Interview with Jane Addams, January 30, 1925



Jane Addams, Grown Gray in Serving the Needy, is Still at Her Desk, Busy and Tireless


[HALSTED] Street in Chicago is as difficult to find as Hester Street in New York. The two have more in common than that. Their names connote the tenement house districts of their respective cities. There, however, the similarity ends, for where [Halsted] can boast of Hull House Hester must offer as its best bid for fame the most bewildering variety of pushcarts in the world.

Hull House was the present writer's objective. Hull House meant Jane Addams. The question was where in the maze of side streets and cross streets were the two to be found. A post office station in a corner of a low, red brick building whose architecture stood out sharply against the ugly walls of shacks and tenements seemed a good place to ask. But information came more speedily. A dark-skinned woman with straight, black hair and the facial lineaments of a Mexican passed, leading a little child wrapped in a bright-colored shawl. In answer to a question put by the child she was heard to say: "Dis, Tony, is 'Ull Ouse." Perhaps she was not a Mexican. At any rate, here in the building that houses the postal station was Hull House.

The appointment with Jane Addams had been made. On Thursday night she was to speak at the University of Wisconsin on the child labor amendment. On Friday morning she would be back at Hull House after a night on the train. This was Friday morning, as early as a person many years Miss Addams's junior could be got out of bed. It might have been a bad time to see Jane Addams. No human being is normal after a night in a sleeping car. It was remembered, too, that Jane Addams will be 65 this year. Thirty-five years of work in an endeavor such as she has directed -- that is the age of Hull House -- will leave a mark on any person, especially when from early childhood that person has been handicapped by a spinal weakness. The thing to do, then, was to have the interview before she was too greatly tired.

Still Full of Enthusiasm

Noble thought that, except that it was highly ridiculous. For Jane Addams today can outwork a person half her age and at the end can start on new work with fresh enthusiasm.

She was found in her small apartment at the top of an old staircase. The room was lined with bookshelves and pictures. At the desk by the window, framed in orange curtains, sat Jane Addams. The writer had imagined her to be a somewhat hard, angular, masculine-looking woman, grown gray and old. Jane Addams is gray but she is not masculine nor is she old. Certainly she is not hard. She smiled when the strange thought was told her.

"I don't get enough physical exercise to be hard. No, I'm afraid I'm rather much too soft."

She talked a little of her work the day before. There had been an afternoon address in the Senate Chamber at Madison, then several conferences and an evening meeting, at all of which she spoke, and more talk and discussion afterward until it came time for her to catch the train back to Chicago. She had reached Hull House only about an hour and a half before. Already she was steeped in the new work of the day. It was the getting up of a pamphlet telling about a fellowship in Barnett House in Oxford. Ten thousand dollars has already been donated. A second ten thousand was needed to complete it.

Barnett House, she explained, was the Mecca of settlement workers. A year of research there with the interchange of progressive thought brought by settlement workers the world over was a splendid constructive investment of time for any American working in this field. Few, however, could afford it. The endowment would take care of one fortunate person a year. She spoke of it interestedly but not with too much fire. It was important work, yes, but only one of the important tasks that come to her hand. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this able woman is her calm receptiveness. She gives a feeling of never hurrying, never being tense, never impatient.

The conversation went to the changes in the neighborhood. Again, with her air, that might be mistaken for casualness, but comes rather of much knowledge, understanding and ease in handling a problem, she spoke of the needs of the new nationalities that were taking the place of the old in the Hull House neighborhood. The Jews and the Russians and the Poles were leaving, the Mexicans and the negroes were coming. A goodly number of the old groups were still there, true, but they were the unsuccessful, the futile, the ineffective, those who could not pull themselves out of the depths of poverty and reach the higher social stratum attained by their former neighbors, who were gifted with more push and more ambition. She felt sorry for them and gave freely of her time and the things that Hull House could give them, but she was glad that others had responded to the call for something better and finer in their lives.

Getting away from the neighborhood was good, she said. It meant a better social life. If they came back to activities of the Hull House clubs, that was a gratifying indication of human response to human warmth, but if they didn't it was because they felt so ably secure standing on their newly won ground. Either way it was good. Again, in her words, was felt the rare spirit of comprehensive and mellow understanding of humanity.

Some time ago Miss Willa Cather was quoted as saying that she objected to social workers on the ground that their main object in life seemed to be the turning out of innumerable creatures built on one monotonous pattern of so-called Americanism. Jane Addams smiled at that. Miss Cather was right, she said, in her intention. Many social workers can be brought to trial on that accusation, but, she added gently, the same thing is true of 100 [percent] Americanism organizations of other kinds. Getting people into one mold was a mistake and whatever was said or done to shake up the minds of the molders was an advantage gained.

Partly to overcome that mistake and partly to give some of the growing Americans, the children of the neighborhood, an idea of the color, the charm and the romance of the life led by their parents in the countries of their birth, the Labor Museum had been started in Hull House. There the young Italian or Czech or Greek could see how his mother and father had spun and woven and wrought in the days of their youth. There they could learn the steps in industrial history and see that their parents had contributed as much as they, perhaps more, to industrial art.

From the Homes of the Humble

In the old days a youngster had been ashamed of his mother's spinning wheel; today he prized it as a heritage. So with all the old things that had formerly been in disrepute. Old brass, old copper, old silver, old shawls and old lace no longer were hidden, but found themselves in places of honor in the humble homes of their owners. The mantelpieces, the fireplaces, the settees and tables in Hull House, all decorated with things made in a dim, artistic past, had taught the people of the neighborhood how to value their old-world treasures.

"Go down to see the Labor Museum," said Miss Addams; and, partly because it was her wish and partly to hear about her from a second person, the writer went, under the escort of one of the residents. There are few salaried workers in Hull House. Most of the work is carried on by resident men and women interested in the ideal of human helpfulness, who give at least two days or two evenings of their week to some activity in the buildings. Artists are there, and teachers and poets and dreamers, living together on a cooperative plan fostered by the woman who sits at the head of their dining table. All pay for their room and meals, Jane Addams included. Once, when she was ill, her breakfast had to be brought to her bed. Each time, before she touched it, she insisted that the maid should go back and have it checked up.

The woman who took the writer for the visit to the Labor Museum yawned frankly in the course of the trip. She was years younger than Miss Addams. That should be remembered. "Forgive me," she said smiling. "You see, I've just come back with Miss Addams from Wisconsin. You know what a night on the train is like."


A Pioneer of Its Kind, Hull House, Chicago.

Photo by Brown Brothers.


Jane Addams.

"But what about Miss Addams? She doesn't seem tired."

"No," was the answer, "she never is. She is indefatigable. She can sleep on a train. She knows how to relax. I was exhausted yesterday just from following her about. She has a weak spine. I wonder what she would be like with a good one."

At Work in the Museum

The Labor Museum was occupied by three foreign-born women, sitting at looms and weaving. Their products, scarfs and shawls and cloths, were on view in the showcases. Sale of the articles, it was explained, helped pay their wages and the upkeep of the museum.

We walked into some of the other rooms of the building, all furnished with an air of warmth and charm that bespoke a beautiful home rather than an institution. A girl's millinery club, for instance, met around a large table in a Colonial kitchen made bright with a fireplace and burnished copper and brass. That had been Jane Addams's idea from the very start, it was pointed out; Hull House should not look like an institution.

Therein is revealed another phase of Miss Addams's character. Below the keen intellect there is a domestic warmth. Hull House has been made a home for the thousands of outsiders, as well as for the threescore residents who live there. Furniture is seldom bought, but is contributed by people who have something fine and old that they wise to see appreciated. Jane Addams, it is said, knows every picture and chair and chest in the house and often goes about with a homely domestic air, giving a pat here, making a change there, replacing a vase or a candlestick.

Always she looks forward with eagerness to Hull House when she is away on a trip. It is her home; in it she has found, among other things, expression for the thing that requires a small apartment for most women. A short time ago she was in Japan, her work and her interests taking her there. She grew seriously ill and an operation had to be performed. When she came back to Hull House she had not fully recovered. But here was the home of which she was the head. Much against the wishes of her friends, who had only her welfare in mind, she insisted on taking her place at the long candle-lit table and carving for all of her household.

The writer went back to Jane Addams before leaving and found her immersed in work on the [interracial] problem. The coming of the negro has brought a new situation into the neighborhood. It is not a very serious one, however, Miss Addams said. The people around Hull House are not fiercely race-conscious.

As she rose to get a picture that was asked of her, she invited the writer to view her bedroom -- the woman instinct, you observe, has not been killed by almost forty years of active, world-important work. There one beheld a fine old bed, a chest of drawers, a few things handed down to her from her mother and her mother's mother, furnishings, in a word, that any woman would be tempted to display to an interested visitor.