In Twenty Years at Hull-House
, Jane Addams tells of the poverty and abuses that existed during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The book includes eighteen chapters, illustrations, an index, and photographs. Addams begins with some personal background. She was a sickly child, and she was greatly influenced by her wealthy father, a strong admirer and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. Addams attended all-female Rockford College and left there determined to study medicine and help the poor. Her ill health returned, however, and she was unable to complete her medical studies. Her desire to help the poor remained. She spent several years traveling in the United States and Europe, where she was introduced to poverty and suffering in many places. She lived for a time in London, among the needy and suffering.
Upon her return to the United States, she and Ellen Starr founded Hull-House in the slums of Chicago in January, 1889. The search for the perfect location was lengthy, and Hull-House was named for the original owner of the large home.
The rest of the book details the activities of Addams and the people who inhabited and relied upon Hull-House. Addams was an active lecturer, and there are many quotes from her writings and lectures in the book. She concentrated not on the day-to-day running of Hull-House but on the larger issues of the times. Hull-House founded a kindergarten and day nursery. Addams actively campaigned for labor laws, especially child labor laws; she was also an aggressive organizer of unions, particularly those which involved a primarily female work force.
She left Hull-House to travel to London so she could meet and exchange ideas with Leo Tolstoy.
Addams moved into the civic arena to help finance her operation and to further improvement in public services such as garbage removal, protective services, education, health care, food inspection, decent playgrounds, and public wash areas.
The closing chapters of the book emphasize the successes of Hull-House in offering a place of mental stimulation. Social clubs were formed so that manners could be taught and practiced. Groups were formed, and lively discussions of the classics were held. Correct grammar and proper speech were encouraged. The Hull-House Women’s Club was started as an outlet for women to polish their social skills. As these new skills let them leave the slums, many of the women continued on at the club, assisting others in their quest to leave. Hull-House actively sponsored various forms of the arts.
Chapter 17 compares the life of the people living in the slums with that of the Russian peasants and anticipates the Russian Revolution. The final chapter describes some of the classes and methods of socialized education practiced at Hull-House. The book ends with a tone of regret that a place such as Hull-House is necessary in a democratic society.