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Jane Addams and Hull-House

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At the end of Kriti, there was a music concert next door; I walked over with Mary Anne, but when we arrived the music was too loud for me, so I decided not to go in. I learned later that we'd arrived at a particularly loud moment; the rest of the concert wasn't like that. But just as well that I didn't attend, 'cause instead I wandered through the nearby Hull-House Museum.

Mary Anne was surprised that I didn't know who Jane Addams was or what Hull-House was. My American History classes certainly covered labor history, but my memory is that they focused on the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and the Haymarket Riot. (And by the way, somehow it didn't occur to me 'til just now that this was an appropriate entry to post today. Happy International Workers' Day! Arise, you prisoners of starvation! While I'm here, if you're looking for some good fiction about 19th-century Chicago anarchists to commemorate the day, I recommend "Rapture," by Sally Gwylan, from SH a couple of years ago.) I think I had a vague idea that Addams was a suffragette, but didn't know much, if anything, else about her.

The museum was pretty cool, and pretty informative. I had never heard of settlement houses, for example.

There were two things in the museum that I found particularly interesting:

First, a pair of large maps. Each map showed all of the residences in the local neighborhood, color-coded to show certain kinds of information. The sort of thing I would expect to see in an Edward Tufte book, though I don't recall whether he actually used these particular maps or not. One was a map of wages (use the controls at the side of the image to zoom in; click and drag to move around); the other was a map of "nationalities." As the modern text accompanying the maps at the museum noted, the latter was particularly interesting as a look at how the well-meaning liberal intellectuals (my phrase, not the museum's) of Hull-House categorized people: the "nationalities" listed were a mix of what we might now think of as ethnicity, language, country of ancestry/origin, and so on. Some of the categories:

  • English Speaking (Excluding Irish)
  • Irish
  • German
  • French
  • French Canadian
  • Bohemian [i.e. Czech]
  • Chinese
  • Colored [which the sign indicates was intended as a respectful term]

I asked if I could take photos, but the nice woman behind the desk told me I couldn't, on the grounds that it was all copyrighted. I knew that couldn't be true, given that the maps are over a hundred years old, but I figured it would all be available online so there was no point in my arguing about it. And indeed they are available online; if the above zoomable versions aren't enough for you, there are PDF versions of both of those maps plus several others.

Anyway, perhaps even more interesting was a display in a different room. There was a painting of a woman named Mary Rozet Smith, with a set of three different captions; museum visitors were invited to comment on which caption they felt was best/most appropriate. One caption noted, among other things, that Smith was Jane Addams's "companion for decades." The next mentioned that Smith was Addams's "life partner," and added: "Given the emotional intimacy that is expressed in their letters to one another, it is hypothesized that they were lesbians. It is, however, difficult to determine this for sure." (Please follow the link and read the captions in full; each of them says more than I'm quoting.) The third says Smith was Addams's "partner[...]. They shared a deep emotional attachment and affection for one another. Only about one half of the first generation of college women ever married men. [...] In letters, Addams refers to herself and Rozet Smith as 'married' to each other. [...] Jane Addams burned many of her letters from Mary Rozet Smith."

I found the display fascinating for a bunch of reasons: first, that I hadn't known Addams might have been a lesbian, or the late-19th-century equivalent (but I hadn't known much else about her either); second, showing alternate captions gives a neat glimpse of the idea that captions in museums choose what information to present and how to present it; third, that a bunch of people had written their opinions of the captions on sticky notes on a nearby display board. If you follow the above link, you too can add your opinion of the captions.

Also of interest: Wikipedia does not currently mention Mary Rozet Smith, even in the entry on Addams. The discussion page indicates that the Addams entry at one time referred to her as a notable LBGT person, but that mention was removed when nobody added evidence to support it. Given the ambiguity and uncertainty shown in those captions, I don't think it would be entirely appropriate to restore that bit to the Wikipedia entry; but I do think it would be appropriate to mention Rozet Smith (in the Addams entry) and explain that it's hard to know how to classify their relationship in modern terms. I don't have coherent enough thoughts on this to add that to the entry myself at the moment, though.

Anyway, if you're as ignorant as I was about Addams and Hull-House, I recommend reading at least the Wikipedia entries. Interesting stuff, and today's a good day to spend some time thinking about labor and class history.

[Edited an hour or two after posting to add a hyphen to all occurrences of "Hull House," on the grounds that Addams herself spelled it with a hyphen, as does the museum, though a variety of other source don't.]

3 Comments

Museums often have bizarre (to me) ideas about what can and can't be photographed; I don't know to what extent their various claims are legally credible. But I've often encountered museums which claim they hold the exclusive right to create and distribute images of anything in the museum--which doesn't sound like it falls under copyright at all. I don't know what sort of law that would fall under, if any.


I think my introduction to Jane Addams happened during my year as a student assistant at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. They have a Jane Addams collection, so you might be able to find out more the next time you're at Swarthmore. (If you're interested, anyway.)


In fact, I should have said that they have the collection of Jane Addams's papers. (Her donation of her papers to Swarthmore was the start of the Peace Collection.)


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