Settlement houses, often pioneered and headed by women, were a key feature of social reform efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so, when visiting Chicago a couple of weeks ago, the Secret Victorianist took the opportunity to visit one of the most famous – Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889.
All that now remains of Hull House, located in the city’s Near West Side, is two buildings, overshadowed by the very modern neighbouring campus of the University of Illinois. Inside a miniature model gives you an idea of its previous scale - by 1911 there were 13 buildings, home to a community of university-educated reformers who believed communal living between the middle class and the poor was one of the best ways of curing society’s ills.
|The Secret Victorianist at Hull House in Chicago|
The House, from its inception, was ‘open’ to the immigrant communities surrounding it. In 1889, Italian immigrants were the most common, but a series of 1920s maps on display in the museum show just how diverse the neighbourhood was to become. The middle class ‘residents’ of the House aided these communities in numerous ways – from acting as midwives to providing childcare, from running pottery and bookbinding classes to staging amateur dramatics.
The majority of the residents were single women, with the kind of social and educational values associated with the New Woman movement of the 1890s. Notably, and similarly progressively, Hull House was also secular in its ethos, unlike other similar institutions with strong links to religious institutions. Addams’s doctrine was comprised of three Rs - Residence, Research, and Reform. She worked for ‘close cooperation with the neighbourhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and dependence, communication of these facts to the public, and persistent pressure for reform’ at a legislative and social level.
|Hull House, Chicago|
Yet in another way, Addams’s community was also founded on an idea that was recognisably Victorian, and even conservative – that women have an essential role as carers and peacekeepers. In 1931 she became the first American women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her life’s work, but that was only after her insistence on peace had seen her branded by some of her countrymen as unpatriotic.
Visiting Hull House today gives you little idea of the bustling community it must once have been. There are index cards describing the numerous residents – many of them noteworthy in their various fields - and some material vestiges of the organisation, like the first sets of keys, furniture from its nursery school, some signage and ephemera. Addams’s bedroom exists as it would have looked in her time and acts a strange, solitary memorial – with the house and even the museum’s name (Jane Addams Hull House) making it come across as the hosting the story of an individual, rather than a long line of interesting people (residents and immigrants) who benefitted from its existence.
|Jane Addams's bedroom in Hull House|
Rotating exhibitions do try to nod to how the idea of reform as a continuing mission. When I was there, I saw a room dedicated to the importance of work/life balance and the long American working week, linking the desire for a universal living wage to the opportunities for play and entertainment Hull House provided in its heyday. But, with the Hull House organisation having closed itself in 2012, this is all tinged with more than a hint of sadness. A building that was once beyond anything useful, has now become a relic – and not because the work of communal integration and the eradication of poverty in the US is over.