The Making of Jane Addams
Jane Addams was born Laura Jane Addams on 6 September 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois, near Rockford and the Wisconsin border. She was the eighth child born, although only she, two sisters, and a brother survived to adulthood.5 There were many factors in Addams’s young life that turned her toward a life of service.
Jane had little contact with her mother, Sarah Weber Addams, who died when Jane was two, but the manner of her mother’s death must surely have had an affect upon her. Her mother, while pregnant with her ninth and final child, had gone to a neighbour’s home. The neighbour was in labour, and the local midwife’s was occupied with another delivery. After successfully assisting the birth, Sarah fell while returning home. Her injuries were substantial. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth prematurely and died herself a week later.6 Jane’s mother literally gave her life to help another. Although Jane would not have remembered the event, the story of it would have provided a strong moral lesson.
Jane was frequently ill as a young child. Her health was drastically affected by spinal problems, which has been variously reported as a congenital defect,7 abscesses of the spine,8 and the result of tuberculosis of the spine.9 In any case, from the time that she was very young, she had a slight scoliosis, was pigeon-toed, and was forced to carry her head slightly tipped to one side.10 Although her spinal defects were surgically corrected when she was older, during her childhood she felt profoundly ugly and suffered emotionally because of it. It also caused her to identify with the poor and marginalised in society.
Jane showed remarkable prophecy at age six on a trip to Freeport, a mill town near Cedarville. It was the first time she had visited one of the poorer neighbourhoods there. She was startled to see the tiny homes set so close together that compared so badly with her own spacious home on its extensive grounds. She asked her father why people would want to live like this, and was told that they did so out of necessity and not by choice. She then declared that when she was an adult, she would have a large house like her father’s, but it would be set in the middle of “horrid little houses” like the ones in Freeport. Further, she would have a large yard, so that any children who could not play at home could come and play at her house.11
Jane’s father was John Huy Addams, a noted landowner, miller, industrialist, legislator, and war hero. He had come to Cedarville from Pennsylvania, where he had also been a miller. In Cedarville, he purchased a sawmill with family money and soon added a gristmill. He was a prosperous man, later becoming one of the founders of the Galena and Chicago Union Railway12 and president of a bank in Cedarville.13 Although he was a Quaker, during the Civil War, he raised and outfitted a regiment for the State of Illinois.14 And, although Jane did not realise it while she was a child, he was also using the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad.15
John Huy Addams was also a state senator known for his integrity, who served from 1854 until he refused to run again in 1870. He was a Republican, and a personal friend of fellow partymember Abraham Lincoln, who referred to him affectionately as “My dear Mr. double-d Addams” in several letters.16
John Addams also contributed to the community. He was an avid reader, so he started the first subscription library in Cedarville and ran it from his home. He also helped to found the first church and school in Cedarville.17 As more churches were built in Cedarville, he attended them all in turn and supported all of them. He also taught a Bible class at one of them; young Jane was one of his pupils.18
Jane adored her father, and he encouraged her to be literate and well educated. In fact, he “paid” her five cents for every one of Plutarch’s Lives that she read, and twenty-five cents for every volume of Washington Irving’s Life of Washington.19
When Jane was seven, her father married Anna H. Haldeman, who brought two sons, Harry and George, to the marriage. Harry was about the same age as one of Jane’s older sisters, Alice, and George was six months younger than Jane.20
During her childhood, Jane enjoyed a great friendship with her stepmother.21 Anne was very interested in culture. In fact, she felt somewhat stifled in the atmosphere of rural Illinois. She compensated by filling her home with music, books, and fine furnishings. She played the piano. She was an avid reader, and she discussed what she read with her children and stepchildren. Living in this sophisticated environment gave Jane social self-confidence that would someday help her communicate with the upper class of Chicago, with whose wealth and culture she identified.22
5. Hassencahl, Fran. “Jane Addams.” Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Biocritical Sourcebook. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (ed.). Westport, CT; London: Greenwood Press, 1993. p. 1.
6. Davis, Allen Freeman. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. p. 5.
7. Shepler, John. “Jane Addams, Mother of Social Work.” A Positive Light. http://www.execpc.com/~shepler/janeaddams.html (online 7 May 2001).
8. Meigs, Cornelia. Jane Addams: Pioneer for Social Justice. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970. p. 8.
9. Davis, Allen Freeman. p. 6.
11. Shepler, John. op. cit.
12. Reynolds, Moira Davison. Women Champions of Human Rights: Eleven U.S. Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991. p. 1.
13. Hassencahl, Fran. p. 2.
15. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 3.
16. idem. p. 7.
17. Reynolds, Moira Davison. p. 1.
18. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 17.
19. Davis, Allen Freeman. p. 9.
20. idem. p. 7.
21. Reynolds, Moira Davison. p. 1.
22. Davis, Allen Freeman. p. 6-7.