Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Jane Addams’ Hull-House Museum

by Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a two-story series that explores Chicago’s rich women’s history artifacts and institutions, found in plain sight around the city.

Emilie walks down the sunlight staircase of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House.

Emilie walks down the sunlight staircase of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House.

Two-thirds of the Re/visionist team pilgrimaged to Women’s History Mecca in the windy city, Chicago, Illinois, this spring break. Instead of a shrine, temple, or wall, we came to lay our gifts at the feet of none other than (Laura) Jane Addams, co-founder of Chicago’s Hull-House. Once called “Public Enemy #1” for her radical social reform efforts and challenges to institutional and underground authority systems in Chicago, Addams, along with her co-founder Ellen Gates Starr, served the mostly immigrant community members, who ate, learned, and worked at the settlement. Transforming what we now know to be social work and public aid to low-income communities, Addams and her team members were visionary, radical feminists who saw their traditional feminine roles, inculcated in a Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, as extending beyond the home into the greater, needy world.

The original settlement house, built by Charles Hull in 1856 and founded as Hull-House in 1889, located in the heart of what is now University of Illinois- Chicago, has been converted into a dual-purposed memorial to the great Addams and her multi-faceted, tireless reform and social work efforts. The first purpose is as an historical museum, complete with artifacts and multimedia displays of various aspects of Hull-House’s missions. Hull-House was one of the few surviving buildings from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and Addams and Starr founded it during a massive boom in European immigration to Chicago that lasted from 1880 to 1920.

I explore an interactive map of Chicago during the 1890s that showed nationality, gender, and income-level of residents.

I explore an interactive map of Chicago during the 1890s that showed nationality, gender, and income-level of residents.

The museum’s second purpose is to continue Addams’ efforts into our present day. In addition to recreating Jane Addams’ bedroom and library and providing a “Day in the Life” at Hull-House in 1901, the historic house contains exhibits on contemporary issues in Home Economics. It honors, for instance, the work of the Chicago Coalition for Household Workers, an organization that fights to bring visibility to the struggles and achievements of domestic workers. Their current initiative is called “Unfinished Business.” You can learn more about it here. In their words, the interactive project “investigates themes of invisible labor, conscientious consumption, the home as a site of activism, and municipal housekeeping.” In other words, Hull-House lives on as a site of radical feminist activism, integrating contemporary understandings of capitalism and the environment so as to update the causes to which Hull-House dedicates its resources.

This museum is feminist in content and form. Curated with multimedia and interactivity, it invites visitors to engage with Jane Addams’ world and put it in dialogue with their own. There is a room at the front of the house where visitors may experience the aural world of 1900s Chicago–the clack of typewriters, the shrieks of playing children, the cacophony of languages and voices from numerous immigrant backgrounds, and even the sounds of a phonograph playing. Hull-House’s curatorial team clearly understands the historian’s art of time travel, transporting the museum visitor to Addams’s world.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching activist and feminist, collaborated closely with Jane Addams during their lifetimes.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching activist and feminist, collaborated closely with Jane Addams during their lifetimes.

My co-editor Emilie’s favorite part of the museum was the display honoring the relationship between Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. “I was moved to tears,” she shared. “The friendship and professional partnership between two such strong and dynamic women is inspiring.” Indeed, Wells and Addams combined forces to battle issues like lynching and segregation. In 1909 they both signed “The Call,” a proposal that led to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Knowledge of such partnerships challenges the historical myth that settlement house workers were racist, narrow-minded, and conservative. Addams, the museum argues, navigated many social spheres, and as an upper-middle-class woman who strategically framed her womanhood as a site of moral authority, she channeled resources and political energies into social issues that benefitted women, children, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.

My favorite parts were the vivid details included in the re-creation of early 20th century Chicago. Every aspect of the house is curated with clear, concise, and rich information, contextualizing everything from the house’s interior molding (“carved by convict hands,” because Charles Hull, concerned with the well-being of prison inmates, put them to work on his architecture), to the neighborhood around the house, to the books on Addams’ shelves. And, may I say, in a time when sequestration means giant budget cuts for public assistance organizations akin to Hull, I felt spiritually reassured by the presence and history of this institution. Though I cringe to think what Addams would say about our modern-day non-profit industrial complex, I’m sure she’d have lots of brilliant plans for social justice projects in Chicago and across the United States in 2013.

Learn more about Hull-House at its website, http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/.

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