Library of Congress

Jane Addams is called the “Mother of Social Work”; which is impressive enough, but really doesn’t cover her whole story. You know what else won’t cover her whole story? One episode. Jane’s life was so packed that we decided to  break it into two parts to cover it thoroughly. (If you’re looking for the media recommendations, they’ll be on the shownotes for Part Two.)

Before Jane began her life’s work as an American settlement pioneer and social work reformer; before she gave her first speech, wrote her first book, or organized her first meeting to create social change, she was a little girl in a wealthy family who was developing the skills, character, and temperament to change the world.

Laura Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, the 8th of 9 children born to wealthy businessman, Illinois senator and good pal of Abraham Lincoln – John Huy and his hardworking and kind-hearted wife, Sarah Weber Addams. Sadly, only 5 of their children would live past the age of 2 and Mama Sarah would pass away while Jenny (she had to grow into “Jane”) was still a toddler.

The Addams family ( snap snap) homestead in Cedarville, IL today. (It’s a private residence, just look at the picture, don’t knock on the door.) wikicommons

John remarried a widow with two sons, coincidentally one the same age as Jenny–hijinx ensued. Jenny was smart and a big reader (you guys! She read and re-read Little Women–you like her already, don’t you?) and by the time she finished the school in Cedarville, she knew she wanted to go to college, get a degree and become a doctor. Solid plan! Papa swapped out Jenny’s preferred Smith College in Massachusetts for a more local Rockford Female Seminary in Illinois and she headed off to college to overachieve, make friends, write bad poetry, try opium, and get her education. She also dropped the childhood nickname and became Jane.

But then, she was finished. At 21, with no direction but not anxious to go the Mrs. route, Jane floundered. Making matters tougher, first her father died suddenly, then she enrolled then dropped out of medical school and got herself checked in to the hospital for neurasthenia. (Oh, yay! We get to talk about 1800’s women’s “medical care.” Here’s an article about her diagnosis from The Atlantic.)

Jane Addams, late 1800s, photo by Cox, Chicago

When she returned from a two year long Grand Tour therapy session she had her eyes wide open. She had seen poverty unlike anything she had been exposed to before…although she wasn’t sure what to do, she knew she wanted to- and could- do something.

The area Jane and Ellen chose to live in. Illustration from 20 Years at Hull House

It would take another couple of years, another tour of Europe and a bloody bullfight (there’s a story!) before Jane and her friend Ellen Gates Starr formed a plan based on settlement houses they had visited in England: Live in an impoverished area packed with immigrants, bring in women just like them- smart, educated, and unfulfilled-to not only become a part of the community, but to create community services and improved lives for all involved.

Hull House today wikicommons

The 19th Ward in Chicago gave them their neighborhood; a rented, run-down mansion gave them their home base, the generous women of Chicago gave them funds and their settlement house plans fell into place even better than Jane and Ellen had imagined: in their first year, 50,000 people passed through their doors and into their own lives of purpose.

And this is where we’re going to leave you. It’s 1891, Hull-House is up and running, programs are being created, lives are being changed, the community is forming…and Jane is just getting started.

The children of the 19th Ward were involved in the first programs in Jane’s settlement house (illustration from 20 Years in Hull House by Jane Addams)


Ah yes, 80’s television! Bosom Buddies: two men dress as women to live in the Susan B. Anthony Hotel (this only makes sense if you listened to the episode.)  Happy Rabbit Hole tumble!