On February 21, 1901, little Blanche Ebert performed big musical compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven and Stephen Heller on the piano at a concert at Hull-House. She was a student of the Hull-House Music School and one of four gifted pupils who performed that day. Blanche was nine years old, and her passion for music just blossoming, but her education at Hull-House, a settlement dedicated to expanding the definition of the possible for young people, must have given her early confidence, both as a pianist and as a girl.
Hull-House Music School offered “serious musical training to talented children,” admitting them based upon aptitude tests; and Blanche was no doubt gifted from the start. But as she hailed from a poor immigrant family in the 18th Ward, just north of Hull-House, Blanche was also at least a little bit lucky, too. Most poor children did not have access to the musical instruments, private lessons, and concerts, like those offered at the Hull-House Music School.
In a brochure circulated to raise funds for the Hull-House Music School in the late 1890s, Jane Addams said: “We realize afresh that it is the business of youth to reaffirm the beauty and joy in the world.” In order to succeed in that business, girls and boys deserved cultural nourishment, Addams believed. Much of the focus of the activities at Hull-House revolved around children, each one an effort to expose young people to a world beyond the tenements and dirty streets of urban Chicago, to organize activities to bring art and music and beauty to people in the settlement’s neighborhood. At Hull-House, children were deemed worthy of attention and nurturing in the arts, and activities like private piano lessons , gave them remarkable opportunities to redefine their futures.
Blanche Ella Theodora Ebert was born on Sep. 15, 1891, in Chicago, the tenth child of Norwegian immigrant parents. Her father supported his large family as a painter, and in 1901 Blanche was one of seven children still living at home. We cannot know how Blanche felt as she took the stage to perform the opening piece of music by Beethoven for the Hull-House concert in 1901, but we can imagine something of what the opportunity to play a piano and perform for an audience meant to an underprivileged kid on a cold Chicago day in the early twentieth century. And we do know that Blanche Ebert took full advantage of the opportunity, charting for herself an unlikely and brave career as a pianist and composer.
Until about 1906, Blanche was a piano student and assistant music teacher at Hull-House. Her natural talent and her education at Hull-House afforded her entry into the Chicago Musical College from which she graduated in 1911. In 1912, she felt bold and moved west to Los Angeles, where she became a music teacher at the Egan School of Music and Drama. She also performed as a pianist in a variety of venues in southern California and became a “noted” accompanist. By late 1914, she was teaching at Blanchard Music School in Los Angeles and playing piano for silent films shown at the Majestic Theatre.
One day while riding the streetcar downtown, Blanche met Frank R. Seaver, an attorney eight years her senior. The couple married in Chicago on Sep. 16, 1916. They lived in California for a while before moving to New York, where Frank was stationed during WWI. In New York during that time, Blanche became a successful musical arranger and composer, writing and selling dozens of songs, many to popular artists of the day like the Irish singer John McCormack. Her most famous songs were “Calling Me Back to You,” composed during the war, and “Just for Today.”
In the 1920s, the Seavers lived in Mexico City, and it was there where Blanche discovered a second passion, philanthropy. She established a society to help homeless Mexican children, and that was the start of seventy-years of generous living. The Seavers moved back to the United States in 1928, settling permanently in Los Angeles. Frank Seaver made a fortune in the oil business, and Blanche became a well-known philanthropist.
Inspired and grateful for the education she received in Chicago, Blanche focused her giving on educational institutions. She and her husband donated money to the Harvard Boys School in L.A., the University of Southern California, Loyola Marymount University, Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Rockford College in Illinois, and Pepperdine University. After Frank’s death in 1964, Blanche continued her giving, helping Pepperdine establish its Malibu campus and dedicating the Frank R. Seaver College there in 1975.
Throughout her life, Blanche, who never had children, continued to share her love of music and was an active patron of the arts and a supporter of children’s charities. She supported the Los Angeles Music Center, the Los Angeles Symphony, the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, and the famous Hollywood Bowl. She also founded the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild and served as a member of the Board of Directors of Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. In 1963, the Los Angeles Times named her “Woman of the Year;” and MacMurray College in Illinois and Pepperdine University awarded her honorary doctorate degrees in 1973 and 1980, respectively.
Blanche Ebert Seaver died on April 14, 1994, ninety-three years after playing Beethoven at Hull-House. Her story is a second-generation American story. Her hard-working immigrant parents could only have dreamed of such a robust life for their children. But Seaver’s story is also a story of what Hull-House could offer little girls and little boys with talents and courage and dreams. Jane Addams could not write such a story as Blanche’s for every child who took advantage of the programs at Hull-House. But every single day, through its programs and activities, the settlement exposed young people to the arts and made a difference in the lives of the children in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Blanche’s story is one shining musical example of how Hull-House was a house of possibilities.
Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor
Sources: Los Angeles City Directory (1915), 757; Blanche Ebert and Frank R. Seaver Papers, Finding Aid, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA; 1900 U.S. Federal Census; 1910 U.S. Federal Census; Blanche Ebert Baptismal Record, U.S. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Church Records, 1781-1969; Ebert and Seaver Marriage Record, Cook County, Illinois, U.S., Marriage Index, 1871-1920; “Chicago at a Glance,” Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1900, p. 50; “Reception to Pianist,” Los Angeles Express, Oct. 19, 1912; “Egan Recital Will Be Given Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Express, Jan. 8, 1913, p. 7; “The Festival Choir,” Los Angeles Express, Mar. 21, 1913, p. 10; “Whittier Choral Society,” The Whittier (CA) News, Mar. 24, 1914, p. 3; “Coronation of Queen Thelma Chamber Music Featured,” The Daily Telegram (Long Beach, CA), June 6, 1914, p. 5; “Important Musical,” Hollywood (CA) Citizen, July 3, 1914, p. 5; “Lost and Found,” Los Angeles Express, Nov. 27, 1914, p. 17; “Brahms Quintet Will Give Concert,” Los Angeles Express, Feb. 25, 1915, p. 6; “Majestic,” The Los Angeles Times, Mar. 31, 1916, p. 16; “Seaver-Ebert Nuptials, Chicago Event,” The Bulletin (Pomona, CA), Sep. 17, 1916, p. 9; “Mac to Confer Five Honorary Degrees at Commencement,” The Jacksonville (IL) Journal Courier, May 20, 1973, p. 36; “Blanche E. Seaver, Major Donor to Colleges, Dies,” The Los Angeles Times, Apr. 13, 1994, p. 206; “Seaver, Blanche Ebert,” The Los Angeles Times, Apr. 17, 1994, p. 164; Hull-House Music School,” pamphlet, c. 1935, Jane Addams Papers, Microfilm Edition (JAPM), 36:78-81; Hull-House Bulletin, 4 (January 1-May 1, 1901), 4-5, JAPM, 53:1123-24; Hull-House Bulletin, 5 (Semi-Annual, 1902, no. 1), 5, JAPM, 53:1141; Hull-House Bulletin, 6 (Autumn, 1904, no. 2), 4, JAPM, 53:1193; Hull-House Bulletin, 7 (1906-1906, no. 1), 6, 53:1219; Selected Papers of Jane Addams, 3:421, 473n3; Jane Addams’ Own Story of Her Work: How the Work at Hull-House Has Grown (Third of Three Installments), May 1906; Hull-House Year Book 1906-1907; Hull-House 1889-1909, 1909, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.
When I wrote last time on the “The Other Worldly Orbit of Jane Addams,” I knew I was going to follow it up by writing the story of a particular Hull-House resident, the daughter of Hull-House residents, who became an astronomer and very early in her career discovered 385 stars. This story of a woman named Henrietta Swope began at Hull-House, where her settlement worker parents met. It passed back through Hull-House with her own year of residency at the settlement after her graduation from Barnard College in 1925. And it is as illustrative of the extraordinary list of human beings who had a connection to Jane Addams and to Hull-House as the variable stars Swope studied are of the beauty of the universe.
Henrietta Swope began dreaming about the stars when she was ten years old, and I cannot help but think that at least a little part of the reason she was able to reach those stars was because she had Hull-House in her family.
But more about the stars later. Let’s start Henrietta’s story at the very beginning.
On Tuesday, August 20, 1901, at noon, in a clearing in the woods on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, Jane Addams delivered a wedding speech. It was an unusual venue for the settlement leader to give a speech. But it was an unusual wedding. It was the union of Hull-House residents Mary Hill and Gerard Swope, two young members of the extended Hull-House family. A large contingent of the small wedding party were Hull-House residents, including the bride and groom’s best friends George Hooker and Maud Gernon.
Addressing the couple and the wedding party near picturesque Sugar Loaf Rock, Addams said, in part:
“Knowing as we do something of the character of these two people, somewhat of the temper of their attachment and the form of the expression we may confidently predict that and all life’s journey through to the end is will be illuminated by [that] Love which carries a burden which is no burden, the Love which attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility for it believes all things are possible to itself.”
It’s a coincidence and not at all prophetic, but I love that Addams used the word “illuminated” and wow, indeed, “all things are possible.”
Mary Hill and Gerard Swope were two extraordinary young people who found their way to Hull-House and who would be forever shaped by the experience. Mary was the thirty-year-old the daughter of a former Harvard president and an 1896 graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She moved to Chicago to study at the University of Chicago under renown educator John Dewey. In 1898, she became a resident at Hull-House, where she taught textile classes and basket weaving, directed the Hull-House Shakespeare Club, and for a time managed the Hull-House Labor Museum. The twenty-eight-year-old Gerard Swope, a native of St. Louis, arrived in Chicago with a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked at the Western Electric Company in Chicago, and he taught English, electronics, and algebra classes at Hull-House and lived at the settlement for a short time in 1897. Mary and Gerard met at the settlement and fell in love.
Gerard moved to St. Louis in 1899 to become a branch manager there for Western Electric, and Mary remained at Hull-House. The couple maintained a long-distance relationship until their wedding, after which Mary joined her new husband in St. Louis, where she did social welfare work and the couple started their family. Their first child Henrietta was born in St. Louis on October 26, 1902. Three sons—Isaac, David, and Gerard Jr.—followed, and a fourth son John was born in New Jersey where Gerard Sr. moved the family as his career path led him to the East Coast. In 1919, Gerard became president of General Electric’s new subsidiary International G.E., and the family moved to Manhattan. Gerard was involved with various reform organizations and he worked for quality working conditions which set him apart in the 1920s from many of his contemporary leaders of large corporations. Mary became a member of the board of directors of the Henry Street Settlement, operated by Lillian Wald, the good friend of Jane Addams, and she volunteered at Greenwich House and served as vice-chair of the New York branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Over the years, Mary and Gerard Swope kept in touch with Jane Addams, visited Hull-House, and made donations to the settlement. Gerard became a millionaire and in 1922 became the president of General Electric. The Swopes sent their bright daughter Henrietta off to Barnard College, where she earned her degree in mathematics; and then they sent her off to Chicago. Or perhaps Henrietta herself felt the pull of social work and felt the family connection to Hull-House. Although little is known about Henrietta’s time in that city, she lived at the settlement and worked in a program for the elderly while studying in the School of Social Service Administration (formerly the School of Civics and Philanthropy) at the University of Chicago with two significant members of Jane Addams’s orbit, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott.
But Henrietta Swope was still dreaming of the stars.
So she left Chicago to take a job at Harvard to work for the astronomy professor Dr. Harlow Shapley at the Harvard Observatory. While she looked for variable stars and became Shapley’s first assistant, she earned a Master’s degree in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1928. The following year, she became famous when she identified 385 new stars, which helped scientists identify the “hub” of the Milky Way. At the time, Swope was touted as “one of the youngest women ever to have made a comparable mark in scientific research.” During her long, successful career as an astronomer, she studied Cepheid variable stars in dwarf galaxies and M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy. However, her most significant contribution was developing a new method for measuring the universe, using the brightness of stars, which became known as the “celestial yardstick.” I don’t understand any of this, but it sounds amazing. Henrietta Swope was an accomplished and well-respected scientist.
In 1936, Henrietta Swope was a member of the joint-expedition of the Harvard Observatory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the solar eclipse in Soviet Central Asia. During World War II, she worked in the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory and then served as a mathematician in the Hydrographic Office of the United States Department of the Navy. Swope returned to Barnard College in 1947 to teach astronomy until 1952, when she moved to California to work at the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories. After her retirement in 1968, she continued to work at the observatories. Swope was a member of the American Astronomical Society; she won the American Astronomical Society Annie Jump Cannon Prize in 1968 for her research on photometry and variable stars; and she received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Henrietta Swope dreamed of the stars, she reached the stars, and then she made certain many generations to come could see the stars. In 1969, when she was in active retirement, Swope donated $650,000 worth of securities to the Carnegie Institution of Washington for the development of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and the installation of a 40-inch telescope in the mountains. The Swope Telescope began operation in 1971. Henrietta Swope died in 1980, but the observatory she helped established is still helping people look at the stars.
Now, how’s that for a life story from the otherworldly orbit of Jane Addams?
By Stacy Pratt McDermott,
Sources: “Swope, Gerard,” American National Biography; Mary Hill Swope Papers, Finding Aid, Special Collections, University of Illinois Chicago; Papers of Henrietta Hill Swope, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Oral History of Henrietta Swope, August 1977, Transcript, Niels Bohr Library and Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD; Carnegie Institution of Washington, Year Book 67, 1967-1868, 73-74; “Hull House Teacher is Wed,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 21, 1901, p. 3; “Romantic Wedding,” The Daily Herald (Port Huron, MI), Aug. 21, 1901, p. 5; “Wealthy Girl Aids in Finding Universe’s Hub,” The Capital Times (Madison, WI), June 11, 1929, p. 6 (image 1); “Girl Aids in Discovering Hub of Universe,” The Rock Island (IL) Argus, June 13, 1929, p. 12; “Henrietta Swope Wins Distinction,” The North Addams (MA) Transcript, June 24, 1929, p. 8; “Girl in Her Twenties Gets Credit in Major Scientific Discovery,” The Dispatch (Moline, IL), July 26, 1929, p. 31; “Girl Eclipses Stay-at-Homes,” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), July 6, 1936, p. 6 (image 2); “Henrietta H. Swope, Is Dead; Helped to Measure Variable Stars,” The New York Times, Nov. 28, 1980, p. 28; “Studies Gauged Depths of Space,” The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 1, 1980, p. 23; Hull-House Bulletin, 3 (Oct. 1898), 7, Jane Addams Papers Microfilm Edition (JAPM), 53:1051; Hull-House Bulletin, 3 (Nov. 1898), 4, JAPM, 53:1058; Hull-House Bulletin, 4 (Autumn 1900), 3, 4, JAPM, 53:1106-1107; Selected Papers of Jane Addams, 3:618n5; Jane Addams to Florence Kelley, August 1, 1901;Address at the wedding of Gerard Swope and Mary Dayton Hill, August 21, 1901; Jane Addams to Esther Linn Hulbert, July 16, 1901; Gerard Swope to Jane Addams, January 7, 1905; Mary Hill Swope to Jane Addams, December, 1910; Gerard Swope to Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, January 19, 1923, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.
I grew up in Illinois where the life and legacy of Jane Addams is widely known and appreciated. Illinois School children learn about Addams and Hull-House, and she is a perennial favorite topic of their book reports, term papers, and history fair essays and display boards. As a historian of Illinois history in the early years of my work, I came to know and appreciate Jane Addams at a deeper level, too, understanding better her contributions to social reform, her lobbying for protective legislation for workers, her modern arguments for woman suffrage, her importance as a philosopher, and her unwavering advocacy of world peace, even when it threatened to harm all she had built at Hull-House.
Yet the more I study the ways in which Jane Addams supported, nurtured, and inspired the women around her, and the ways in which she drew on the spirits, intellects, and achievements of those women, the more convinced I am that Jane Addams created and existed in an otherworldly orbit. An orbit where innovation and creativity and fearless determination flourished. An orbit which attracted women of myriad backgrounds and life work—educators, business women, artists, social scientists, doctors, writers, and lawyers, as well as social workers and reformers. An orbit which drew in some of the most talented and inspirational women of the era. An orbit that energized and empowered young women to find their talent and become inspirational leaders in their chosen fields and disciplines.
It was this otherworldly orbit of women that was Jane Addams’s super power.
Hull-House was a social settlement offering important educational and cultural programming for immigrants and working-class people. It was a place dedicated to social, economic, and political change to benefit all people in a society reeling from the excesses and inequalities of American industry and politics. Hull-House was also a remarkable planet of women, full of purpose and promise. And Jane Addams was the gravity that held these women together, bolstering their courage and making them so much greater than the sum of the individuals who at some point in their lives called the settlement on Halsted Street their home. Jane Addams dedicated her life to making the 19th Ward, Chicago, her state of Illinois, the United States, and the world better places to live. That work and dedication set her apart. But I believe, this orbit of women that Jane Addams created at Hull-House was what made her truly extraordinary.
One of my greatest privileges of editing the papers of Jane Addams is daily introduction to the fascinating women in Jane Addams’s orbit. Although it is only a qualitative observation, I assert that few (if any) other institutions in American history so beautifully nourished more women to do so much good in the world than did Hull-House. I suspect this inspirational characteristic of Hull-House was in part due to Addams’s feminine, motherly or sisterly guidance of her juniors and her peers, as well as the more generous hearts of women in collaborate work. But I would also argue it was the brilliance of Jane Addams to understand that women of all backgrounds had something to offer to the narrative of reform and possessed voices worthy of projection. It was the brilliance of Jane Addams to create an atmosphere of open-minded curiosity and respectful discourse for women. It was the brilliance of Jane Addams to fill up that atmosphere with as many bright and shining female voices she could find and who could find their own way to her and to Hull-House, as well.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of the long list of extraordinary women connected with Hull-House and Jane Addams. Many of those women, like Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and Dr. Alice Hamilton were well-known in their lifetimes and remembered by history today. One scholar likened some of those women to “stars” in a constellation around Jane Addams. I prefer to think of those female “stars” as existing in an otherworldly orbit with Jane Addams and with a breathtaking list of incredible women that history has largely forgotten. As a tribute to my joy in discovering the women in Jane Addams’s orbit and to amplify, like she did, the voices of the lessor known, I am going to offer a series of blog posts about some of the women you may not know who found their way to Hull-House and became a part of the wide influence of the settlement in the world far beyond Halsted Street.
On Oct. 21, 1902, Jane Addams penned this letter:
My dear Miss Monroe The twenty [minutes] will be perfectly convenient for us and affairs have so adjusted themselves that the little room now vacant may be yours so long as you care to keep it. The word little however is used advisedly—perhaps it would be better for you to see it before you decide on your belongings. Faithfully yours Jane Addams
The letter was to Harriet Monroe, a 41-year-old poet from Chicago. Monroe, who became a Hull-House resident for a brief time, delivered a public lecture about Milton on Dec. 3, 1902, at the settlement. She became a Hull-House teacher, offering an advanced class on English poetry and establishing a reading club at the settlement. Monroe was born and raised in Chicago, where her father was a successful lawyer before the Chicago Fire, after which his financial situation deteriorated. From a young age, Monroe developed a love of literature by exploring her father’s library. Although her family was not Catholic, she was educated at the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, DC. In the 1880s, she lived in New York City, from where she wrote articles on the arts for the Chicago Tribune, before returning to her hometown in 1889.
In 1902, when she arrived at Hull-House, Monroe was not a well-known poet, not a household name, nor a novelist, as she had reported her occupation to the census taker in 1900. She struggled to make a literary name for herself, although she had published a few poems and penned a special verse, “The Columbian Ode” to open the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Poor health and failure to attain critical acclaim for her literary work frustrated her, but she kept writing and developed a widening circle of literary friends, which would come to include Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field, Richard Watson Gilder, and Vachel Lindsay. In the years after her time at Hull-House, Monroe supported herself as a journalist, writing more than 200 articles for the Chicago Tribune, mostly on the arts, and she published sporadic freelance pieces in popular publications like Atlantic Monthly and Century Magazine. It was a meager existence, but Monroe remained committed to writing, bemoaned modern American society’s general disinterest in poetry, and began to articulate the need for poetry in American cultural life.
As was typical with most Hull-House residents who came and went, Monroe maintained her connection to the settlement and to Jane Addams years after her departure. She was a frequent guest at the settlement, made donations and offered gifts, and in 1905 wrote “The Troll’s Holiday,” an operetta set to music by Hull-House music teacher Eleanor Smith and performed at the Hull-House Music School. Over the years, the letters between Addams and Monroe reflect a respectful, friendly relationship infused with admiration and staunch support for one another’s work. In 1908, Addams wrote Monroe about her poetry: “It seems to me very remarkable, to be able to express the subtler side of the background of life as you…” In 1910, Monroe praised Addams’s latest book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets: “It seems to me profoundly thought out and beautifully done; thought and done with fine intelligence and exquisite sympathy. Surely it will have a far-reaching affect.”
Women supporting women was the foundational characteristic of the orbit Jane Addams cultivated, and that super power of hers became the super power of other women, too. To be in Jane Addams’s orbit was to remain there, to want to stay close to the spirit of the woman, to feel the pull of the supportive energy of Hull-House, no matter the time or the distance. To have experienced Jane Addams’s orbit was to wish to create your own orbit of inclusion and support and purpose beyond the self.
I suspect Harriet Monroe either learned at Hull-House the lesson of going beyond yourself and connecting your talents to others, or while there she practiced the lesson which was already in her own heart. Because ultimately, Harriet Monroe’s greatest contribution was not her own poetry but rather her fierce support of the art form and the poetry of others. At the age of 52, Monroe conceived of the idea to create an American journal of poetry, to seek out great poets and good work, and promote that work in the pages of a popular magazine. In October 1912, Monroe published the first issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. When she launched the magazine, Monroe sent Jane Addams a complimentary subscription. Addams would not have it, however, writing in reply: “I am not in the least willing to have my name stand on an honorary list. Please let me send the enclosed and assure you that I have seldom subscribed to a magazine with more pleasure.”
Poetry was an immediate critical and popular success. For the remainder of her life, Monroe edited the magazine, raising American interest in poetry and launching the careers of many of America’s greatest poets, like Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. Eighty-four years after Monroe’s death in 1936, Poetry magazine is still in publication, still a venue for new poets, still a vehicle for a great American art form. Hull-House and Jane Addams may or may not have directly inspired Monroe’s direction in life. I dare not give either the credit for Monroe’s brilliant vision and stunning contribution to modern American poetry. But in reading more and more stories of the lives of people who were in the orbit of the woman and the settlement, even for very short periods of time, one cannot dismiss the excellence of that orbit, either in what it may have inspired or the inspirational figures it drew into its remarkable sphere of influence.
This is a guest post, written by Parysa Mostajir, a Teaching Fellow in Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. She is currently researching the role of experience in diverse human practices like science, art, and democracy, and setting up an academic blog, Woman is a Rational Animal, dedicated to diversifying syllabi in the history of ideas.
Jane Addams is deservedly well-known for her tireless activism, having spent her life engaged in efforts to improve her society: She served on the boards of national and international organizations like the International Association for Labor Legislation, she campaigned for the rights of women, children, and workers, and she offered educational, recreational, and organizational resources to the immigrant communities surrounding Hull House. Although she spent most of her time in the world of action rather than the world of ideas, fewer people (including philosophers) give Jane Addams due credit for her role in developing a philosophical movement called ‘pragmatism.’
Jane Addams was admired by some of the most celebrated pragmatist philosophers of her time, including John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and William James. The correspondence of these professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, show that they recognized Addams as an imposing intellect from whom they had much to learn. In a 1908 letter on the Jane Addams Paper Project Digital Edition, George Herbert Mead describes “how deep an impression” Addams’ speech on ‘War and Progress’ made on him and others in the audience. In a 1902 letter, William James describes Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics as “one of the great books of our time” and claims he “learned a lot” from it. Dewey’s correspondence reveals years of extensive visits and engagements with Hull House, during which he exchanged ideas with Jane Addams, the latter of whom he described as “the most magnificent exhibition of intellectual & moral faith I ever saw” [1894.10.10 (00206): John Dewey to Alice Chipman Dewey]. He even attributed to Addams the first definite statement of the pragmatist thesis “that democracy means certain types of experience,—an interest in experience in its various forms and types” [Volume 1: Political Philosophy, Logic, Ethics p. 2379].
So what is pragmatism, and how does Jane Addams’ work fit in? Pragmatism is a tradition of philosophy that began in the United States in the late 19th century and was characterized by several core beliefs to do with action and experience. Addams’ major contributions to the tradition of pragmatism were her theories of democracy and education, which contained substantial developments on these core principles of pragmatist philosophy. Pragmatists believed that knowledge and theories should be based on our practical experiences, and be constructed in such a way as to take our practical experiences into account. Most striking about Addams’ writings in philosophy is the extent to which she adhered to the pragmatist conviction that knowledge and theories should be consistent with practice. While other pragmatists were involved in practical applications of their theories, such as John Dewey’s founding of the Laboratory School in Chicago, none of them were quite so embedded in everyday society as Jane Addams was at Hull House. Addams’ theories were derived from her practical activities at Hull House, instead of becoming lost in philosophical speculation. It was appropriate and inevitable, she wrote, that her experiences at Hull House would affect her convictions (Twenty Years, p. 308).
Pragmatists believed not only that theories should be derived from practical experiences, but that they should be applied to practical experiences in attempts to improve, enrich, and make sense of our lives. Unlike many contemporary philosophers who engaged in highly abstract theories having no relationship to the everyday world, pragmatists believed that theories gained their value by serving as instruments for empowering us to successfully take action in the world—this is the practical aspect of ‘pragmatism,’ from which the tradition derives its name. As a pragmatist, Jane Addams therefore rejected the idea, popular among sociologists of her time, that settlements like Hull House were ‘laboratories’ from which to derive pure theory (Deegan 1988, pp. 34-5; Twenty Years, p. 308). She wrote that her energies were directed “not towards sociological investigation, but to constructive work” (Hull House Maps and Papers, pp. vii-viii). Her pragmatist goal was to use the knowledge she gained from her experiences at Hull House in the application of practical changes and improvements to society and the lives of the people she served, not to derive knowledge for its own sake or out of pure curiosity.
These core pragmatist convictions concerning knowledge, practice, and experience are evident in Addams’ theories of democracy and education. To begin with her theory of democracy, Addams did not believe that democracy was a matter of ticking a ballot box once every few years. In her celebrated book on Democracy and Social Ethics, she argued that democracy was not just “a sentiment” or “a creed,” but “a rule of living,” which needed to be integrated practically with people’s everyday lives (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 6). Many failures of contemporary democracy, she claimed, could be linked to the isolation of different sectors of society from each other, preventing familiarity with each other’s experiences. In order to resolve them and make our democracy more robust, we needed to ensure the connectedness of diverse types of people who shared the same society. For that reason, democracy could not be compartmentalized as a handful of remote political institutions, with the citizens’ democratic participation reduced to a single act of casting a vote. Democracy had to be an active practice for all citizens, embedded in their lived experience as a way of life. This would only be achieved by “mixing” the diverse members of society together and giving them “a wider acquaintance with and participation in the life about them” (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 5). Addams argued that it was through exposure to the different ways of life, struggles, and needs of the many people with whom we share our society that we can develop attitudes of sympathy, respect, and a democratic sense of moral obligation towards each other. For example, she mentioned the importance of newspaper and literature in giving people the chance “to know all kinds of life” (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 8). This kind of “diversified human experience and resultant sympathy” were, for Addams, “the foundation and guarantee of Democracy” (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 7).
As a true pragmatist, concerned with the connection between theory and action, Addams based her theory of democracy on what she encountered in her practical experiences, and applied her theory of democracy to suggest resolutions to the problems she encountered. For example, Addams was involved in mediating the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago, in which the workers of a large factory went on strike to demand better wages. What Jane Addams saw in this conflict was a failure of the democratic practice of connecting with the experiences of others. Pullman, the owner of the factory, had built a town for the use of his factory employees, with parks and recreational facilities, believing that he was acting generously. The factory workers, on the other hand, resented the extension of Pullman’s control into the private lives. When the workers went on strike, Pullman was confused by their anger, and he felt that the factory workers were being ungrateful for the resources he had given them. In her philosophical work, Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams wrote that the “good deeds” Pullman thought he was conducting were in fact incomplete, because they were not conducted democratically. By not “calling upon the workmen either for self-expression or self-government,” he ended up lacking any familiarity with the experiences and desires of the workers (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 143-4), and had operated undemocratically in making his decisions. “To attempt to attain a social morality,” Addams wrote, “without a basis of democratic experience results in the loss of the only possible corrective and guide” for actions—the daily experiences of other human beings (Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 176).
Addams’ theory of education was also deeply pragmatist in its commitment to connecting educational experiences to the practices and experiences of the individuals being educated. At that time, it was common for people to assume that manual laborers had no need of general education. When education was sometimes offered as part of universities’ charitable efforts—for example, University Extension Programs which sent professors to give general courses to the working class on topics like evolution, astronomy, psychology (Twenty Years, Chapter XVIII), or philanthropists who supported children in receiving clerical education—the idea was that such education either gave laborers a temporary mental escape from the mundanity of their work, or gave them the opportunity to leave their lives as factory workers and enter into more respected professions. Such educators did not consider education as having any possible genuine connection to the ordinary lives of factory workers.
Addams, unsurprisingly, rejected these assumptions. Her pragmatist theory of education was based on extensive practical experience providing educational resources to the working-class neighborhood surrounding Hull House. In Democracy and Social Ethics, she insisted that factory workers could, and should, be provided with education on topics like history and economics which directly connected to their everyday practical experiences. Because of the division of labor, industrial workers spent most of their waking life operating machinery and manufacturing products to which they had no connection. They had no opportunities to understand the history of the invention and development of the machines they operated; they did not know the uses to which the products were put; and they did not understand the sales and distribution aspects of the businesses they worked for. Addams argued that this contributed to the poor quality of life of industrial laborers, and that education in how they fit into the workings of society would help to improve and enrich their daily experiences of manual labor. If educators, the state, and business owners were to take the value of their employees seriously, they needed to provide them with opportunities to connect their own experiences with the wider social, economic, and historical processes of which their manual labor was an important part. Such education would allow workers to make sense of the significance, purpose, and utility of their work, and would positively alter their sense of self, and their estimation of their own worth. In this way, education could be used not as an escape (either as temporary mental relief from monotony, or as an opportunity to move into a different line of work), but as a way of connecting to the ordinary lives of factory workers in such a way as to improve, enrich, and make sense of their everyday practical experience.
Amidst her extensive social, political, and community work, Addams found time to write several books threaded with innovative philosophical ideas and play a key role in establishing the new, pragmatist philosophical tradition in the United States—a tradition which was characterized by its beliefs in the importance of connecting knowledge with action, enriching individual experience, and solving social problems. Because Addams had so much experience taking action in the world, her philosophical writings are, more than any other pragmatist, threaded with connections to social, political, and economic problems, and filled with practical suggestions for how to ameliorate those problems. She remains one of the greatest examples of how our philosophical ideas can impact the practical approach we take to politics, economics, and culture, and how politics, economics, and culture can influence the development of ideas. In a time like ours, when universities are highly specialized and losing touch with the needs of wider society, we can look to Addams as a model public philosopher, who put her theories into action and let her real-life experiences guide her theories.
Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. New York, London: The Macmillan Company, 1907.
Addams, Jane. Twenty Years At Hull-house: With Autobiographical Notes. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911.
Deegan, Mary Jo. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988.
Dewey, John. Lectures, Volume 1: Political Philosophy, Logic, Ethics. Ed. Koch, Donald F., and The Center for Dewey Studies, 2016.
History is, essentially, the stories of individual people and the interconnectedness of their stories to each other and to the broader history of their communities, their societies, and their world. The intersections of the lives of the historical figures who occupy my historical imagination are fascinating to me, and the people who inspired them are always central to the development of my understanding about their lives and the historical space they occupied. Jane Addams, for example, was an inspiration to an entire generation of female reformers who lived and worked at Hull-House, and the individual work those women pursued made an important impact on Addams’s world view, her writing, and her advocacy for social and economic justice. As well, her fascination with Tolstoy and her childhood memories of Abraham Lincoln offer us insights into the development of her ideas, her ideals, and her visions for reform.
As a historian, I spend a great deal of time thinking about these human connections of the past. The close relationships of the historical figures I study—like the intimate friendship between Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith or the professional relationship Addams shared with reformer and settlement worker Lillian Wald—offer obvious clues about Addams’s personal and professional life. The intersection of these particular personal stories tell me much about the lives of women in the first part of the 20th century, the network of Progressive Era reformers, and the conditions of life in the urban environments of Chicago and New York City. But as an enthusiast of the past, it really gets interesting for me when I chance upon an unexpected or less obvious historical connection. It is particularly thrilling when that connection also resonates in some way with my own personal story or relates to other historical interests I entertain.
Recently, I was doing some editorial work on a set of documents dated just days after American entry into WWI. One document was a letter to Jane Addams, dated April 9, 1917:
My Dear Friend:
What shall I do? This war breaks my heart. Send me what you have written since [William Jennings] Bryan enlisted — for instance. Are you with Bryan? Do you accept President Wilson’s war message on its face value? Is that final with you?
I hate a hyphenated American. I hate war. But I owe no one in Europe a grudge. I would rather be shot than shoot anybody. If I had been in Congress I would have voted with Miss [Jeannette] Rankin and would have considered it a sufficient reason to say “I will not vote for war till she does.”
Please write me a tract, or send a clipping. With all respect
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
Vachel Lindsay was a poet and performing artist who is relatively unknown today. He lived and worked in Springfield, Illinois, where I lived and work myself for more than twenty years;, and, therefore, I am well acquainted with his body of work and the story of his life. When I read his letter to Addams, I recalled that Lindsay had written a poem about her, inspired by her peace trip to Europe in 1915. However, I was unaware he knew Addams personally nor that he had corresponded with her. The Jane Addams Digital Edition includes four letters from Lindsay to Addams, each revealing something of the poet’s respect for and fascination with Addams and with Hull-House. In an October 1916 letter, Lindsay proclaimed: “I have loved you a long time dear lady.”
That love had, indeed, inspired the poem I had remembered, “To Jane Addams at The Hague,” which Lindsay first published in the Chicago Herald in May 1915 and later as part of his popular 1917 collection The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems.
In the 1910s, Lindsay spent time in Chicago performing his poems and seeing his literary friends, including the poet and magazine editor Harriet Monroe, with whom Addams was also acquainted. Lindsay frequented Hull-House, where his good friend George Hooker was a resident, and it seems likely he enjoyed at least one or two good talks with Addams. It is unclear when he might have been formally introduced to her, but in April 1916 he wrote her a letter indicating they had been corresponding for some time. That letter was a reply to a letter from Addams, and in it Lindsay sent her his wish that they may soon see a moving picture show together. There are no known extant letters of Jane Addams to Vachel Lindsay, but the content of his letters to her indicates she had some interest in the young man and his work, and in a speech in 1922, she quoted Lindsay’s analysis of the new medium of the movies in modern society.
Lindsay, who was associated with a group of celebrated Chicago writers that included Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, was a creative and somewhat eccentric young man. He traveled the country on foot, selling his poems to support himself, and he popularized for a time the chanting and singing of poems, often performing them with musical and dance accompaniments. In December 1916, Lindsay invited Addams to one of those performances at the Little Theatre in Chicago. It is unclear if she attended, but there is evidence she invited Lindsay to Hull-House on a few occasions. In October of that year, Addams sent Lindsay a copy of her book The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, and in his letter of thanks he wrote: “I sat down and read it all morning and half the afternoon the minute it arrived. It is a lovely book—the work of a Greek, a woman more Greek than Christian.”
The fact that Lindsay, who was a progressive thinker, admired Jane Addams and her work is not surprising. Addams and Hull-House inspired many artists and writers, as well as reformers and social workers. Nor is it surprising that Lindsay, who spent time in Chicago and who interacted with people in the orbit of Hull-House, had a personal acquaintance with the famed settlement worker. What is surprising, and fascinating, too, is that Lindsay experienced a strong emotional connection to Addams. His friendship with her his touched soul, as one biographer put it. Lindsay looked to Addams for answers about his anxieties related to the war, sought her approval of his work, and shared with her his fears about failure. “Back of it all is the hope that my book shall be a live thing—a piece of ink-dynamite, not just a book pleasantly discussed by people who read my verses,” he wrote Addams in 1916. “With so many books dying before my eyes—I cannot bear to write a dead one.”
Lindsay had experienced his first hallucinations in 1904, initial signs of the future mental illness that would ultimately cost his him his life; and his breakup with the poet Sara Teasdale in 1914 had been emotionally traumatic for the poet. But by 1916, Lindsay was enjoying considerable literary success, winning awards and selling books. Although four letters is far, far, far from enough evidence to evaluate the emotional importance Lindsay may have been attaching to his friendship with Addams, a close reading of the letters, however, evokes a whisper of the mental distress that was coming. There is a breathless quality to the words and the sentences, and the letters leave me wondering what kind of advice or encouragement Jane Addams may have offered Lindsay in their face-to-face interactions with each other. It is unlikely we will ever know.
What I know for certain, however, is that the relationship between Lindsay and Addams, despite what it may have meant to her on a personal level, is an example of the richness of the interconnectedness of human stories, the broader sphere of one person’s influence in the world. In this case, it speaks to the significance of Jane Addams as an inspirational figure. But it is also one of those delightful connections I am happy to chance upon, which light a spark in my historical imagination and connect my own story to the stories of the past.
Notes: Anna Massa, Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970, 17, 46, 100-101, 202; Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life O Vachel Lindsay (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959), 240, 247, 258; “Lindsay, Vachel (1879-1931), American National Biography; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, October 15, 1916; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, October 29, 1916; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, April 9, 1917; Vachel Lindsay to Jane Addams, June 26, 1917, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) was a Democratic politician from Nebraska. In April 1917, he offered his services to the government in the war effort. American National Biography. Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), a peace activist and Republican politician from Montana, was the first woman to serve in Congress. She voted against the American declaration of war against Germany in 1917. American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. The image of Lindsay is courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Once upon a time in Chicago, there was an ambitious little politician who decided to make a name for himself by picking a fight with the women of Hull-House. For a man who built things for a living, perhaps he should have known better than to employ a political strategy of burning down the house. But he was new to politics, and he did not know better. He saw his path to power in the persona of “Battling Peter,” who would rattle the foundations of the city’s social reform structures to raise his voice above the progressive din. His political strategy was to attack social reformers in the city, particularly the female ones, and the institutions they supported.
Peter Bartzen, a 61-year-old proprietor of a mason and carpentry business, was that politician. The office he sought was President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. During the fall of 1910, the fiery Democrat campaigned for that office by denouncing what he called the “hypocritical horde of reformers,” particularly the women of Hull-House. Politically ambitious with his eyes on a future gubernatorial run, Bartzen was a political novice. His only political experience was a four-year stint as an appointed building commissioner. To be governor, he needed a political victory and a message to launch his political career. With an “aggressive personality,” Bartzen decided to make a name for himself by whipping up foment against his city’s “child savers” and meddling do-gooders.
Bartzen was not a popular candidate, but the incumbent he hoped to unseat was not all that popular, either. Bartzen, who was not widely known, won the election on the coattails of a historic Democratic sweep, the county Democrats upsetting Republicans who had held power for sixteen years. The women Bartzen had maligned during his campaign for office had no direct say in the election, because women in Chicago, in Illinois, and in most states across the country, could not vote. No doubt that is precisely why Bartzen was so comfortable in his attacks against them. But when Bartzen took his seat, many prominent women reformers in Chicago set their watchful eyes upon the pesky, provocative politician.
During his first year in office, Bartzen did much to earn the disdain of Chicago reformers. For instance, he took aim at many of the county’s social service institutions, arguing that they were doing more harm than good to the county’s children and their families. In particular, he launched a full-scale investigation of the Chicago Juvenile Court in July 1911 in an effort to dismantle it. At the same time, Bartzen wholeheartedly embraced the long Chicago tradition of the spoils system by appointing his political allies to various posts under his authority, including some within the court itself. When Bartzen removed the juvenile court’s chief probation officer John Witter, a professional hired through the civil service system, he renewed his personal attacks against Hull-House, as well. In a public statement about Witter’s firing, Bartzen said: “It looks as if Mr. Witter has been under the influence of Hull-House. He ought not to be listening to a bunch of old women all the time.”
That bunch of old women was led by the 51-year-old Jane Addams, a nationally respected and beloved social reformer, and the 53-year-old Julia Lathrop, who helped found the influential Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and was one of the city’s most prominent proponents of the Chicago Juvenile Court. Both of the women were a decade younger than Bartzen, but he dismissed them as members of the weaker sex, with no right to their opinions let alone their influence. Bartzen’s position was a powerful one. He presided over a fifteen-member board that controlled some $10 million and managed much of the county’s infrastructure and its public institutions, including its civil service system. But the city’s community of social reformers was also powerful, and Bartzen underestimated the women who led them.
In September 1911, Bartzen’s fight with the women of Hull-House escalated. When he made a particular play to discredit the work of the Chicago Juvenile Court and the Illinois Industrial School for Girls, Julia Lathrop fired back. In a public speech, Lathrop responded: “Both attacks have been made for the purposes of political capital…The noble minded women who have been working for the salvation of Chicago’s children made some errors. They were not serious errors, but they were enough to give politicians a peg on which to hang an investigation.” The court had suffered some growing pains, but the court’s founders and supporters were willing to recognize problems and work to correct them. As well, the Chicago Woman’s Club and the Juvenile Protective Association, which included some very well-heeled and outspoken women, loudly reaffirmed their support of the institution in the wake of what they believed were unwarranted, politically motivated attacks against it.
Reformers in Chicago were eager to defend the court and its mission to help disadvantaged youth escape the harsh justice of the criminal courts. They were growing particularly concerned about Bartzen replacing qualified probation officers working with the juvenile court with political hacks. Just days after Lathrop’s defensive stand against Bartzen, Dr. James A. Britton, the chief medical officer of the city’s juvenile home, resigned his post in protest. He charged that Bartzen was thumbing his nose at civil service law, which provided qualified professional probation officers to the juvenile court, and that Bartzen was “loading up the county service with political friends.” Britton was a Hull-House resident and the husband of Gertrude Howe Britton, another Hull-House resident, who was also affiliated with the Juvenile Protective Association. Mrs. Britton was just 43-years-old, but Bartzen no doubt dismissed her, and likely her husband, too, as meddling Hull-House do-gooders. Bartzan was leaving in his political wake a long list of scorned old women at Hull-House.
During the next year, Bartzen did not change his colors, and neither did the old women of Hull-House. Bartzen continued to undermine the civil service system and threaten the life of the city’s social institutions; and the city’s reformers grew increasingly certain Bartzen was a dangerous political incumbent. In the fall of 1912, Jane Addams decided to beat Bartzen at his own game: politics. She led a group of the city’s reform-minded citizens, most of them men with political clout, to select a candidate to defeat Bartzen in the November 1912 election. The committee chose Alexander A. McCormick, a former newspaper editor and progressive thinker. In August, Addams sent a telegram home to Chicago while she was vacationing in Maine, indicating the reformers’ choice: “Social workers have much to do in persuading A A McCormick to run for president of county board.” Addams believed a failure to defeat Bartzen would spell the “destruction of juvenile court.”
McCormick agreed to run on a Progressive Party ticket, and Addams’s political committee went to work. The campaign against Bartzen was ruthless, focused as it was on exposing him as a danger to the county’s most vulnerable citizens. Women led the charge, giving speeches and writing letters. On Nov. 2, 1912, on the Saturday just before the election, Addams and her committee behind McCormick published in the Chicago newspapers a signed circular entitled “Call to Public Service in the Interest of the Poor, Sick, Aged and Injured, and the Helpless Children of Chicago and Cook County.” The document skewered Bartzen’s policies, accused him of wasting public funds, asserted his guilt in “crimes of neglect and mismanagement of the Cook County Hospital,” and called his attack on the juvenile court “misleading and fraudulent.” In summary, the circular cautioned readers: “A vote for Peter Bartzen means a vote for the continued demoralization of all the public service institutions of the county, on which Bartzen and his henchmen have feasted while the dependents of the county have starved and been neglected.”
It is true that 1912 was a weird political year, with the role of a spunky third party mixing things up at the local, state, and national levels. The “Bull Moose” factor definitely influenced the Cook County elections. However, Bartzen’s particular reelection chances appeared to have lost traction on the heels of Chicago’s old women weighing in so loudly on his political record. Bartzen’s political strategy of picking a fight with Hull-House and Chicago’s most respected citizen backfired, and he lost the election.
The ambitious little politician had underestimated the old women at Hull-House and the political power they could garner, even without the right to vote for themselves. Bartzen not only lost this election, but he did not become the governor of Illinois, either. Even his obituary in 1933 dismissed his brief political career as minor, remembering his tenure as “anything but peaceful.” In the end, “Battling Peter” lost his battle against the battle-tested old women of Hull-House. While those women continued to make their positive marks on the history of Chicago, history resigned Bartzen to the political dustbin.
In 1914, Jane Addams published an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal in which she hailed the value of women over the age of fifty. “The weariness and dullness, which inhere in both domestic and social affairs when they are carried on by men alone, will no longer be a necessary attribute of public life when such gracious and gray-haired women become a part of it,” she wrote. “Ever-widening channels are gradually being provided through which woman’s increasing moral energy may flow, and it is not too much to predict that in the end public affairs will be amazingly revivified from those new fountainheads fed in the upper reaches of woman’s matured capacity.”
In the article, Addams shouted praise to “old” women like Ella Flagg Young, the Chicago Superintendent of Schools; novelist Edith Wharton; and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, the long-running president of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. Jane Addams knew the fight that resided in the hearts of experienced, capable, older women. She understood the beautiful extent of possibilities for women who used their talents for the betterment of their communities and the world. Peter Bartzen probably didn’t read that Ladies’ Home Journal article, and he may have never admitted to himself or to anyone else that he had been undone by women. Who knows if he harbored any regrets about his brief political career or the choices he made to conduct it.
The story of the politician and the old women of Hull-House is not a fairytale in which the villains are defeated and heroes in the story live happily ever after. Real life is more complicated than that. But this story is, perhaps, a fable Aesop himself may have written if he had lived in Chicago during the Progressive Era, when Jane Addams and scores of smart, capable, and commanding older women roamed the city’s dirty streets in order to clean them up. The moral of that fable is this: Beware the people you look past in your blind ambition; beware the people who seem to be precisely what you assume, unthreatening and unworthy of your respect. They might just turn out to be the clever, unrelenting, powerful force that becomes the fatal obstacle you never expected.
By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor
Notes: David S. Tanenhaus, Juvenile Justice in the Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 82-110; Albert Nelson Marquis, ed., Book of Chicagoans, 1911 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Co., 1911), 42-43; Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947; Witter v. County Commissioners, 256 Ill. 616 (1912); “Editorial Musings,” The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), Nov. 4, 1910, p. 1; Letter, Nov. 5, 1910, “Busse-Deneen Ring Is Smashed in Cook County by Democratic Victory,” Nov. 9, 1910, p. 1; “Would End Juvenile Court,” Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1911, p. 7; “Fight New Child Court Idea,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 1911, p. 4; “Bartzen Scored by Julia Lathrop,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 24, 1911, p. 5; “Physician Quits Bartzen Regime,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 26, 1911, p. 3; “Call to Public Service,” Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Sociologists Say Bartzen Is Menace,” The Inter Ocean (Chicago), Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Chicago Women, In Humane Plea, Flay Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 2, 1912, p. 1; “Save the Helpless From Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 4, 1912, p. 6; “Old and New County Board Presidents Shake Hands,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1912, p. 3; “Peter Bartzen, Old Political Battler, Dead,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1933, p. 1; Jane Addams to Julia Clifford Lathrop, August 7, 1911; Endorsement for Alexander McCormick for Cook County Board of Commissioners, 1912; Jane Addams to Alexander Agnew McCormick, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Charles E. Merriam, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Raymond Robins, August 21, 1912; Raymond Robins to Jane Addams, August 22, 1912; Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old?, October, 1914, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.
For the twenty years I edited Abraham Lincoln’s papers, I never had a strong desire to own a Lincoln document. Well, let’s be honest, I never made enough money to buy a Lincoln document. Even a clipped Lincoln signature will set you back a few grand. Instead, my Lincoln collection included a bookcase full of Lincoln mass-market biographies and edited volumes, a nice bust, one significant historic print, a few mugs, salt and pepper shakers, and a weird-but-adorable Lincoln rubber ducky.
My Lincoln collecting was not at all sophisticated, based as it was on a scholarly editor’s pocketbook, but it was great fun and it still gives me much joy. Looking back on my collection now, I understand the value of my kitschy Lincoln stuff for the giggle it inspired in me as I conducted my serious scholarly work and for the little breather it provided from the rarified air of academic history. History should be fun, darn it, and part of the reason I think so many Americans find history boring is because they had teachers who squeezed no fun out of history at all.
I am a historian who squeezes a great deal of fun from the work I am lucky to do. I am also a historian who embraces my historical subjects with a big hug, leaning in and opening my heart as well as my head to my work. I am passionate about finding the humanity of the historical figures I study. I think at least in part, the fun I had collecting Lincolniana humanized Lincoln for me and humanized the scholar in me, too. It allowed me to see Lincoln as a man (and a bobblehead), not as a god or a myth, and to allow my work to delight me. My editing work made an important contribution to Lincoln scholarship, but allowing humor and humanity into the work provided me with balance. My joyful approach to Lincoln rooted my feet to the ground, where history actually lives, and kept my head out of the ivory tower, where history is sometimes self-important and inaccessible.
When I started working for the Jane Addams Papers Project in January 2017, I naturally approached Jane Addams in the same way I had approached Lincoln. Joy and a sense of fun balanced my very serious effort to get to know the woman and the social reformer Addams was, to understand her era, and to learn all I could about the fascinating historical contexts of her life. In the beginning of my work with the project, I immersed myself in biographies about Addams, and I studied her surviving correspondence, the speeches she delivered, and the articles and books she published. However, I also immediately coveted the Jane Addams doll that was sitting on a shelf in the project’s offices in New Jersey. All work and no fun is just not my style.
It took a few weeks, but I found said doll on eBay for $10, and Jane the Doll has been sitting next to or on my desk ever since. In her smart gray frock and sensible black hat she stands, with a slight muppet-like smile, holding her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House under her arm and wearing her Nobel Peace Prize medal around her neck. To me, Jane the Doll is a muse, of sorts, juxtaposed as it is to the ever more solemn nature of the life-changing reform work in which the real Jane Addams was engaged. I also like that the doll is the silly to Jane Addams’s serious. It is, as well, a daily physical reminder that while my work may be a scholarly business, it is also an honor and a pleasure. I actually get paid to do work I love, so why not embrace the passion and the fun within it.
As I did with Lincoln for twenty years, I now do with Jane Addams. I balance the serious with the silly. I admit it is sometimes harder to find the funny bone in Miss Addams than it was to find it in Mr. Lincoln, but that is no bar to my finding levity in the painstaking and labor-intensive scholarly editing work I do. Collecting my subjects is my way of bringing fun into my life as a historian, so it was exciting for me to learn it will be well within my financial reach to collect first editions of each of Jane Addams’s published books (five already down six to go!). Although memorabilia of Addams is far more rare than it is for Lincoln, in my growing collection of Addams kitsch, I have already added a peace poster for the wall, buttons with “I Love Jane Addams” and “I love Peace,” a coffee mug, and a “Peace, Love, and Jane Addams” t-shirt. Only recently, however, did I realize that a Jane Addams document could be available to me for purchase.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for a Lincoln event and to meet up with a group of people who have come into my life through our shared interest in Abraham Lincoln. One of those people who joined me in the sunny beer garden across from the Lincoln Home that afternoon brought me a surprise from the rare bookshop where he works: a printed calling card signed by Jane Addams! It is not a historically important note or a romantic letter to Jane’s beloved Mary Rozet Smith. It is not large, measuring just a 3½ by 2¼ inches. It is not in perfect condition, either. In fact, it has some damage on the printed side from glue which held it in position in an album or adhered it to matting within a frame, and one blob of gluey residue obscures the printed script of “Hull-House.” However, the handwritten side is pristine and features legible-for-Jane-Addams scrawl and her characteristic loopy signature. It is a humble document, indeed, but its imperfections do not lessen my enchantment with it.
Holding that little note in my hands for the first time tendered a tangible spark through my fingers and up to my heart, sending me back in time 100 years. To noisy, dirty, Progressive-Era Chicago. To Hull-House in the city’s impoverished and overcrowded 19th Ward. To Jane Addams, “the world’s best-known and best-loved woman” of her time, standing in the doorway. Handling a historic document has always been for me a kind of handshake with the historical figure of the past who wrote it. Over the years of searching for Lincoln documents in repositories across the country, I shook hands with Lincoln a great many times. But because I work with digital copies of documents at the Addams Papers, this was the first time I had the pleasure of this special and particular introduction to Addams. My day trip to Springfield got even better when I carried that little scrap of Jane Addams handwriting home for fifty times less than it would have cost me had Abraham Lincoln been the one who had penned it.
It annoys me to know that the manuscript market is as sexist as the world. To deem as practically worthless a handwritten note with a fine signature, written by a woman who was the most significant reformer of the Progressive Era, is, I think, almost a crime. But the market’s misjudgment and loss is my gain, allowing me to own a piece of historical magic. My little Jane Addams note is priceless to me. It is the star of my collection of Addamsiana, and I plan to have it conserved and encased in a two-sided archival frame. I do not have aspirations to collect additional documents in the hand of Jane Addams. This one will be enough for me (at least for now, I think). It conjures the handshake, inspires my joy, and provides a palpable human connection to a woman I get to hang out with five days a week.
Anyway, from the perspective of historical memorabilia, in going from a $1 Lincoln rubber ducky to a signed Addams note worth about 100 bucks, I’ve come a long way, baby. Maybe not the equivalent of Jane Addams getting the right to vote, but still super cool for this historian, who is having way too much fun.
By Anya Jabour, Regents Professor of History, University of Montana
The subject of my new book, Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America, worked closely with Jane Addams for decades. The two women, along with other reformers affiliated with Hull House, championed labor legislation, provided services to immigrants, promoted woman suffrage, and advocated for world peace. Together, they were a powerful force for social justice.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Breckinridge came to Chicago to pursue higher education at the coeducational University of Chicago. After earning her M.A. (1897) and Ph.D. (1901) in political science, she graduated with her J.D. (1904) at the top of the Law School’s first graduating class. After completing her coursework, Breckinridge taught a pioneering course on “The Legal and Economic Position of Women” that brought her into contact with the Second City’s labor organizers and social reformers.
Breckinridge’s concern about the plight of working women initiated her long association with Hull House and its head resident, Jane Addams. In 1905, at Addams’s suggestion, she accepted an appointment as Inspector of Yards, investigating the working conditions of women in Chicago’s infamous stockyard district. Breckinridge spent more than four months inspecting the facilities and interviewing the employees of “Packingtown,” mostly immigrant girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 22.Working in cold, windowless rooms and standing on “dirty, blood-soaked, rotting wooden floors” for ten hours a day, the workers “toil[ed] without relief in a humid atmosphere heavy with the odors of rotten wood, decayed meats, stinking offal,” and human waste from the doorless privies that vented directly into the workrooms.Breckinridge found her task exhausting, both physically and emotionally.To Addams, she confessed, “I was getting where I could not sleep—the vision of the day’s work presses in so!Not my own day’s work—but that of the crews of girls I see marching past me now.”
Breckinridge translated her emotional response to women workers’ abysmal working conditions into social scientific scholarship and policy recommendations. In addition to publishing her study on women workers in the stockyards, she reported her findings to the U.S. Labor Department. With the support of settlement house workers, clubwomen, and trade unionists, she helped persuade the department to provide funding for a full-scale investigation. Ultimately, the nineteen-volume report on the working conditions of wage-earning women and children, published between 1910 and 1913, provided the basis for the establishment of two new federal bureaus, the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the U.S. Women’s Bureau. These government agencies would advocate for a ban on child labor and better working conditions for women for decades to come.
Breckinridge’s work with Addams on behalf of working women soon led to an invitation to live and work at Hull House. As Russell Ballard, one of the few male residents of Hull House, expressed it, “a brilliant company of women were drawn to the settlement to pioneer in the promotion of social change. The scholarly and talented Sophonisba Breckinridge joined the company in 1907 to become one of Miss Addams’ closest friends and most helpful associates.” Although her responsibilities at the University of Chicago prevented her from living at Hull House full-time, Breckinridge spent all of her vacation quarters—and much of her limited free time—at Hull-House, where she was listed as an official “resident” from 1907 until 1921.
Breckinridge became one of Addams’s closest colleagues. She helped to raise funds for the settlement, served as a substitute speaker when Addams was unavailable, and assisted Addams with her correspondence. Breckinridge’s papers are filled with hastily scrawled notes from Addams, invariably beginning with the exclamatory greeting “Dear Lady!” and closing, “Hastily yours, Jane Addams.” In response to such letters, Breckinridge assisted Addams in innumerable ways, both large and small, leading Addams to close one typical letter asking Breckinridge to perform a task, “I do hope that I am not putting too many things ‘off’ on you.” Breckinridge always came through for Addams, signing one letter, “Yours to command always.”
Soon after Breckinridge took up residence at Hull House, she joined a special committee investigating the conditions confronting young single immigrant women who arrived in the city, lost and alone and vulnerable to both sexual and economic exploitation. A typical case was that of Bozena, “a nice young Bohemian immigrant girl” who was “so eager for work . . . that she had taken the first job she could find—in a saloon.” As fellow Hull House resident Edith Abbott, Breckinridge’s colleague at the University of Chicago, explained: “The saloonkeeper had abused her shamefully and then turned her out when he found that she was to become the mother of his illegitimate child.”
Hull House residents helped Bozena file charges, obtain childcare, learn English, gain citizenship, and find work. But Breckinridge and Addams soon realized that the problem of “lost immigrant girls”—as well as the difficulties confronting immigrant men and children—was too widespread for existing service agencies to address. As Addams explained the problem:
Every year we have heard of girls who did not arrive when their families expected them, and although their parents frantically met one train after another, the ultimate fate of the girls could never be discovered; we have constantly seen the exploitation of the newly arrived immigrant by his shrewd countrymen in league with the unscrupulous American; from time to time we have known children detained in New York and even deported whose parents had no clear understanding of the difficulty.
With Addams’s enthusiastic support, Breckinridge proposed the creation of a new organization, and the Immigrants’ Protective League was established in 1908. As Abbott recalled: “This problem of the unaccompanied girls proved to be challenging; but nothing that ought to be done seemed impossible to Miss Breckinridge!”
The Immigrants’ Protective League provided essential assistance to Chicago’s immigrants—women, men, and children. One of the League’s first major accomplishments was establishing “a kind of immigration station” to welcome new arrivals. Immigrants who arrived in Chicago by train met with League agents—chosen to represent the nationalities and speak the languages of their clients— who helped orient newcomers to the city. Agents provided new arrivals with information about employment opportunities, social services, and evening classes. One of the principal goals of the League was to protect immigrants from exploitation. At the welcome station, agents helped new arrivals steer clear of unscrupulous cab drivers, fraudulent employment agents, and the ever-present “cadets” who recruited young women into prostitution. Breckinridge also persuaded local women’s clubs to provide funds for the League to provide temporary lodging for young immigrant women. In only four years, the League served close to 80,000 immigrants at its welcome station.
Breckinridge and Addams continued to team up to advance social reform. In 1911, they were elected vice-presidents of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Under their leadership, the Second City quickly became a “stronghold for the cause.” However, internal dissension caused both women to dread meetings of the national board, which Addams compared to being immersed in “boiling oil.”
Tensions came to a head in Fall 1912, when Breckinridge and Addams, in defiance of the suffrage organization’s traditional commitment to non-partisanship, declared their support for Progressive Party presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt. Addams, Breckinridge, and other activists not only convinced the third-party candidate to support woman suffrage, but also helped to shape the Progressive Party’s agenda. The third-party platform, known as the “Contract with the People,” was modeled on the “Platform of Industrial Minimums” adopted at the 1912 National Conference of Charities and Corrections, where both Breckinridge and Addams played prominent roles. The platform included demands for a “living wage,” unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation for all workers, as well as special protections for women and children in the workforce.
However, Breckinridge and Addams failed to convince NAWSA leadership that the suffrage movement should use party politics to promote either women’s rights or social welfare. Instead, president Anna Howard Shaw publicly denounced “party ties.” This uncomfortable situation led both Addams and Breckinridge to resign their posts after only a year in office.
Although they remained active in the suffrage movement, after leaving office, Breckinridge and Adams shifted their focus away from NAWSA and toward the Woman’s Peace Party, which they co-founded in 1915 in response to armed conflict in Europe—what would later become known as World War I. The Woman’s Peace Party was the first U.S. pacifist group to treat “peace as a women’s issue.” Many members believed that women had a special responsibility to protect life and thus to prevent war. The party preamble and platform called on women, as “the mother half of humanity,” to oppose the “reckless destruction” of human life resulting from warfare. At the same time that they emphasized women’s special responsibility for peace work, feminist pacifists also demanded equal political rights for women. Believing that women’s full participation in the political process was essential to ending global conflict, members of the Woman’s Peace Party worked for both women’s rights and world peace.
As chairperson and treasurer of the Woman’s Peace Party, respectively, Addams and Breckinridge represented the new organization at an international feminist-pacifist gathering known as the International Congress of Women and held at The Hague in 1915. The Congress enthusiastically adopted many of the measures proposed by the U.S. representatives, calling for the creation of an international peacekeeping body, national self-determination for all countries, and equal political participation for women. Following the Congress, two delegations visited political and religious leaders of both neutral and belligerent nations. When Addams, who participated in the visits, returned home, she did so as the first president of the new International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace.
Addams, Breckinridge, and other members of the Woman’s Peace Party took the lead in attempts to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing war. After Addams returned to the United States, she and Breckinridge worked with both male and female pacifists in Chicago and New York to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to intervene in the European conflict as a neutral intermediary. Addams hand-picked Breckinridge for a special committee assigned to consult with other pacifists within and beyond the U.S. on strategies to “make propositions to the belligerenets [sic] in the spirit of constructive internationalism.”
Throughout the war, Addams, Breckinridge, and other members of the Woman’s Peace Party pressured President Wilson to intervene in the war to produce a “negotiated peace.” Wilson had made initial overtures in this direction at the war’s outset, but his offer was rebuffed. Thereafter, Wilson adopted a pose of watchful waiting. Although he steadfastly maintained his intention to offer mediation when the time seemed propitious, that time never arrived. However, Wilson’s willingness to meet with pacifist delegations, his cordial relationship with Addams, and his assurances that he considered the women’s proposals at The Hague “by far the best formulation” for world peace, encouraged the pacifist women to continue their efforts.
Addams and Breckinridge continued their search for ways to prevent U.S. entry into the conflict, to end the war, and to prevent future wars. In the aftermath of the Lusitania episode, they urged President Wilson to steer clear of what they called “a preposterous ‘preparedness’ against hypothetical dangers” and instead to provide “the epochal service which this world crisis offers for the establishment of permanent peace”—that is, to offer his services to mediate the ongoing conflict. Subsequently, they appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee of Foreign Affairs to express their support for a House Joint Resolution proposal to establish a “Commission for Enduring Peace.”
Despite their best efforts, American pacifists were unable either to halt the ongoing war or to prevent the United States’ entry into it. Once hostilities ceased, Breckinridge and Addams—now part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—sought new routes to “enduring peace.” They achieved a partial victory in the establishment of the League of Nations, which incorporated many of the principles adopted at the International Congress of Women. Although the U.S. failed to join the new organization, Addams and Breckinridge persisted in promoting their vision of a peaceful postwar world. In 1923, they discussed submitting “our” set of principles for the American Peace Award. The plan that Breckinridge and Addams proposed called for the United States to join the World Court and the League of Nations. They also demanded that the U.S. military refrain from defending the interests of private businesses abroad, that the U.S. end both the production and the sale of armaments, and that the U.S. cooperate with other nations in a process of universal disarmament. Finally, they recommended “cancelling or reducing debts due to the United States” from the other Allied countries in return for an agreement to “divide the costs of commissions hitherto charged against Germany alone equally between Germany and the former allies” and offering “a long moratorium to Germany” to allow that nation “eventually to pay the balance on her reparations debt as estimated by an impartial commission of experts to be constituted for the purpose.” Addams’s and Breckinridge’s joint plan thus called for the United States to promote peace not only by agreeing to abide by arbitration in future disputes and participating in a process of universal disarmament, but also by removing the reasons for rising resentment in Germany that would soon allow Adolf Hitler to rise to power. Sadly, their plan was never implemented. Nonetheless, in the years after the Second World War, many of their ideas would be adopted by the United Nations.
Addams and Breckinridge were not always fully successful in their efforts to promote social justice, but they shared a passion for justice that allowed them to persist in the face of difficulties and setbacks. Their collaboration with one another and with fellow reformers also enabled them to meet challenges with strong resolve and good cheer. Together, Addams and Breckinridge were a powerful force for social justice.
Coda: Because Breckinridge’s own papers, while extensive, are comparatively scant for the Progressive Era, to conduct my research on these decades of her life, I relied heavily on the 82-reel microfilmed edition of the Jane Addams Papers and the accompanying “Pink Bible,” the 674-page guide to the microfilm collection, created with the guidance of Jane Addams Papers Project founder Mary Lynn Bryan. I am delighted that future researchers’ work will be facilitated by the next generation of the Jane Addams Paper Project, spearheaded by Cathy Moran Hajo, which will make the Jane Addams Papers accessible in a digital format.
Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana. Her books include Topsy-Turvy: How the Civil War Turned the World Upside Down for Southern Children and Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South
Abbott, Edith, and Breckinridge, Sophonisba P. “Women in Industry: The Chicago Stockyards,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 19, No. 8 (October 1911), 632-654.
Addams, Jane. “Woman’s Suffrage and the Progressive Party,” Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1912, pg. 9.
Addams, Jane, Balch, Emily G., and Hamilton, Alice. Women at the Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results (New York: Macmillan Company, 1915).
Alonso, Harriet Hyman. Peace as a Women’s Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women’s Rights (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993).
Ballard, Russell. “The Years at Hull House,” Social Service Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec. 1948), 432-433.
Brush, Mary Isabel. “Society Leaders Will Promote Suffrage Cause in Chicago’s Fashionable Circles: National Association to Open Branch,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 24, 1911, pg. 13.
Bryan, Mary Lynn McCree, et al., eds., The Jane Addams Papers: A Comprehensive Guide (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996)
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“Charity Honors for Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1912, pg. 13.
Commission for Enduring Peace: Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Sixty-Fourth Congress, First Session, on H.R. 6921 and H.J. Res. 32, Statement of Miss Jane Addams and Others, January 11, 1916 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1916),10-12.
“Conditions in Stockyards Described in the Neill-Reynolds Report,” Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1906, pg. 4
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Gonzalez, Suronda. “Complicating Citizenship: Grace Abbott and the Immigrants’ Protective League, 1908-1921,” Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 1998), 56-75.
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Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge Papers (microfilm), Breckinridge Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
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Wade, Louise C. “The Heritage from Chicago’s Early Settlement Houses,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter 1967), 411-441.
“Warns Women of Illinois: Dr. Anna H. Shaw Advises Suffragists to Avoid Party Ties,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1912, p. 5.
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“Woman Puts O.K. on Neill Report,” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1906, pg. 2.
Mary Rozet Smith was well-loved by a long list of extraordinary, historically important women who came through the doors of Hull-House in Chicago. From 1889, when she first visited the settlement and met its young, then unknown founder Jane Addams, until 1934, when she died suddenly of pneumonia at the age of sixty-five, Smith was an unwavering supporter of Hull-House, its residents, and its activities. She became, along with her wealthy and generous family, one of Hull-House’s most important donors. She was also for nearly forty years the dearest friend and most intimate companion of the incomparable Jane Addams. Yet Mary Rozet Smith remains something of a mystery.
Despite her importance to the story of Hull-House and to the personal life of Jane Addams, Mary Smith is an elusive wisp of a historical figure. She was, apparently, content in the shadows, wanting nothing more, or so it seems, than to be generous, to be a devoted daughter, to be a cherished friend, and to be a special confidant of Jane Addams. Mary Smith’s proximity to the most famous social experiment in American history could have made her a valuable witness and informant of that history. Instead, she left historians very few clues about her life, and the loss of her letters to Jane Addams deprive us not only of her voice in that relationship but also of her own importance as a Chicago philanthropist. As Jane Addams’ nephew James Linn wrote in his biography of his beloved aunt: “the interests of [Hull-House] remained the center of her own interests, and the friendship of Mary Smith soon became and always remained the highest and clearest note in the music of Jane Addams’s personal life.”
Just after Mary Smith died, long-time Hull-House resident Dr. Alice Hamilton wrote her sister from Chicago: “I can’t look at my grief over Mary because I should lose my grip. When I came out here I told Mary that she must get well, that she could live on without J. A., but J. A. could not live without her.” Jane Addams had suffered a second heart attack and died just thirteen months after Smith, so the statement was, perhaps, prophetic. But more importantly, what resonates in Hamilton’s words and in Linn’s words, too, is the centrality of Mary Rozet Smith to the Hull-House universe. She was embedded in the heartbeat of the institution and its women, and to one woman in particular, Jane Addams, she offered quiet domestic solace to balance the chaos of public life. However, we cannot truly know who Mary Rozet Smith was, because there is so little evidence of her activities found in newspapers, pubic documents, and organizational records; and, most unfortunately, very few of her own words survive her.
As I work on the annotation for Vol. 4 of the Selected Papers of Jane Addams, covering the years 1901-1913, and as I research and write the more than 100 footnotes about Mary Rozet Smith that will appear in the volume, I am missing her voice. When I read any of the seventy-three letters Jane Addams wrote to her during that period, I mourn the loss of her letters to Addams. Not a single letter of hers to Addams survives from those years, and I sometimes curse Jane Addams for destroying correspondence which would, I suspect, provide rich context not only for their relationship but also for Smith’s engagement as a sister of Hull-House. I am editing Addams’ papers and not Smith’s, I know, but I also know we are impoverished in our ability to fully contextualize Addams’ letters without Smith’s corresponding letters. One-sided correspondence is always a disappointment to the historian, who is left by the absent voice of one of the correspondents to answer the historical questions they raise and to ponder the important historical contexts they inspire with half of the pieces of the puzzle missing.
We have selected thirty of Addams’ letters to Smith for Vol. 4, and on their own they are rich, filled with the details of Addams’ reform activities, her writing habits, her ideas, her public speaking, and her daily life. They are also filled with details of the travels of Addams and Smith, of their health, of their shared concern for each other’s families, of their shared network of friends, and of their frequent separations from each other, due to Smith’s illnesses and Addams’ extensive lecturing and involvement in national and international organizations. However, without Smith’s letters, we are left wanting more to fill in the details, gaps, and silences that are an unfortunate characteristic of one-sided correspondence.
When Addams wrote to her “Dearest,” her “Darling,” sometimes her feelings of love and longing for Smith are clear. In a 1902 letter she wrote: “You must know, dear, how I long for you all the time—and especially during the last three weeks. There is reason in the habit of married folk keeping together. Forever yrs.” In a 1904 letter, she opined: “Your letters are the most cheerful things that I have and you must know that I am mightily empty hearted without you.” And in a 1909 letter she offered three little words that she offered to no other correspondent: “I love you.”
Jane Addams’ letters to other women among her close circle of friends and Hull-House residents, such as Lillian Wald and Julia Lathrop, were filled with affection. Addams wrote with the intimate language that was the natural and ordinary way of letters between women during this period in American history, when half of all college-educated women did not marry and the kinship of female friends was loving and strong. In a precious few letters, the reader cannot help but to see Addams’ particular tenderness for Smith. However, in most of her letters, Addams’ language is more muted, her tone more guarded, and the content merely practical and informative, many the hasty missives of a busy woman. In those less intimate letters, Addams almost always addressed Smith as “Dearest,” a moniker of affection she reserved for her alone, and she closed all letters with very tender words, but these letters offer far fewer clues about the relationship between the two women and the various contexts of their lives together.
I wonder if the language Smith employed in her letters to Addams mirrored the language Addams used. Was there a tonal difference in her letters to Addams than what she employed in letters she wrote to their mutual friends? What words did she use to express her feelings for Addams? What terms of endearment did she choose to begin her letters to Addams, and did she often write “I love you.”? When Addams shared with Smith her doubts and fears about a book manuscript or an important speech, did Smith respond with a pep talk, a gentle critique, or some soothing, emotional refrain? Did Smith share her own doubts and fears with Addams in her letters, and did she share her hopes and dreams and opinions on the reform topics that occupied the minds of Jane Addams and other Hull-House residents? Did she provide details of her asthma attacks and nervous anxiety and other philanthropies, as well and her travels, and did she offer gossip or news that might explain a vague reference we cannot define and may never define without her letters? What was the character of the letters Smith sent that Addams reported as “a great comfort,” and what were the words Smith offered to soothe that others could not?
Maybe Jane Addams destroyed Smith’s letters because they were too intimate or too emotionally embarrassing. Or maybe she destroyed them because she was a private person, despite her celebrity, and she wished to keep her special relationship with Smith from the prying eyes of the modern world that was pressing in on Hull-House in the early 1930s. I don’t really care what her reason was, but I am quite mad at her for doing it. I can’t help it, but it makes me sad to know so little about the woman to whom Jane Addams spent so much of her personal life.
I do not bemoan the loss of Smith’s letters to Addams simply because I think they would for certain answer the big question about their relationship. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, and then again if they did we would still have to be very careful about projecting our modern notions of female sexuality onto women of the past. As an editor, who contextualizes historical documents as windows to the past, it is not for me to interpret the nature of the relationship that existed between Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith. Whether they were the dearest of platonic friends or enjoyed a sexual relationship is not for me to decide. No matter, besides, because in the historical record of their relationship, there are far more questions than answers. That fact is, after all, the frustrating reality of one-sided correspondence.
I am missing Smith’s voice and her words for what they might have brought to the big Jane-Addams-Hull-House party. If we had Smith’s letters to Jane Addams, I would use Smith’s words to answer Addams’ words, to balance Addams’ particularly romantic phrases, to provide our readers with the dialogue between two women who were emotionally close to each other for four decades. But I would also use them to better understand Smith’s role in the Hull-House community, to glean some clues about who she was as a person, what she believed in, what intrigued her, and what made her smile. I would employ them to understand for myself why she was so dear to all of the extraordinary women who knew and loved her.
From Hull-House financial records, we know the scope of Smith’s contributions to the settlement and its activities. From the correspondence and personal accounts of her friends, we know something of her kindness, deportment, gentle nature, and the various physical and emotional illnesses from which she suffered. And from the extant letters Jane Addams wrote to her, we can understand a little bit about her emotional importance to the woman who is the subject of our documentary edition. Ah, but alas, there is so much of whom Mary Rozet Smith was which is lost to us because her letters to Jane Addams are lost to us. Mary Rozet Smith may well have been the “highest and clearest note in the music of Jane Addams’s personal life,” but why she was and who she was as a person will likely remain elusive. She is a woman whom historians have defined entirely by her relationship to Hull-House, and that is all well and good, I suppose, because Hull-House needed her thrive.
But darnit, I wish Jane Addams would have allowed us the chance to know her dear friend better. I wish we had Mary’s words to tell us a little bit more about Jane, and to tell us a little bit about herself, as well. I wish I had thirty or ten or even two of Smith’s letters to Addams to enhance the thirty letters to her we have chosen to annotate. They would not likely answer all of the questions I have, nor would they likely fill in all of the gaps and silences in Addams’ letters; but I suspect they would fill in a whole lot of missing details and offer a nuance or two. I know they would enlighten, enrich, and contextualize, because back-and-forth correspondence usually does. And I bet they may even offer some evidence of those highest and clearest notes in the music.
By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor
Sources: Allen F. David, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 85-91; Gioia Diliberto, A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams (New York: Scribner, 1999), 182-87; Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 23-24; Louise W. Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 217-18; James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935, 147; Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, eds., Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 817-19; Barbara Sicherman, Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 346-47; Eleanor J. Stebner, The Women of Hull House: A Study in Spirituality, Vocation and Friendship (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), 158-66; Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, May 26, 1902; Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, August 13, 1904; Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, October 5, 1904; Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, February 12, 1909, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.