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June 13, 2009 / howardmestas



As a history teacher I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I ever heard of Jane Addams and Hull House was last fall at a workshop, but that was before I began researching about Chicago. I now find it incredible, that in the history of the city, she still remains such a small figure. Perhaps it is because of her gender (women tend to get lost in history textbooks), or maybe because the powers who financed the growth of the city were probably a targets of her reform movement at some time. I’d like to think that if the history of the city was written by those who were not born into privilege, she would be on the cover of all the books.

Addams was representative of an individual who was bigger than most in that she actually walked the walk by leaving a life of a socialite to help those who were incredibly less fortunate. Seriously, how many heroes in our nation’s history have actually worked their way down from the top to help others?

Around the latter decades of the 19th Century, rich families began to allow their daughters to attend colleges, as with their sons, and then complete the final cultivation of their scholarship with the obligatory tour of Europe. Then suddenly the doors of opportunity would open widely for the young men and slam shut for their counterparts. This was usually the end of the road for young and brilliant females, but while in England, Addams learned that women could use their wealth and education to make a difference as social reformers; and so Hull House was purchased with her inheritance and the legacy began.

How important was Hull House as a social settlement location? As it turns out, it was a favorite stop for Upton Sinclair as he researched for his book “The Jungle.” His interviews with those seeking refuge and support (especially displaced immigrants) reveal many compelling hardships in the pages of his famous novel. At Hull House, as with many other such places in Chicago, homeless and displaced individuals could find a hot meal, but more importantly they would meet friends who would help them get a new start in an otherwise unfriendly devouring beast of a city. Lost souls, and their children, could learn the skills that would enable them to acclimate to a foreign land; things like learning to read and write could make a world of a difference. A smile at the entrance signaling that you were indeed welcome was by itself a boost that could restart many broken spirits.

There were many facts and details that were given on our visit today, but the sincere welcoming and warmth of the staff and their commitment to the continuity of good deeds was by itself the lesson of the Hull House experience. Jane Addams would have been proud.


One Comment

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  1. marksims / Jun 14 2009 12:30 pm

    Intereting that you seperate lost souls from their children. I agree that Hull House could learn new skills to help them acclimate, but they were also able to express themselves in a creative outlet which helped regain needed self-respect.

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