivate deep and often lifelong friendships as alternatives to traditional marriage, providing these women the chance to experience an expanded sense of family and self. Hull House had dozens of clubs that were organized to aid working women. A lunch room was opened, as was a nursery for the children- the start of day care. There was also a gymnasium, a natatorium, a penny savings bank, a lodging house, as well as a circulating library and an employment bureau. These programs which became models for hundreds of others throughout the world helped to liberate women from desperate subservience and provided a wide range of opportunities for women to gain experience in public life so then they could give back. And give back they did.

Chicago Icon, Jane Addams - Women Residents at Hull House Chicago.

Women Residents at Hull House Chicago.


“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” – Jane Addams

Hull House was established primarily to help immigrants assimilate to American lifestyle. Hull House always held welcoming arms out, whether it be Poles, Jews, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Irish and the Bohemians. All were welcome. Hull House grew to be known as one of the largest and best-known of the nation’s settlements of immigrants, providing such an array of services so many that it does not seem nearly possible, but here’s a go at it. Hull House provided medical services such as midwifery, a night school for adults, clubs and educational classes for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a gym, dance classes, a girls’ club, a bathhouse, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group and a theater, a library, meeting rooms for any kind of discussion political or otherwise, an employment bureau, and a lunchroom. In addition to making available social services and cultural events for the largely immigrant population of the neighborhood, the music program at Hull House was also very influential. Originally established to aid immigrants in assimilating to American life, its music program went above and beyond this goal, helping immigrants to connect cultural roots and background while learning about American life.

Chicago Icon, Jane Addams - Immigrants at Hull House

Immigrants at Hull House


“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.” – Jane Addams

Addams was a pacifist that fought for world peace. She believed deeply that human beings were capable of solving disputes without violence and she took action. She protested the American entry into World War 1, and was part of a group of women activists who toured warring nations, hoping to bring about peace. Addams toured Europe in an effort to persuade the heads of the belligerent nations, but found that the spirit of war was too strong. Well, at least she tried.

Chicago Icon, Jane Addams - Jane Addams and other women from Hull House as Peace Delegates,

Jane Addams and other women from Hull House as Peace Delegates,

Be sure to visit the Jane Addams Hull House Museum , which reopened September 2018! 800 S. Halsted Street,

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