From Norms to Reform - Encounter Books

From Norms to Reform

An Excerpt from 'Who Killed Civil Society?'
By Howard Husock | January 21, 2020

Born in 1860, Jane Addams was raised in Cedarville, Illinois, on prairie surrounded by hills. One of those hills, she wrote, was “crowned by pine woods, grown up from a bag full of Norway pine seeds sown by my father the very year he came to Illinois, testimony perhaps that the most vigorous pioneers gave at least an occasional thought to beauty.”1 Her parents, John and Sarah, had come from Pennsylvania to Cedarville in 1844, purchasing and expanding a flour mill on Cedar Creek. Eventually they owned a prosperous complex including mills for flour, linseed, and lumber. John also invested successfully in railroads, founded a major insurance company and a bank, and built a Federal-style mansion for his family. Jane was the eighth of nine children, of whom only four survived.

The Addams family traced their roots in America to recipients of land grants from William Penn, and some family members had fought in the Revolutionary War. John Addams was a Hicksite Quaker, believing more in guidance by an “inward light” than the biblical authority that more orthodox Quakers followed. A civic-spirited man who served eight terms in the Illinois Senate, he was a contemporary and friend of Abraham Lincoln and among the founders of the Republican Party. (He helped bring the second Lincoln-Douglas debate to nearby Freeport.) Lincoln corresponded regularly with Addams—in one letter expressing confidence that “Mr. Dear Double D Addams” would “vote according to his conscience,” but begging to know in which direction that conscience “was pointing.” Jane remembered seeing her father in tears for the first time on the day he learned that Lincoln was dead.

Jane was close to her father, especially in her early years after her mother had died and her father had not yet remarried. In her classic memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, she recalled formative moments with the father she admired as a “self-made man,” who all his life continued to rise at 3 a.m. just as when he was a young apprentice learning the mill business in Pennsylvania. As the family grew wealthy, Jane told herself that she must do more with her life than simply live on her inheritance. That her calling would be the uplift of the immigrant poor is not altogether surprising given her childhood memories of learning about poverty and inequality.

That her calling would be the uplift of the immigrant poor is not altogether surprising given her childhood memories of learning about poverty and inequality.

As a seven-year-old girl, for example, she accompanied her father on a visit to a mill in the neighboring town, adjacent to its poorest quarter. She vividly recalled what she saw that day and how it affected her:

Before then I had always seen the little city of ten thousand people with the admiring eyes of a country child, and it had never occurred to me that all its streets were not as bewilderingly attractive as the one which contained the glittering toyshop and the confectioner. On that day, I had my first sight of the poverty which implies squalor . . . . I remember launching at my father the pertinent inquiry why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together and . . . declared with much firmness when I grew up, I should, of course, have a large house, but it would not be built among the other large houses, but right in the midst of horrid houses like those.2

And so began the idea of mingling her life with those of the less well-off. Eventually she would establish an institution where she lived in a mansion surrounded by ten other community buildings among the little houses of Chicago’s Near West Side.

Another formative incident occurred when she was eight years old and preparing to set out for Sunday School. “Arrayed in a new cloak, gorgeous beyond anything I had ever worn before, I stood before my father for approval,” she recalled. He agreed that the cloak was very pretty, but advised that she wear her old cloak instead, for it would keep her “quite as warm, with the added advantage of not making the other little girls feel badly.” The exchange prompted young Jane to ponder “the old question eternally suggested by the inequalities of the human lot.” Continuing her story, she wrote: “Only as we neared the church door did I venture to ask what could be done about it, receiving the reply that it might never be righted so far as clothes went, but that people might be equal in things that mattered more than clothes, the affairs of education and religion, for instance.”3

Jane herself was educated at the Rockford Female Seminary, later Rockford College (the same sort of school for women that the Brace family had founded). Harboring since girlhood “a curious sense of responsibility for carrying on the world’s affairs,” she eventually found her true calling when she came to Chicago in 1889 with Ellen Gates Starr, a friend who had been her traveling companion in Europe. They brought with them a model for assisting the poor that they had seen in London. Toynbee Hall was the first institution to call itself a “settlement house”: a residence in a poor or immigrant neighborhood where people from well-to-do backgrounds would literally “settle,” living among the less fortunate and helping them adjust to urban life in an industrial economy.

Addams, like Charles Loring Brace, was motivated in no small part by religious belief, though of an ecumenical sort. “Other motives which make toward the Settlement are the result of a certain renaissance going forward in Christianity,” she wrote. “The impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service, irrespective of propaganda, express the spirit of Christ, is as old as Christianity itself.”4 The influential institution she founded was, like the Children’s Aid Society, essentially Christian in spirit but nondenominational in form. It would not be an arm of church or government, but a product of civil society, and in that respect it was quintessentially American.

It would not be an arm of church or government, but a product of civil society, and in that respect it was quintessentially American.

Settlement houses were envisioned as a means to bring the affluent and the poor in contact by attracting idealistic, upper-middle-class youths of college age into poor neighborhoods. Addams became known as “head resident” of Hull House (in the former mansion of one Charles Hull), and she identified with all the potential settlement volunteers whose sense of “uselessness hangs heavily upon them” and who sought an outlet for their idealism. In other words, the benefits of this initiative would not flow in one direction only. But the settlement pioneers did not hesitate to express a belief that the poor would gain from proximity with the better-off. There would be a kind of equalizing effect, as Addams explained in a paper for the American Academy of Social Science in 1899: “The American settlement has represented not so much a sense of duty of the privileged toward the unprivileged . . . as a desire to equalize through social effort those results which superior opportunity may have given the possessor.” (Emphasis added.)5

As abstract as that formulation sounds, Addams built an institution that might today be called a community center, dealing with the most practical matters facing the amazing range of immigrant families who crowded into the apartment buildings surrounding the Hull mansion— Irish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, Polish, and more. It began with the smallest steps: a reading room and personal invitations to neighborhood mothers to join Addams and Ellen Starr for dinner. The offerings expanded quickly and dramatically. Many neighborhood residents who had previously lacked opportunities for education and recreation here found “kindergarten classes, an adult night school, various social clubs for older children, a public kitchen, a gym, a theater, a music school, a swimming pool, a library, an employment bureau and even an art gallery.”6 In fact, the first major charitable contribution to augment Addams’s personal seed money came from a Chicagoan who responded to Starr’s appeal for funds to open the gallery. It immediately proved even more popular with the neighborhood than a pantry offering what Addams thought to be healthy foods at low prices.

Within a decade, Hull House was a major institution, well known in Chicago and around the United States. It would figure importantly in any number of nearly incredible stories, including that of Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” who learned to play the clarinet at Hull House and returned regularly to perform there, even at the height of his fame. Decades later, the playwright David Mamet got his start at Hull-House Theatre.

Settlement houses were envisioned as a means to bring the affluent and the poor in contact by attracting idealistic, upper-middle-class youths of college age into poor neighborhoods.

Like Brace, Addams created an attractive setting and message that neighborhood residents sought out of their own volition. Also like Brace, she built an institution based on her own ideas—and with private support garnered through social circles. Hull House was far more than a neighborhood recreation center. There is no doubt that what became an impressive physical facility also served as a vehicle for promoting social norms—offered not in the spirit of correction or reprimand but as part of the acculturation that would help the poor improve their condition, which was understood to be their own goal.

In Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams recalled her early impressions of a neighborhood where much needed to be improved, beginning with sanitation:

[T]he immigrant population, nine tenths of them from the country, . . . carried on all sorts of traditional activities in the crowded tenements. That a group of Greeks should be permitted to slaughter sheep in a basement, that Italian women should be allowed to sort over rags collected from the city dumps . . . in a court swarming with children, that immigrant bakers should continue unmolested to bake their bread for their neighbors in unspeakably filthy spaces under the pavement, appeared incredible to visitors accustomed to careful city regulations.

It was her hope that city regulations might not be enforced against some of these activities, but she firmly believed that the immigrant poor should adjust to the standards of their new home.

As garbage filled the alleys and tuberculosis bacteria (a.k.a. the “white hearse”) filled the air, Addams waged a clean-up campaign:

We [at Hull House] arranged many talks for the immigrants, pointing out that although a woman may sweep her own doorway in her native village and allow the refuse to innocently decay in the open air and sunshine, in a crowded city quarter, if the garbage is not properly collected and destroyed, a tenement-house mother may see her children sicken and die, and that the immigrants must therefore not only keep their own houses clean, but must also help the authorities to keep the city clean.7

The immigrants learned that the proper disposal of garbage was not just in their own interest, but also a responsibility of good citizenship.

There is no doubt that what became an impressive physical facility also served as a vehicle for promoting social norms—offered not in the spirit of correction or reprimand but as part of the acculturation that would help the poor improve their condition, which was understood to be their own goal.

Addams did not rely on talk alone to promote the value of cleanliness. She used more creative means as well, including a May Day celebration with a Maypole dance and a May Queen, held on a playground that Hull House had built:

I remember that one year that honor of being queen was offered to the little girl who should pick up the largest number of scraps of paper which littered all the streets and alleys. The children that spring had been organized into a league, and each member had been provided with a stiff piece of wire upon the sharpened point of which stray bits of paper were impaled and later soberly counted off into a large box in the Hull-House alley. The little Italian girl who thus won the scepter took it very gravely as the just reward of hard labor, and we were all so absorbed in the desire for clean and tidy streets that we were wholly oblivious to the incongruity of thus selecting “the queen of love and beauty.”8

Yet Addams realized that she was, in an important way, promoting the norms of love and beauty—and was glad of it.

Addams was by no means aiming to Americanize immigrants at the cost of their own native culture. She celebrated the way that Italian and Bohemian peasants living in Chicago “still put on their bright holiday clothes on a Sunday and go to visit their cousins. They tramp along with at least a suggestion of having once walked over plowed fields and breathed country air.”9 Indeed, she feared that the son of an immigrant father “laughed loud at him” for his traditional habits but would enjoy no “pastoral interlude” himself. Still, she was unabashed about her goal of exposing those children to the norms appropriate to their new surroundings. “One thing seemed clear in regard to entertaining immigrants,” she wrote: “to preserve and keep whatever of value their past life contained and to bring them in contact with a better type of Americans.”10

The influence of Addams and Hull House extended far beyond the Near West Side, and far beyond Chicago, for that matter. This reach must be credited, in part, to the fact that its leaders were well-educated, affluent women, as well as avowed feminists in an era before women’s suffrage. Most, including Addams, were unmarried, and at first there was a sense of novelty about their role. But Addams and her counterparts in other cities—especially Lillian Wald, the founder of the Henry Street Settlement in New York—quickly became widely admired public figures.

Indeed, the acclaim won by Hull House sparked a movement that extended across the country—and across the racial divide—well before the age of federal government programs and grants. In 1913, the Handbook of Settlements (by Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy, founders of Boston’s South End House) listed no fewer than 413 organizations similar to Hull House.11 Typically they combined attractive facilities such as a gym and a pool with initiatives clearly aimed at acculturating the urban poor to what can only be called bourgeois norms.

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Howard Husock is vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute, where he is also a contributing editor to City Journal.


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