Jane Addams’ 1894 Thanksgiving Challenge

Harper’s Bazaar Nov. 1894 cover.

Looking for a timely post on Thanksgiving, we came across a newspaper article that detailed a Thanksgiving banquet held at Chicago’s Union League Club on November 22, 1894, a week before the actual holiday on November 29. Jane Addams was one of the featured speakers at the event, which was given by the Life Underwriters’ Association of Chicago.

Setting the stage, the Inter Ocean reporter described tables adorned with:

“endless ferns dotted with chrysanthemums in cut-glass vases. . . fruit dishes heaped with red and yellow apples, the Vermont cheeses, and–not the least in flavor of ye olden time–candles in little bits of japanned candle-sticks. But the best decoration was of course the ladies, interspersed so thickly among the men.”

menuDescribing a menu decorated with two turkeys facing each other, comprised of foods from all over the country, including “Fresh echoes from the woods of Maine.” The diners wrote “Thanksgiving cards,” with whimsical notes about what they were thankful for, which mostly involved the items on the menu. Songs were sung, “My Last Cigar” (lyrics), “Welcome Song,” and “Sweetheart.” An address by the club president J. K. Stearns welcomed the women guests, including “one who is well known for good word and work and of whom it may be said, ‘Her step is music and her voice is song,’ whose life is devoted to neglected humanity and whose work is so nobly represented in the Hull House social settlement.”

Finally introduced as “one of the queens of Illinois,” Jane Addams took the podium, speaking of her interest in Chicago’s Seventeenth Ward, and then on the celebration of the holiday:

I sometimes think our patriotism is a little like our compunction of conscience–it is apt to run backward. After a thing has been done, and well done, we like to think about it; we like to think about how patriotic we have been, and how very well we did it altogether and how much we like the stars and stripes. Now I suppose in our thanksgiving and especially looking toward our thanksgiving of the future, it may be well if we bring to bear some of this patriotic feeling of emotion upon the present problems. I remember the last Fourth of July, which, as you know occurred in the midst of a strike, we were trying to arrange for a celebration when a workingman said: ‘Why should we celebrate when the whole country is so upset?’ I said to him: ‘It seems, on this Fourth, more fitting than ever to rally together–all of us–and bring to bear all our patriotism and unity of feeling upon the present condition, and see what we can do about it.

Addams, ca. 1895

Addams, ca. 1895

In other words, there was just as much need for common action then as there was among the Pilgrims fighting the Indians. We are no longer struggling to keep our conscience from outside interference, but we forget the equal demand that comes from the multiplied conditions of our modern life, especially the great poverty all about us. Hence I say that all of Chicago, all the business men and women so full of good will, if they would face together some of our problems, perhaps then we could have a rousing Thanksgiving dinner together afterward. I have very little advice to offer as to how this should be done. I have very little belief in the ready-made scheme of reform, but I do long every day that the good will which you know does exist in Chicago, that the good sense which you see exhibited all about you, should be brought to bear on these very pressing problems; that they should be held as a part of the patriotic citizenship; that they should be considered just as much of a duty as it was a duty years ago to fight Indians and go out with the musket to fight against the mother country.

Surely it is Christian altruism to say that we should be uncomfortable to have another Thanksgiving dinner unless some of the crooked place are made straighter than they are now. There are various schemes in my mind which I would like to suggest. I do not feel myself, as the old minister did, that nine-tenths will be damned. Many are doing very well, but they do need help, just as our early politics needed help. The heart of the nation needs to be brought to this modern problem in the same spirit of patriotic endeavor as it was brought to the early problem and we have no right to say all is well until we have made this effort. We are at least bound to give our minds to it, to give our endeavor to it, steadily and systematically as becomes patriotic men and women.

Addams’ speech was received to “much applause,” but the program turned again to the light-hearted and humorous, before the “assemblage sang a popular song and dispersed.”


“Call Back Old Times,” Inter-Ocean, Nov. 23, 1894, p. 4.

 

 

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