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Jane Addams

Melvin G. Holli
Historical Research and Narrative

Jane Addams's Chicago was the immigrant city par excellence in 1889. In that year Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the city's first social settlement in what had been Charles J. Hull's mansion, built in 1856, and acquired from Hull's cousin and secretary, Helen Culver. The year after Hull House was founded, the United States Census revealed that of Chicago's 1.1 million people an astonishing 855,000 were either foreign born or their American-born children. The Harrison-Halsted or Hull House neighborhood as it would soon be known, was a receiving station for the newest and most recent arrivals. Drawn heavily from southern and eastern Europe, the new arrivals were generally Catholic or Jewish. Italian, Greek, and Russian-Jewish newcomers also arrived in large numbers, as did other eastern Europeans from Slavic lands. These groups had just begun their mass migration.

Coincidentally Hull House had just been founded, and it was at the epicenter of what would become several large immigrant colonies. Adjoining it to the north was the rapidly populating Greek "delta." Immediately to the west were immigrants from the provinces south of Rome. To the south was the burgeoning Jewish ghetto around Maxwell Street that slowly pushed out the remaining Germans and Irish. And to the south of Maxwell Street was one of the largest Bohemian colonies outside of Czechoslovakia, appropriately called Pilsen.

Hull House in many ways grew up with the immigrants. Both learned much in the process—the immigrants about American ways taught at Hull House and Jane Addams about immigrant cultures from those regions. She taught English, Americanization, and urban survival skills to this largely rural and peasant population. Jane Addams's ideas and theories about the poor and the ghetto derived largely from a give-and-take dialectic with her overwhelmingly Catholic and Jewish neighbors


drawn from the backwaters of Europe and European Russia. Poor, bereft of resources, chased out of Russia by persecution campaigns and pogroms, driven from Italy by population expansion and poverty, and seeking a better life than the sun-baked, rocky, arid slopes that Greece could offer—these refugees were not the Golden Greeks, the favored sons of wealthy burghers nor the signiore class. They were pretty much as Emma Lazarus described them on the Statue of Liberty: "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore...the nameless, tempest-tossed."

Hull House • Chicago, Illinois

Because of the new immigrants' illiteracy lack of modern skills, and sometimes outlandish appearance (and behavior), many native-born Americans assumed that these most recent newcomers were racially inferior to old stock immigrants and native-born Americans. Jane Addams and her settlement house residents rejected such assumptions of racial inferiority and argued instead that their poverty, illiteracy, and lowly estates reflected a lack of opportunity. Even so, Hull House residents through their studies, surveys, and investigations recognized that there was a relationship between the tidal wave of immigrants and the growth of slum-life pathologies such as crime, delinquency, poverty disease, and disorderly family conditions. But this malaise was caused not by inferior racial stock but by social factors such as ignorance of the English language, unfamiliarity with the values and customs of American urban society low wages, and a poor adjustment of these ruralites to the city. These hewers of wood and drawers of water from pre-industrial and proto-modern regions of the continent were as talented, ambitious, and idealistic as their Teutonic, Celtic, and Anglo Saxon forerunners, Jane Addams believed. And this is where Hull House could make a difference. If only encouraged, given an opportunity, and, when need be, a temporary helping hand, foreigners could overcome their apparent handicaps, become useful citizens, and make important contributions to their adopted land.


To reach the immigrants, Jane Addams worked through the matrix of an old world culture to win over their confidence and make the newcomers receptive to advice from Hull House. Italians might be invited to the settlement house on Saturday for readings from Mazzini's works or to celebrate a folk holiday; Germans might be treated to folk lieder or Schiller on Tuesday night; Greeks and Jews were also recognized socially and culturally. Having won the newcomer's ear, the settlement residents then became didactic. They cautioned against health practices that might not have been dangerous in sparsely populated rural Europe but posed a threat in tightly packed American urban communities. Hygienic practices, proper nutrition for children, and infant care were some of the useful skills taught at clinics at Hull House. Italian immigrants were counseled against bathing their babies in olive oil and advised the use of soap. The pacifying of children with wine-soaked bread or the use of alcoholic beverages by small children was discouraged. The importance of quarantining and controlling the carriers of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (a common slum aliment) was stressed.

An Immigrants Protective League was spun off from Hull House under the direction of Jane Addams's friend Grace Abbott. The League's purpose was to help confused immigrants who arrived at Chicago's railroad stations and to prevent crass exploitation of them by immigrant "runners," crooked cabbies, shady bunko artists, and what were referred to as the "white slavers." The service was especially needed given that each year some 20 percent of single, young females traveling alone from Ellis Island were never accounted for at their expected destinations in Chicago. The League was also acutely aware of the taboos of some immigrant cultures against male physicians attending to women in childbirth and worked aggressively to get more effective modern training for foreign-born female midwives. To improve the quality of life in the neighborhood, Jane Addams got herself appointed as the garbage inspector and rose at 6 a.m. to follow the garbage contractor down the dank, dark, and debris-cluttered alleyways to see that the job was done right.

The immigrants responded warmly to the invitation to join America through Hull House. As many as thirty-one different Italian organizations including dramatic, fraternal, social, and labor organizations used the settlement house in a single year. In the early days more than one-half of the Hull "House Boys" Club members were drawn from the local Italian community.

The Greeks were not far behind as they grew in numbers in the "delta," now called "Greektown." The special attention Addams gave the Greeks turned her into a veritable patroness of Hellenic arts and ideals. Not only did Greeks fill up the English night classes there but they were enthralled when Addams established a Hull House Theater and put on classical Greek plays such as Odysseus and Ajax with immigrant Greeks playing the roles in their native tongue. The Hull House gymnasium was also used by a "Greek Educational Association" (in reality a paramilitary group) for exercises that turned out to be military marching and drilling. Several thousand Greek young men so trained volunteered to fight in the Balkan Wars in 1912. The use of Hull House for military exercises was used against Jane Addams when she later claimed to be a pacifist and opposed American entry into World War I and when she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Addams never satisfactorily explained her Balkan War aberration. Appreciative of her help, the Greek government awarded her the Order of Phoenix.

When Jane Addams died in 1935, Greek businesses on Halsted Street closed for a day mourning for the person the Greeks eulogized as the "Saint of Halsted Street" for her ceaseless dedication to their welfare and needs the Greek immigrants. As scholar Andrew Kopan wrote, the Greek community saw Jane Addams as a "mother" and Hull House as "a home away from home" and the "spiritual and cultural hearth of Greek immigrants." The Greek community also confirmed in Jane Addams another article of faith, which held that all the immigrants needed was an opportunity and a temporary helping hand to pull themselves up from poverty By 1920 the delta was a beehive of business and entrepreneurial activity. There and in the city at large, Greek-Americans owned and operated more than 10,000 stores, meat markets, bakeries, flower shops, confectioneries, shoe repair and shine parlors, and other small businesses.

To the immediate south of Hull House lay Maxwell Street, an area of narrow dirt streets, ill-ventilated tenements, rickety cottages, and the city's major port of entry for Chicago's Russian and Polish Jews. Fleeing the pogroms and persecution campaigns of Czarist Russia, an estimated 50,000 Jews came to Chicago through Maxwell Street. This densely packed ghetto never had fewer than 15,000 "greenhorns" at any time. Here the "hotbed" system flourished whereby the night-shift workers arrived in the early morning to replace the day shift workers off to their jobs. This round-the-clock use of sleeping space was a reflection of both the crowding and the poverty of the inhabitants. Nonetheless Maxwell Street bustled with the commerce of these newcomers—kosher meat markets, chicken stores, matzo bakeries, tailorshops, sweatshops, bathhouses, open street stalls, and peddlers


hawking their second-hand goods up and down the street along with lotions and notions. Declassed and humble as was pushcart peddling in this loud, smelly, and crowded open market—it nonetheless was an important training ground for the next generation of leading businessmen. Given opportunity and sometimes a temporary helping hand from Hull House, the sons of this ragged parade of exiles were to realize the promise of American life. Many attended classes and events at Hull House, including appearances by Benny Goodman, Arthur Goldberg, and Sidney Hill, the latter a future labor leader who led a successful immigrant garment workers strike in 1910 and would help to found the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union. Others achieved national prominence such as the son of a poor fruit and vegetable peddler, Joseph Goldberg. (Goldberg was so poor that he could only afford a blind horse to tow his wagon.) His son Arthur became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and was picked by President Kennedy to serve in his cabinet. William Paley born in the back of an immigrant cigar store, became president and chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Admiral Hyman Rickover, the son of a Jewish tailor, went on to become father of America's nuclear navy. And a boy whose father ran a hole-in-the-wall grocery on Maxwell Street, Barney Balaban, became president of Paramount Pictures. Finally another immigrant tailor's son, Benny Goodman, took music lessons at Hull House and went on to become the "king of swing" music in the nation. For Chicago's immigrant Jews, as living Cutler observed, the movement from shtetl to suburb took only one generation, and Hull House had a hand in the process.

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