Questions About Settlements? Ask Jane!

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The main entry to Hull House. (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois, Chicago).

How many people today know what settlements were? If you have heard of them, they conjure up black and white, or sepia images of large buildings in urban neighborhoods, operated by earnest men and women. Or images of immigrant children in classes or urban playgrounds.

When Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889 the idea was a new one and part of her work was in popularizing not only the settlement, but the ideas behind it. The first settlement, and the one that inspired Addams and Ellen Gates Starr to found Hull-House was Toynbee Hall, a British settlement located in London’s East End that was founded in 1884. The first settlement in the United States was Neighborhood house, established in 1886 by Stanton Coit.

Library of Congress

The idea of the settlement was simple–to bring education and social welfare to the people who lived and worked in impoverished cities. In the United States, settlements were also known as places that helped stir the melting pot of immigration. What was unique about the settlement movement, compared with other Progressive Era charitable efforts, was that the settlement workers moved in to the slum neighborhoods they sought to help, and they sought to act as neighbors, not distant benefactors to the working poor. Addams and other settlement workers wanted to understand the lives of immigrants and the working-class not be analyzing them, but by living side-by-side and helping when they could.

In the December 5, 1905  Toledo Daily Capital, Addams’ theory was described as:

that every man is an individual and equally capable of good. The Hull House idea is to develop the individual. Miss Addams also stated that a much larger number of immigrants could be taken care of in this country and assimilated to advantage than was being done now.

When Addams lectured, she often answered questions about her work. Some questions that were reported included:

What about anarchy in the slums?

I think the cry of anarchy has been greatly exaggerated in America. There is not nearly as much of it as some people seem to think. Much of the violation of law in the slums and among the foreigners is due to ignorance of the law rather than the result of criminal intentions.

How many children are taken care of at the Hull House every day?

We have a day nursery and this takes care of an average of forty children a day.

Are there any day nurses or visitors in connection with Hull House who visit the homes of those in your district?

We never go to any house unless sent for or there is some good reason for our visit. We never make it a practice to invade the homes of the poor.

Is there any religious instruction at Hull House?

No, there are no religious exercises at Hull House on account of the different beliefs of those in the house. We have Roman and Greek Catholics and Jews in addition to other creeds and denominations.

What are the political opinions of the voters of the settlement district?

That depends entirely on which party gets hold of them first. Their political beliefs are easily subject to change. For instance the Italians formerly were almost entirely Republicans. Now, however, they are swimming over to Democracy. The Russian Jews are mostly socialists. Other nationalities have similar political principles. In Chicago there is so much intense interest in ward and city politics that national politics are entirely lost sight of in the shuffle.

Is there any drinking in the Hull House?

No, there is no drinking in Hull House, but there is a great deal of it among certain classes in the slums. Most of the Jews congregate in the shops and little stores instead of in the saloons. Formerly there was very little drunkenness among the Italians when they drank only light wines. Now they are learning to drink the American beer and whisky and drunkenness among them is on the increase.

What is being done to counteract drinking by the Hull House?

We try to counteract it mainly by means of amusements. The social feature of the saloon s what appeals to most of them and so we give Saturday evening parties, dances and socials. The saloon dance hall is one of the great pitfalls of the city and we try to oppose it in particular. We have a big coffee room but it is not a great success for the reason that only a few care for coffee in the evening.

Settlements were one solution proposed by progressive reformers to alleviate the social problems caused by increasing numbers of new immigrants and rapid urbanization. Rather than build walls to keep people out, or hem them into crowded slums, Addams and other social workers sought to learn about them, live with them, and understand their cultures; all in an effort to help them navigate American life.  She believed in treating her neighbors with respect and as intelligent and capable individuals who could contribute mightily to American society.


For more on settlement houses in Chicago, see the University of Illinois at Chicago’s photo exhibit, “Changing Neighborhoods: Photographs of Social Reform from 7 Chicago Settlement Houses.