Celebrating settlement houses—and Jane Addams


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Jane Addam’s masterpiece, Twenty Years at Hull House. The book, never out of print, has achieved a kind of iconic status in American letters, perhaps more celebrated than understood.  Until the past decade or so, the same could be said about Jane Addams. Following her death in 1935, one of American’s first and most influential public intellectuals, became “Saint Jane,” an upper middle class woman who not only advocated for but lived among the poor—America’s own Mother Teresa.

Fortunately, a new generation of activists and intellectuals has rediscovered Jane Addams as she was: a powerful leader and thinker committed to creating a living democracy in the teeming cities of an America transformed by the industrial revolution. From her base at Chicago’s Hull House, Addams was engaged in nearly every major reform movement of the era: child- labor protections, workers’ rights, tenement standards, urban sanitation, public education and public health.  One of America’s first public intellectuals, her eleven books and over 500 published essays and speeches came in the thick of this rich public life.

Her decision to found Hull House, so easily characterized in hindsight as an act of Victorian charity, was really nothing of the sort. Hull House was an experiment in democracy, not an exercise in philanthropy.  In Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams paints a vivid picture of the settlement ideal in action.  Founded in 1889, in Chicago’s largely immigrant 19th ward, Hull House developed Chicago’s first public gymnasium, swimming pool and public baths; the first university extension and citizen preparation classes; the first little exhibit and painting loan program. Hull House residents were at the center of the first public investigation of typhoid and tuberculosis; lead the fight for child labor laws and factory regulation and established Chicago’s first effective garbage collection system.  

In Twenty Years, Addams describes this myriad of programs and activities, but does much more. Through rich portraits of immigrants and charity workers, workers and bosses, machine politicians and middle class reformers, Addams makes her case for genuine understanding across divisions of class and culture. She and the other largely upper-middle class residents of Hull House sought a neighborly rather than charitable relationship with the community. They understood that they had as much to learn as to offer their neighbors.

Reciprocal relationships were the key to the settlement vision of neighborliness. But in order to respect another, people must be first able to see another. Addams was one of the first to recognize the rift that often develops between “old world” parents and their “new world” children. An encounter with an old Italian women weaving cloth on a hand spindle gave Addams the inspiration for one of Hull House’s most successful programs. She created a museum where old world artisans could display their craft, and their children could learn about the connection between old world craft- work and modern industrial methods.

This project, and many others that built on similar notions, exemplified Addams’ belief that the development of social democracy within immigrant communities is anchored in a dialogue between past and present. Addams was confident that unlocking the power of cultural expression could relieve, if not entirely prevent, generational tensions within immigrant communities.

A critical element of Addams’ approach to social theory was her belief that democratic social relationships develop through practice.  Hull House itself was a  catalyst for civic association: cooperatives, discussion circles, youth clubs, women’s and men’s clubs, cultural associations, neighborhood improvement groups and more.  For Addams these civic associations were a dramatic expression of free people coming together as social equals. As a leading figure in the Progressive Movement, Addams understood that effective public institutions are necessary to guarantee the public good.   She also understood that a living democracy requires active neighbors and citizens.

Creating democratic association, also meant also meant coming together to freely debate and act.  The Hull House Social Science Club hosted heated debates on socialism, the labor movement, urban reform and much more.  Addams took the workers side on one the most heated labor battles of the day, the Pullman Strike of 1894, and Hull House residents helped organize some of the first labor unions organized by and for women.   

Hull House was only the most famous of what would become over 400 settlement houses across the United States. Taken together they constituted a movement.  At the dawn social work and the academic discipline of sociology, the settlement movement helped create the knowledge, laws and programs implemented in the Progressive and New Deal eras.  

Here in the Twin Cities Phyllis Wheatley, Waite House and Pillsbury United in Minneapolis; and Neighborhood House, Merrick Community Services and Hallie Q Brown in St. Paul, trace their roots to the settlement house movement of an earlier era. Their ongoing contributions deserve special acknowledgment during this centennial year.

Jane Addams devoted her life to developing a democratic practice adequate to a post-Lincoln urban and industrial age.  The reforms initiated by the settlement house movement literally made modern urban life possible. One hundred years after the publication of Twenty Years at Hull House, a new wave of immigrants are transforming the urban landscape. As loud voices argue over the role of government and the very meaning of America, a reflection on the life and thought of Jane Addams can provide powerful insights into building a democracy that works for the 21st century.