Social Reform: Jane Addams and Hull House in Chicago, Illinois


Jane Addams helped bring social reform to America by establishing Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Her upbringing and her social awareness helped drive her towards her future.

Jane Addams’ Early Years

Jane Addams was born in 1860, during the Civil War era, in a small town in rural Illinois. Her mother died shortly after Addams’ birth. Her father did not remarry until she was eight. She admired her father. He was the most important person in her life until he died in 1881, when she was twenty-one. He was a Quaker and Republican senator in the Illinois legislature. He helped develop her social conscience by reminding her on a daily basis of those who were less fortunate. Addams recalls noticing and questioning the differences in class and living conditions when she was only seven and wondered what it was like to live among the poor. She also admired Abraham Lincoln and said he was “the greatest American,” whose influences she describes as “invigorating and clarifying.”

Her College Years at Rockford College

Addams had back problems as a child and thought she was an ugly duckling. Therefore, she wouldn’t walk to church with her father because she didn’t want people to identify him with her. She attended Rockford Seminary, now Rockford College. She belonged to a group of women committed to learning – a learning community.

After graduation, Addams decided to go into medicine, but recurring back problems prevented this. She decided to travel to Europe (London). In East London, she found severe poverty she described as “hideous human need and suffering.” She visited the Toynbee Hall settlement house in 1884 in London. There she realized she did not need to be a physician to “live with the poor.”

Returning to America and Chicago

When she returned to America, Addams and her college friend, Ellen Gates Starr, set out to locate a neighborhood in Chicago where they could rent a house. On Sept. 18, 1889, they opened Hull House and welcomed the new immigrants coming from Europe. No one was discriminated against and they treated everyone with respect. By 1911, they had 14 buildings in Chicago helping the needy. By 1920, they had 500 buildings helping those in need nationally. Many of those who were helped by the people of Hull House returned the favor and become reformers themselves.

The Mission of Hull House: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life, to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”