Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams

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Jane Addams was born shortly before the Civil War to a privileged family in rural Illinois. After graduating from Rockford College, Addams determined to “live with the poor” (page 44). In the coming decades and for the remainder of her life, Addams was an influential leader for Chicago social reform. Beyond her leadership, though, Addams was a friend to thousands of poor immigrants in the Chicago slums.

Twenty Years at Hull-House is Jane Addams’ autobiography until about 1910, a chronicle of the various reforms she brought to life and some of the things that changed the lives of the immigrants (9,000 a year). Hull-House was a non-political, non-religious haven for those that had no other advocate in a busy city. The story is remarkable.

I have never read anything quite like this before, and so this “review” is more of a collection of notes, quotes, and issues that stood out to me as I read it.

Twenty Years of Hull-House is written not in chronological order (except for the first few chapters covering her childhood) but rather in topical order.  In places, the text did become dry when it discussed people, philosophies, and economic issues I was unfamiliar with. But reading a more difficult book was well worth the effort for me. In a sense, it opened my eyes to the plight of the poor. While the issues have changed in the past 100 years, I believe that the underlying isolation that comes with poverty or immigration is still pertinent today. I liked reading this book both for the historical value and for the interesting perspective of hands-on social work.

Why Jane Addams Began It All

Jane Addams’ ability to see those without her privileges may have been due to the influence of her father. When she was but a child, he encouraged her to think about others:

[A]s a little girl of eight years, arrayed in a new cloak, gorgeous beyond anything I had ever worn before, I stood before my father for his approval. I was much chagrined by his remark that it was a very pretty cloak – in fact so much prettier than any cloak the other little girls in the Sunday School had, that he would advise me to wear my old cloak, which would keep me quite as warm, with the added advantage of not making the other little girls feel badly. (page 15)

I wonder how many fathers today encourage their children to be less materialistic.

Jane Addams determined to set up a settlement house in Chicago after seeing a similar type of house in London (in the 1880s). It seems she could intuitively see the disparities among the people, and she sympathized with those that were ignored. One major problem was that the poverty-stricken new immigrants didn’t take initiative when they had problems, and “[t]he policy of the public authorities [was] of never taking an initiative, and always waiting to be urged to do their duty….” (page 68). Hull-House opened its doors September 18, 1889. She ran Hull House until her death in 1935, at age seventy-four. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.


Jane Addams found it difficult to lead a settlement house in a politically charged city, in a politically radical age. This was the age in which even the President of the United States, President McKinley, was assassinated. She found that Hull-House “constantly clashed with the existing political code” (page 207). Politicians, it seems, were especially crooked even then, hoping to get Hull-House to stop fighting for certain issues if enough money were placed on the table. From this account, it seems Jane Addams certainly did her best to keep Hull-House non-political, but rather practical. She fought for the social reforms that the people needed.

In addition to political pressure, Jane Addams faced religious pressure. Those people providing financial backing for the settlement worried about the apparent non-religiosity of the organization, and in fact hesitated to support it because of that. Why not provide a community center for religious worship, they asked Addams. Her reply:

[T]he residents of Hull-House could not come together for religious worship because there were among us Jews, Roman Catholics, English Churchmen, Dissenters, and a few agnostics, and … we had found unsatisfactory the diluted form of worship which we could carry on together … [T]his diversity of creed was part of the situation in American settlements…. (page 288)

It was striking to me that religion was so closely connected to social reform in that day. When one looks at the ethnic make-up of the Hull-House neighborhood, Addams’ comment makes sense, and the diversity of American religions seems to reflect on America as a whole.

Making a Difference

The ignorance of the leaders of Hull-House was quickly turned in to campaign for social reform. Even an attempt to give children a treat turned in to an eye-opening experience:

Our very first Christmas at Hull-House, when we as yet knew nothing of child labor, a number of little girls refused the candy which was offered them as part of the Christmas good cheer, saying simply that they “worked in a candy factory and could not bear the sight of it.” We discovered that for six weeks they had worked from seven in the morning until nine at night, and they were exhausted as well as satiated. (page 132)

After such an eye-opening experience, child labor laws quickly became an issue for Hull-House to fight for, as did general labor laws, since many of the adult immigrants worked such long hours that they died in accidents due to exhaustion.

Children standing in a line at Hull House, via Wikipedia

Beyond social reform, the major aspect that stood out to me was the education that Hull-House encouraged. So many of the things they taught the people made me wonder at the social situation of the immigrants in the pre-Hull House days.

For example, Hull-House workers found that because so many babies died in infancy, the immigrant mothers blamed it on the fact that the babies had cow’s milk in the USA and goat’s milk back in the home country (in this case, Italy). They had to learn about basic sanitation and only feed their newborn babies sanitary milk (page 167). Another example: The trash overflowed on to the streets, and the children’s first play yards and toys were garbage heaps and maggots. It’s no wonder that children died at a young age. Jane Addams took the responsibility to be garbage inspector, and Hull-House purchased property to make a proper playground (page 185-188). To think that such basic sanitation issues brought death to a community of people was heart-breaking.

Further, there was a big disparity between the generations because the adults “lost their hold upon their Americanized children.” The parents also could not understand their children’s desires of recreation and play; after all, the adults as children had worked all day in the fields, why should the children not work all day in Chicago? Jane Addams realized that there was some need for “a bridge between European and American experiences in such wise as to give them both more meaning and a sense of relation” (page 155). It seems to me that modern-day poor immigrants and their Americanized children may similarly find conflict.

Literacy and Art

I was excited to see the influence of books and art on the immigrants. Jane Addams said:

I once asked one of these young people, a man who held a good position on a Chicago daily, what special thing Hull-House had mean to him, and he promptly replied, “It was the first house I had ever been in where books and magazines just lay around as if there were plenty of them in the world. . . .  To have people regard reading as a reasonable occupation changed the whole aspect of life to me and I began to have confidence in what I could do. (page 224)

And further, when Hull-House had an art exhibit, an immigrant was surprised “when he found that we, although Americans, still liked pictures, and said quite naively that he didn’t know that Americans cared for anything but dollars – that looking at pictures was something people only did in Italy” (page 240). In his otherwise bleak life, it must have been wonderful to see something beautiful and familiar.

Those two experiences reflect to need for the encouragement of literacy and art among the poor.

What Do We Do?

At one point, Jane Addams explains that “our very [American] democracy so long presupposed that each citizen could care for himself that we are slow to develop a sense of social obligation” (page 237). Addams said that statement as a matter of fact, and I certainly can see that today. Certainly, the newly arrived immigrants weren’t accustomed to a lot of things about their new country and home. Maybe the poor today need to learn how to take care of themselves, as the poor immigrants Jane Addams helped were.

I’ve thought about what I could do today. I still don’t know. I feel nothing I could do would even remotely match the work of a Settlement. Addams herself pointed out the different between a “relief station” and a “settlement”:

… the difference between the relief-station relation to the poor and the Settlement relation to its neighbors, the latter wishing to know them through all the varying conditions of life, to stand by when they are in distress, but by no means to drop intercourse with them when normal prosperity has returned, enabling the relation to become more social and free from economic disturbance. (page 111)

Because I can’t give up my life to work for free at a settlement for fifty years, as Jane Addams did, I know I cannot have the influence she had. But maybe I can do something to show that I care about the issues.

Jane Addams paraphrased something that I think hits home to us “book bloggers” and novel readers:

Mr. Howells has said that we are all so besotted with our novel reading that we have lost the power of seeing certain aspects of life with any sense of reality because we are continually looking for the possible romance. (page 200)

Addams argues that there is “romance” to the poverty side of real life; you just have to get to know it.

Have you read about Jane Addams? What do you think was her greatest legacy?

Other Reviews and Sites of Interest:

If you have reviewed Twenty-Years at Hull House, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on August 4, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Jane Addams sounds like a woman before her time. I’m going to look for this book for my mother – I think she would enjoy it since she’s from Rockford.

  • Kathy, I definitely think she was a woman before her time!

    Heather J., yes it’s all of those three things, although I do admit it does drag sometimes. It’s social work, so it isn’t really exciting overall. Just incredible to think of what she did in her life — and this is only the first 20 years of Hull House!

  • Haiku Amy, I’m glad you liked the quotes. I realize the quotes made it rather long, but like you say, she was an amazing woman! She deserves a bit of attention, I think.

  • It seems like you really liked the book. I have to read it for an English class but it’s due in two weeks, so I’ve been trying to find an audio version but I can’t find it. At this point I’d even pay the money to buy the Cd (I am a poor student :)) but I just can’t find it. I don’t think I’ll be able to read it with all my other classes because it is a VERY slow read, I started but didn’t make it very far 🙂

    Hope you can help me out.

    Thank you so much

  • Jeannette, Slow and steady wins the race! I’ve been out of town so I couldn’t give you encouragement, but I certainly hope that you’ve made progress on your read for school! I do hope you enjoy it too!

  • hI!! i was wondering if you could give me a summary overview of this book? to me, even thought an avid reader it was VERY dry..only some parts had caught my interests but the rest went by slow as a turtle…not understand much from the book i was wondering if you could help me out a bit! it is for a class test and do not have time to read it over!

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