Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: The Resources of the Immigrant, August 1910

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WHAT has come to be called the Hull-House Labor Museum was first suggested to my mind one early spring day when I saw an old Italian woman sitting in her doorway, her distaff against her homesick face, patiently spinning a thread by the simple stick spindle which had certainly been used in the days when David tended his sheep in Bethlehem. I was walking down Polk Street perturbed in spirit because it seemed so difficult to come into genuine relations with the Italian women and because they themselves so often lost their hold upon their Americanized children. It seemed to me that Hull-House ought to be able to devise some educational enterprise which should bridge over European and American experiences in such wise as to give them both more meaning and a sense of relation. I mediated that perhaps the power to see life as a whole is more needed in the immigrant quarter of a large city than anywhere else, and that the lack of this power is the most fruitful source of misunderstanding between European immigrants and their children, as it is between them and their American neighbors. And why should that chasm between fathers and sons, yawning at the feet of each generation, be made so unnecessarily cruel and impassible to these bewildered immigrants? Suddenly I looked up and saw the old woman with her distaff sitting in the sun on the steps of a tenement house. She might have served as a model for one of Michael Angelo's Fates, but her face brightened as I passed and, holding up her spindle for me to see, she called out that, when she had spun a little more yarn, she would knit a pair of stockings for her god-daughter. The occupation of the old woman gave me the clue that was needed. Could we not interest the young people working in the neighboring factories in these older forms of industry, so that through their own parents and grandparents they would find a dramatic representation of the inherited resources of their daily occupation? If these young people could actually see that the complicated machinery of the factory had been evolved from simple tools, they might at last understand the machines which they were tending, and thus make a beginning toward that education which Dr. Dewey has defined as "a continuing reconstruction of experience."

My exciting walk on Polk Street was followed by many talks with Dr. Dewey and with one of the teachers of his school, who was a resident at Hull-House. Within a month a room was fitted up to which we might invite those of our neighborhood who were possessed of old crafts and who were eager to use them.

We found in the immediate neighborhood at least four varieties of these most primitive methods of spinning and at least three distinct variations of the same spindle put in connection with wheels. It was possible to arrange these seven into historic sequence and order, and to connect the whole with the present method of [page 2] factory spinning. The same thing was done for weaving, and on every Saturday evening a little exhibit is made of these "various forms of labor" in the textile industry. Within one room the Syrian, the Greek, the Italian, the Slav, the German, and the Celt enable even the most casual observer to see that there is no break in orderly evolution if we look at history from the industrial standpoint, and that industrial development went on peacefully year by year among the workers of each nation, heedless of differences in language, religion and political experiences.

A Tailor's Speech

And then we grew more ambitious and arranged lectures upon industrial history. I remember that, after an interesting lecture upon the Industrial Revolution in England and a portrayal of the appalling conditions throughout the weaving districts of the North which resulted from the hasty gathering of the weavers into the new towns, a tailor in the audience was moved to make a speech. He suggested that, whereas time had done much to alleviate the first difficulties in the transmission of weaving from handwork to steam power, in the application of steam to sewing we are still in the first stages, illustrated by the isolated woman who tries to support herself by hand needlework. He pointed out that the persistence of many of the hand weavers in their own homes until driven out by starvation is now paralleled by the same persistence among the "home finishers" who sew in their own houses.

The historical analogy seemed to bring a certain comfort to the tailor as did a chart upon the wall showing the infinitesimal amount of time that steam had been applied to manufacturing processes compared to the centuries of hand labor. Human progress is slow and perhaps never more cruel than in the advance of industry, but is not the worker entitled to the comfort of knowing that other periods have existed similar to the one in which he finds himself and that the readjustment may be shortened and alleviated by judicious action, and is he not entitled to the solace which an artistic portrayal of the situation might give him? I remember the evening of the tailor's speech that I felt reproached because no poet or artist has endeared the sweater's victim to us as George Eliot has made us love the belated weaver, Silas Marner.

A Lecture That Was Not a Bore

Perhaps the sincerest tribute we have ever received as to the success of the Labor Museum was from a club of necktie works, formerly meeting at Hull-House, who persistently resented any attempt on the part of their director to improve their minds. The president once said that she "wouldn't be caught dead at a lecture," that she came to the club "to get some fun out of it," and indeed it was most natural that she should crave recreation after a hard day's work. One evening I saw the entire club listening to quite a stiff lecture in the Labor Museum, and to my rather wicked remark to the president that I was surprised to see her enjoying a lecture, she replied that she did not call this a lecture; she called this "getting next to the stuff you work with all the time."

Although the textile museum is connected directly with sewing, millinery, embroidery and dressmaking constantly being taught at Hull-House, and so far as possible with the other educational departments, such as the classes in drawing and designing, yet the educational values of a museum for the members of the Hull-House classes, and for the pupils from the many schools who are constantly brought to visit it, seem to us less important than its reaction upon the immigrants. We are especially delighted when it puts them into the position of teachers and occasionally of entertainers. This must be a pleasant change for them from the attitude of tutelage, in which all Americans, including their own children, are so apt to hold them. I recall a number of Russian women working in a sewing-room near Hull-House, who heard one Christmas week that the House was going to give a party to which they might come. They arrived one afternoon, when, unfortunately, there was no party on hand, and, although the residents did their best to entertain them with impromptu music and refreshments, it was quite evident that they were greatly disappointed. Finally, it was suggested that they be shown the Labor Museum, -- where, gradually, the thirty sodden tired women were transformed. They knew how to use the spindles and were delighted to find the Russian "spinning-frame." Many of them had never seen a spinning-wheel, which has not penetrated to certain parts of Russia, and they regarded it as a new and wonderful invention. They turned up their dresses to show their homespun petticoats, they tried the looms, they explained the difficulty of the old patterns.

Because of a direct appeal to former experiences, the immigrant visitors were able for the moment to instruct their American hostesses in an old and honored craft, revivifying something of the [poetry] and charm inherent in woman's traditional household labor, somewhat [page 3] as travel makes one familiar with it: I recall Indian women grinding grain as they hymned praises to the Sun and Rain; a file of white clad Moorish women whom I once saw waiting their turn at a well in Tangiers; south Italian women kneeling in a row along the stream and beating their wet clothes against the smooth white stones; the milking, the gardening, the marketing in thousands of hamlets, which is so direct an expression of the solicitude and affection at the basis of all family life; at a Passover feast I once attended, this daily activity rose into religious significance as the Jewish mother placed before her family food prepared according the Mosaic directions.

The Labor Museum continually demanded more space, as it was enriched by a fine textile exhibit lent by the Field Museum, and later by carefully-selected specimens of basketry from the Philippines. The shops have finally included a group of women -– Irish, Italian, Danish –- who have become a permanent working force in the textile department, which has developed into a self-supporting industry through the sale of the homespun products. This group of women, and of a few men who came to the museum to utilize their European skill in pottery and metal and wood, demonstrated that immigrant colonies might yield to our American life something very valuable, if their resources were intelligently studied and developed.

Hidden Artistic Ability

Perhaps even worse, however, than the mere waste of skill among the immigrants is the effect of suppression upon the artisan himself. A Bohemian, whose little girl attended classes at Hull-House, in one of his periodic drunken spells had literally almost choked her to death, and later had committed suicide when in delirium tremens. His poor wife stayed a week at Hull-House after the disaster until a new tenement could be arranged for her, and one day she showed me a gold ring her husband had made for their betrothal, which exhibited the most exquisite workmanship. She said that in the old country he had been a goldsmith, but that in America all he had done for twenty years was to shovel coal in a furnace room of a large manufacturing plant; that, whenever she saw one of his "restless fits" which preceded his drunken periods "coming on," if she could provide him with a bit of metal and persuade him to stay at home and work at it he was all right and the time passed without disaster, but that "nothing else would do it," This story threw a flood of light upon the dead man's struggle and on the stupid maladjustment which broke him down. Why had we never been told? Why had our interest in the remarkable musical ability of his child blinded us to the hidden artistic ability of the father? We had forgotten that a long-established occupation may form the very foundations of the moral life, that the art with which a man has solaced his toil may be the salvation of his uncertain temperament.

In spite of our failure in this case we many times have been able to recover the arts of the immigrant through their children. The Hull-House Music School is designed to give a thorough musical education to a limited number of people, and from the beginning they are taught to compose and to reduce to order the musical suggestions which may come to them.

The pupils sometimes find folk-songs in the possession of their old country relatives which have never been committed to paper, but which have survived through the centuries because of some touch of that undying poetry which the world has always cherished. I recall the plaint of a Russian who is digging a post-hole and finds his task dull and difficult until he strikes a stratum of red sand which, in addition to making digging easy, reminds him of the red hair of his sweetheart, and all goes merrily as the song lifts into a joyous melody.

Celebrating Foreign Holidays in Chicago

The celebration of national events has always been a source of new understandings and companionship with the members of the contiguous foreign colonies. A huge Hellenic meeting held at Hull-House, in which the achievements of the classic period were set forth both in Greek and English by scholars of well-known repute, brought us into a new sense of fellowship with all our Greek neighbors. As the Mayor of Chicago was seated upon the right hand of the dignified senior priest of the Greek Church and they were greeted alternately in the national hymns of America and Greece, one felt a curious sense of the possibility of transplanting to new and crude Chicago some of the traditions of Athens itself, so deeply cherished in the hearts of this group of citizens.

The Greeks indeed gravely consider their traditions as their most precious possession and more than once, in meetings of protest held by the Greek colony against the aggressions of the Bulgarians in Macedonia, I have heard it urged that the Bulgarians are trying to establish a Protectorate there, not only for their immediate advantage but that they may claim a glorious history for their "barbarous country"; [page 4] [image THE LABOR MUSEUM] It is said they are already teaching in their schools that Alexander the Great was a Bulgarian and that it will be but a short time before they claim Aristotle himself, an indignity the Greeks will never suffer. Shall we not cherish these traditions and build our American citizenship if possible without disturbing for an instant "the foundations which we laid of old time"?

To me personally the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Mazzini's birth, only three years ago, was a matter of great interest. Throughout the world that day wherever Italians were found who believed in a United Italy they came together to recall the hopes of this man, who, with all his devotion to his country, was still more devoted to humanity and who dedicated to the workingmen of Italy an appeal so philosophical, so filled with a yearning for righteousness, that it transcended all national boundaries and became a bugle call for "The Duties of Man." A copy of this document was given to every school child in the public schools of Italy on this one hundredth anniversary, and, as the Chicago Branch of the Society of Young Italy marched into our largest hall to present to Hull-House an heroic bust of Mazzini, I found myself devoutly hoping that the Italian youth who have committed their future to America might indeed become "the Apostles of the fraternity of nations" and of that unity of the human race which Mazzini declared to be a necessary corollary to the "Unity of God." Possibly the South Italians more than any other immigrants represent the pathetic stupidity of agricultural people crowded into city tenements. One of our earliest undertakings at Hull-House, in cooperation with the editor of an Italian newspaper, was the establishment of an agricultural colony in Alabama. Thirty peasant families were induced to move upon the land, which they knew so well how to cultivate. The starting of this colony, however, was a very expensive affair, for, although the colonists purchased the land at two dollars an acre, they needed much more than raw land, and we were convinced that undertakings of this sort could be conducted properly only by colonization societies such as England has established, or, better still, by enlarging the functions of the Bureau of Information connected with the Department of Immigration.

A Test of Cultivation

It seemed to us in the early days of Hull-House that it might be possible to receive help from American women who had traveled in Italy and who, knowing the language, might be interested to discover the charm of an Italy built in the midst of Chicago with the capacity which the Italian colony so mysteriously displays of flowering into beauty at unexpected points. Some help has always come in that way, but there is no doubt that our most efficient aid has come from the Hull-House Woman's Club, which very early in its history informed what was called "A Social Extension [page 5] [images THE HULL HOUSE LABOR MUSEUM
IRISH METHODS OF SPINNING AND WEAVING] [page 6] [image THE LABOR MUSEUM] Committee." Once a month the Social Extension Committee gives parties to people in the neighborhood who for any reason seem to them forlorn and without much social pleasure. One evening they invited only Italian women, thereby crossing a distinct social "gulf," for there certainly exists as great a sense of social different between the prosperous Irish-American women and the South-Italian peasants as between any two sets of people in the city of Chicago. The Italian women, who were almost Eastern in their habits, all stayed at home and sent their husbands, and the Social Extension Committee entered the drawing-room to find it occupied by rows of Italian workingmen, who seemed to prefer to sit in chairs along the wall. They were quite ready to be "socially extended," but plainly puzzled as to what it was all about. The evening finally developed into a very successful party, not so much because the committee were equal to it as because the Italian men rose to the occasion.

Untiring pairs of them danced the tarantella, their fascinating national dance, they sang Neapolitan songs, one of them performed some of those wonderful sleight-of-hand tricks one sees so often on the streets of Naples, they explained the coral finger of St. Januarius which they wore, they politely ate the strange American refreshments, and when the evening was over one of the committee said to me, "Do you know, I am quite ashamed of the way I have always talked about "Dagos"; they are quite like other people, only one must take a little more pains with them. I have been nagging my husband to move off F Street because they are moving in, but I am going to try staying a while and see if I can make a real acquaintance with some of them." To my mind at that moment the speaker had passed from the region of the uncultivated person into the possibilities of the cultivated person. The former is bound by a narrow outlook on life, unable to overcome differences of dress and habit, and his interests are slowly contracting within a circumscribed area; while the latter constantly tends to be more of a citizen of the world because of his growing understanding of all kinds of people, with their varying experiences. We send our young people to Europe that they may lose their provincialism and be able to judge their fellows by a more universal test, as we send them to college that they may attain the historic background, a larger outlook; all of these it is possible to acquire in other ways, as this member of the Woman's Club had discovered for herself.

Misunderstandings on the Part of Immigrants

On the other hand, it has not always been easy for Hull-House to reach a basis of understanding with an immigrant population. Often the mere enforcement of existing laws has made for misunderstanding. [page 7] [image THE FRIENDLY CLUB: HULL-HOUSE A SONG]

I recall a continuous warfare against local landlords, who would move wrecks of old houses as a nucleus for new ones in order to evade the provisions of the building code, and a certain Italian neighbor who was so filled with bitterness because his new rear tenement was discovered to be illegal that it was quite impossible to make him understand that the good health of the tenants was in any wise as important as his undisturbed rents.

This inevitable misunderstanding was also developed in connection with the attempt on the part of Hull-House residents to prohibit the sale of cocaine to minors. This brought the House into sharp conflict with many druggists, and especially with an Italian living on the edge of the neighborhood, who finally came with a committee of his fellow countrymen to see what Hull-House wanted of him, thoroughly convinced that no such effort could be disinterested. Through one dreary trial after another, this druggist, who had greatly profited by the sale of cocaine to boys, only felt outraged and abused. And yet the thought of this campaign brings before my mind with irresistible force a young Italian boy who died, a victim of the drug, at the age of seventeen. He had been in our kindergarten as a handsome, merry child, in our clubs as a vivacious boy, and then suddenly there was an eclipse of all that was animated and joyous and promising, and when I at last saw him in his coffin it was impossible to connect that haggard, shriveled body with what I had known before.

A midwife investigation, undertaken in connection with the Chicago Medical Society, while showing the great need of further state regulation in the interest of ignorant mothers and helpless children, brought us into conflict with one of the most venerable of all customs. Was all this a part of the unending struggle between the old and new or were these instances which were so unexpected and so wholly unlooked for merely indications that Hull-House had somehow bungled at its task? Many time I have been driven to the confession of Amiel: "It requires ability to make what we seem agree with what we are, as it requires humility to feel that we are no great things."

Differences of Political Standards

And yet these differences of customs are less powerful than the clashing of moral standards, most obvious whenever the standard held by Hull-House was brought into sharp conflict with those of the officeholders from whom the immigrant learns his political morality.

A dozen illustrations occur to me. One summer during an epidemic of typhoid fever our ward, although containing but one thirty-sixth of the population of the city, registered one sixth of the total number of deaths. Two of the Hull-House residents made an investigation [page 8] of the methods of plumbing in the houses adjacent to conspicuous groups of fever cases, discovering that the wretched sanitary appliances, through which alone the infection could have [images MUSIC STUDIO: HULL-HOUSE
become so widely spread, would not have been permitted to remain unless the City Inspector had been either criminally careless or open to the arguments of favored landlords. The agitation finally resulted in a long and stirring trial before the Civil Service Board of half the employees in the Sanitary Bureau, with the final discharge of eleven out of the entire force of twenty-four. The Inspector in our neighborhood was a kindly old man, greatly distressed over the affair, and quite unable to understand why he should not have used his discretion as to the time when the landlord should be forced to put in modern appliances. The old man died soon after the trial, feeling persecuted to the very last.

His point of view was shared by hundreds of immigrants occupying the unsanitary houses as tenants, and by peasant landlords who were not in the least shocked by conditions, which, although dangerously unsanitary in a crowded city, were quite what they were accustomed to at home in the open country.

As the old-fashioned Sanitary Inspector represented
THE FORGE] [page 10]
that type of politician who quite honestly estimates his morality by the kindness he is able to extend to the people about him, and who considers any more exigent standard of public conduct a mere exhibition of harshness, he of course quite closely approximated the political standards of our ward. These standards were set by a powerful alderman, who had


held office for more than twenty years and who, although notoriously corrupt, was firmly entrenched among his constituents. Hull-House had to do with three vigorous campaigns against him, all of them unsuccessful -- although twice a serious impression was made upon his majority and once his colleague was elected on a "reform ticket."

An element of reality is always brought into the political struggle in such a neighborhood as ours because politics deals directly with the affairs of daily life, such as finding work, getting a peddler's license, or being bailed out when arrested. One result of the campaign was an expectation on the part of our new political friends that Hull-House would perform like offices, and there resulted endless confusion and misunderstanding because in many cases our consciences would not permit us even to attempt to do what the alderman constantly did with a right good will. We were certainly not anxious for consistency nor for individual achievement, but we were most desirous of fostering a higher political morality. Often, however, when we insisted upon the enforcement of the law equally upon all, it could only appear like persecution against an offending individual, while, on the other hand, when the alderman used his influence in favor of the lawbreaker, it appeared both to him and to all beholders the act of a powerful and kindly statesman. And yet in spite of the difficulties nothing brings Hull-House so absolutely into comradeship with its immigrant neighbors as mutual and sustained efforts in the securing of a neighborhood park, the paving of a street, the closing of a gambling house, or the restoration of a veteran police segeant.

The Easiest Ways to Bring People Together

Thus through mutual interests in a common cause, as well as through the recovery of old crafts and traditions, Hull-House has endeavored to come into geniune relation with its immigrant neighbors. It is possible, however, that nothing bridges differences so completely as do the arts, which are traditionally the most potent agents for making a universal appeal, and which we have cultivated at Hull-House from the beginning. One could illustrate their power through incidents connected with the Hull-House Music School, and the studio for drawing, painting and engraving which has been enthusiastically maintained from the very first year of the House, but possibly the drama illustrates the point better than any of these. Long before the Hull-House theatre was built and equipped, this power became obvious. At one of the early Christmas celebrations in Hull-House, when Longfellow's "Golden Legend" was given, I remember that an old blind man, who took the part of one of the shepherds, said at [page 11] the end of the last performance: "It seems to me that I have been waiting all my life to hear some of these things said, and I hope to remember them to the end. It is getting hard for me to listen to reading, but the different voices and all made this very plain." Had he not perhaps made a legitimate demand upon the drama, that it shall express for us that which we have not been able to express for us that which we have not been able to formulate for ourselves? Certainly something of the sort is done in the plays so often given in our little theatre by the Italians. I recall one written by a neighborhood playwright which depicted the insolent break between Americanized sons and old country parents, until it moved to tears all the older Italians in the audience. Did the tears of each express relief in finding that others had had the same experience as himself? Did the knowledge free each one from a sense of isolation and an injured belief that his children were the worst of all? At times the power of revelation inherent in the drama goes further. A large colony of Greeks near Hull-House often feel that their history and classic background are completely ignored by the Americans in Chicago, and that they are easily confused with the more ignorant immigrants from other parts of Southeasern Europe. The Greeks therefore welcome an occasion to present Greek plays in the ancient text as an opportunity to reveal to Americans their familiarity with their own past and their knowledge of their classic tongue, which is taught in all the schools in Greece under an excellent system of compulsory education. While it would have been difficult for the Chicago Greeks themselves to have staged and reproduced a classic play, with expert help they reproduced the "Ajax" of Sophocles, which was a geniune triumph to the Greek colony of Chicago, who felt that they were "showing forth the glory of Greece" to "ignorant Americans." The scholars who came with a copy of Sophocles in hand and followed the play with real enthusiasm did not in the least realize that the revelation of the love of the Greek poets was mutual between the audience and the actors. The Lithuanians, the Poles and other Russian subjects often use the Hull-House stage to produce plays in their own tongue which shall at one and the same time keep alive their sense of participation in the great Russian Revolution and relieve their feelings in regard to it as again and again the gendarme enters and the revolutionist swallows or burns the incriminating papers.

The Power of the Drama

This effort to understand life through its dramatic portrayal, to see one's own participation intelligibly set forth, is of course difficult 
when one enters the field of social development, although the Hull-House Dramatic Association finds that the plays of Shaw and Ibsen are very popular, perhaps because of their sincere attempt to expose the shams and pretense of contemporary life and to penetrate into some of its perplexing social and domestic situations. Through such plays the stage becomes a pioneer teacher of social righteousness.

I have come to believe, however, that the stage may do more than preach; that much of our current moral instruction will not endure the test of being cast into a lifelike mold, and when presented in dramatic form will reveal itself as platitudinous and effete. That which may have sounded like righteous teaching when it was remote and wordy will be challenged afresh when it is obliged to simulate life itself.

This function of the stage, as a reconstructing and reorganizing agent of accepted moral truths, came to me with overwhelming force as I listened to the Passion Play at Oberammergau one beautiful summer's day in 1900, the peasants portrayed exactly the successive scenes of the wonderful life, using only the very words found in the accepted version of the Gospelsm yet curiously modernizing and reorientating the message. They made clear that the opposition to the Young Teacher sprang from the merchants whose traffic in the temple He had disturbed and from the Pharisees who were dependent upon the merchants for support. The query of the latter was curiously familiar, as they demanded the antecedents of the Radical who dared to touch vested interests, who presumed to dictate the morality of trade and who insulted the marts of honest merchants by calling them a "den of thieves." As the play developed, it became clear that this powerful opposition had friends in Church and State, that they controlled influences which ramified in all directions; their very position in the communiy gave their statement weight, that the young Agitator must be done away with in order that the highest interests of society might be conserved. These simple peasants made it clear that it was the "money power" which induced one of the Agitator's closet friends to betray him, and that the villain of the piece, Judas himself, was only a man so dazzled by money that hewas perpetually blind to the spiritual vision unrolling before him.

As I saw the shadows on the beautiful mountain back of the open stage shift from one side to the other and finally grow long and pointed in the soft evening light, my mind was filled with perplexing questions. Was the dramatization of the life of Jesus a shadowy following of His command "to do the will," and did it therefore approximate "the doctrine" more closely than preaching can do?

The peasant actors whom I had seen returning from mass that morning had prayed only to portray the life as He had lived it and, behold, out of their simplicity and piety arose this modern version which even Harnack was only then venturing to suggest to his advanced colleagues in Berlin. Yet the Oberammergau folk were very like thousands of immigrant men and women of Chicago, both in their experiences and in their familiarity with the hard facts of life, and throughout the day, as my mind dwelt on my far-away neighbors, I was reproached with the sense of an ungarnered harvest,

Miss Addams' subject for the next [installment] of this series will be "Echoes of the Russian Revolution"

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