Hull House was a pioneering social settlement, established in Chicago in 1889 by twenty-nine-year-old Jane Addams. It was the model for settlement houses in cities all across America, staffed by people who shared Addams’s vision of political reform and the need to develop the new field of professional social service.
The Hull House community included the most imaginative and energetic reformers and social activists of their generation: Alice Hamilton, who would be a pioneer in industrial disease and the first woman member of the faculty of Harvard Medical School; Florence Kelly, translator of Friedrich Engels, first factory inspector in Illinois and tireless investigator of industrial conditions; Julia Lathrop, first head of the federal Children’s Bureau. They were joined by dozens of younger women, representatives of the first large generation of college-educated women, driven by their conviction that they should use their education to improve society. They helped organize trade-union women, walked picket lines, established residences for single working women, ran a day nursery for working mothers, devised and lobbied for progressive legislation. Hull House offered an array of evening classes, concerts, and dramatic readings to nurture the minds of those it served.
Those who lived in Hull House apartments could order food from a central kitchen, but most came each night to the main dining room, where idealism ran high and the activities of the day and plans for the future could be discussed over dinner with guests like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and Gov. John P. Altgeld.
The Hull House community was perhaps the most formidable group of intellectuals and social activists gathered in this country since Jefferson’s dinners at the White House. I would love to have observed a Hull House dinner—even if I couldn’t eat more than would a fly on the wall.