Jane Addams & Hull House: Biography, Facts & Contributions

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Jane Addams and discover how her drive to help others led her to establish Hull House, the first American settlement house. Learn how Addams and Hull House improved life for American immigrants.

The Early Life of Jane Addams

On September 6, 1860 Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois to a large and prosperous family. Young Jane had several older siblings, but many of them died in childhood. Jane's mother, Sarah, died when Jane was only two years old. Despite these early tragedies, Jane had a relatively happy childhood. She had an especially good relationship with her father, John Huey Addams, who encouraged her to read and follow her dreams of helping people.

Photograph of Jane Addams in 1912
Photograph of Jane Addams

In 1881, Jane graduated from the Rockford Female Seminary with a collegiate certificate. She planned to earn a full bachelor's degree from Smith College in Massachusetts; however, several factors prevented her from reaching this goal. The first and largest of these was that shortly after Jane's graduation from Rockford, John Huey Addams became ill and died.

Without her father, Jane felt adrift. She moved with her stepmother, sister and brother-in-law to Philadelphia where her brother-in-law planned to attend medical school. Jane and her sister, Alice, completed one year at a women's medical school; however, the pressures of the courses and her grief over the death of John Huey Addams made it difficult for Jane to concentrate. By the end of the year, Addams had a nervous breakdown and the entire Addams clan decided to return home to Cedarville.

After a surgery to correct a childhood spinal injury, Addams was advised to spend some time traveling and recovering from her physical and mental ordeals. She and her stepmother traveled across Europe for two years. Upon returning home, Jane was ready for a new challenge. After reading about the successes of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house, or shelter and treatment center for poor individuals in London, she began to seriously consider the ways that she could help the poor people in her area.

Building Hull House

It took Jane Addams several years to make this idea a reality, but in 1889 Addams and her close friend and business partner, Ellen Gates Starr, established Hull House, the first settlement house in America. Hull House was built in Chicago and was intended first and foremost as a shelter for women and children who needed protection and assistance.

About 25 women at a time lived in Hull House, but thousands more visited Hull House for educational classes and other benefits. With the help of several wealthy female investors, Addams was able to expand Hull House's programs to include a library, a lunchroom that served nutritious meals, and an employment bureau for those seeking work.

The Legacy of Hull House

Under Addams' guidance, teachers at Hull House taught immigrant children English, instructed their parents on American culture and helped them find employment. Researchers went out into communities surrounding Hull House and studied various aspects of urban life, including cocaine addiction, water quality, and conditions of childbirth. Much of what we know about urban immigrants in Chicago comes from studies completed by Hull House volunteers. This research also led to increased public services for the poor of Chicago.

Photograph taken of children at Hull House in 1908
Photograph of children at Hull House

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