The house had been uninhabited for quite some time. Much of the lower floor had been leased to a factory behind the house, and was being used for storage. The remainder of the house was filthy and full of debris. The first step that Jane and Ellen undertook was to have the house cleaned. Their living quarters were then furnished with castoffs from their friends and families. Almost immediately they were joined by Mary Keyser, an Addams family friend.48
Many neighbours were interested in what was going on at Hull-House; the new activity there could not be missed. They would walk by to watch the proceedings or stare slyly at the new residents as they sat on the porch of an evening. Jane would befriend these people, inviting the children to sit and chat, inviting the adults in for tea. She would talk to them, and she had a gift for gaining people’s confidences. Soon she began to learn about their lives and their problems.49
The women of Hull-House had little idea how to begin to help the community in which they had placed themselves. Neither Jane’s rural upbringing nor Ellen’s schooling in one of Chicago’s prosperous neighbourhoods had included instruction on how to serve poor working-class communities. Fortunately, the neighbourhood, when it was learned that Hull-House could and would meet the community’s needs, was not shy about asking for what it needed.
The first service that Hull-House provided was a daycare center. Everyone in the neighbourhood who could work, did. Not just the able-bodied men, but the women, the teenagers, and even children. Of course the youngest children couldn’t work, and they were left alone while their parents and older siblings worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days. It was the habit to lock the children into their apartments during the winter and out onto the street during the summer.
It was not long before the children realised the Hull-House’s long hall was airy and open during the hottest summer days, and many would come to “visit,” knowing that those in the house would watch out for them and even provide them with a little lunch. Soon enough children were coming that something else had to be done. A nearby cottage was leased, and eventually accepted in donation, which became a permanent daycare center.50
The next thing to open at Hull-House was a kindergarten, supervised by a young volunteer named Jenny Dow. Like modern kindergartens, the day focused on marching and singing, playing cooperatively, and making things out of clay and paper. Soon after clubs were organised for the older girls, where they could learn cooking, sewing, and other activities.
The boys of that age presented more of a problem. What they wanted was sports and games, but there was no place for them to play. The streets were full of pedestrians and carriages. The neighbourhood was full of windows and streetlights that might be broken by a poorly thrown ball. And the stores and homes were full of adults who were dismayed at seeing young boys standing idly around the street corners, which is what they were generally relegated to.
Enter Mary Rozet Smith, a friend of Jenny Dow’s and daughter of a prosperous Chicago merchant. She organised space at Hull-House for games like pool and chess, which quickly attracted the attention of the boys. One thing that could interrupt a game, however, was Mary’s storytelling. They would gather around her as she read to them or told them tales of heroes and quests. They had never heard stories like these before, but they were quick to adopt these classic tales as their own. They named themselves the Young Heroes Club.51
The saloon next door was purchased and remodeled as a gymnasium. Another building was turned into a kitchen. Here meals were prepared for those in the neighbourhood who were sick, a sort of prelude to Meals on Wheels. It was also here that immigrant women, who had never seen many native American foods like corn, were introduced to cooking them.52 Many of the local immigrants, especially the Italians, were having food imported from Italy, a major strain on their budget. These people were used to living in an environment of local food production. They were able to afford fresh vegetables and good meat when the producers were the farmers living on the outskirts of their villages. In America, where the farms and the feedlots were concentrated at great distances from the cities, food had to be shipped in. Its quality deteriorated during shipping, and only the wealthy could afford what good food remained. The poor got the dregs. As a result, many did not know how to cook good meals with what they had. One Hull-House resident went to Boston, to train with Mrs. Richards at the New England Public Kitchen. She returned and set up a program to guide new immigrants in making nutritious meals with poorer cuts of meat.53
Soon after, Hull-House began organising dances on Saturday nights for the young men and women of the neighbourhood. There, under the eye of chaperones, these people could dance, drink colas, and talk to each other. In a community where young people worked all week, it was for many the only opportunity to socialise with members of the opposite sex. Jane hoped that access to this environment would help people make better choices about love and marriage, for many young couples she met had been married at sixteen or seventeen to the first person with whom they became infatuated, which often made for desperately unhappy marriages.54
Some of these young women saw a need that Hull-House could fulfill for them. They were on strike for higher wages. It was common at the time for striking workers to be simply fired, for there were always newer immigrants who would do the work for the same wages or less, and the women were afraid for their jobs. They expressed a desire for a “boarding club,” a place where they could live and support each other, if necessary. Soon fifteen of them were living in two apartments, with Hull-House guaranteeing the rent. They called themselves “the Jane Club.” Within three years, a whole apartment house would be set aside for young working women, and in ten years, a women’s dormitory would be added to the Hull-House campus.55
It was also Hull-House’s introduction to union organising, an activity for which it would become well known in the future.
48. Meigs, Cornelia. Jane Addams: Pioneer for Social Justice. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970. p. 46.
49. idem. pp. 48-50.
50. idem. p. 52.
51. idem. pp. 54-56.
52. Faderman, Lillian. “Social Housekeeping: The Inspiration of Jane Addams.”
53. Addams, Jane.
54. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 58.
55. idem. p. 58-60.