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Hull House as a Sociological Laboratory (1894)

Hull House as a Sociological Laboratory

This is a presentation by Miss Julia C. Lathrop at an evening session of the Twenty-First Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, May 23-29, 1894.Julia Clifford Lathrop, Hull House Resident and First Director of the Children's Bureau[View Image]
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Julia Clifford Lathrop, Hull House Resident and First Director of the Children’s Bureau

Editor’s Note: Julia Clifford Lathrop (1858-1932) was a resident of Rockford, IL and had been a student at the Rockford Female Seminary (1876-1877).  Her life changed dramatically when, in the winter of 1888-1889, Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams traveled to Rockford Seminary, their alma mater, to promote Hull House settlement in Chicago to the students and the community. Inspired by their presentation, Lathrop, at the age of 32, joined the residents of Hull-House in 1890. Julia Lathrop quickly became involved in Hull-House activities including being a volunteer visitor for the Cook County Charities. She was the first resident of Hull-House to receive a state position, appointed by the Governor to the Illinois Board of Charities. In her work with the board, Lathrop visited many facilities in and around Chicago, that collectively housed people who were mentally ill, aged, sick, or disabled. She advocated that separate facilities should be established that would attend to these specific groups. In her various roles, Lathrop witnessed official indifference to human needs and developed a lasting conviction about the importance of competent and honest public officials.

When the Childrens Bureau was formally created in 1912, President William Howard Taft appointed Lathrop as Chief, the first woman bureau chief in the federal government. She brought to the position her experiences and contacts from 22 years as a resident of Hull-House. 

Note: The subject for the evening session was ” Sociology in Colleges,” and was opened by a presentation titled “Instruction in Sociology in Institutions of Learning,” by the chairman of the committee, Mr. Daniel Fulcomer, of the University of Chicago. Miss Julia C. Lathrop had been invited to speak of Hull House as a sociological laboratory.

 Miss Lathrop: When Dr. Fulcomer asked me yesterday if I would speak tonight on “Hull House as a Laboratory of Sociological Investigation,” I was flattered by the impressiveness of the title; but I did not realize the responsibility it would entail. I have felt increasingly embarrassed as I have listened to his paper, which develops with such exactness the definition of sociology,– a science of which I know too little; and now, since it is late to withdraw, I see nothing except to state what I can about Hull House in the time allotted to me, and then to leave it to you to determine if it may be called a laboratory of sociological investigation.

Hull House is a social settlement. I need not say that thus far the form of a settlement has been that a number of young men or women, gathered chiefly from the universities and colleges, have taken up residence together in some undesirable quarter of a great city, and have undertaken to make it a better place to live in by the use of whatever powers or resources they might possess, and reciprocally to gain from it all the wisdom they could. To live among laboring people, getting their point of view; to serve their needs, whether it be for better lighted streets or higher cultivation; to study and to interpret present economic conditions by the light of sound historical research; and just now, above all, to try to bring to bear the influence of a “sweet reasonableness” upon the growing strength of labor organizations, -these may be taken as the aims of the settlement of which I speak, difficult, but worth striving for.

The settlement that we call Hull House was started five years ago, in Chicago, by Miss Addams and Miss Starr, who began living in a house which was one of the fine residences of the West Side before the blight of factories and railroad yards and tenements had destroyed forever the social prestige of its vicinity. At the time they took the house it was used partly as a tenement and partly as a cabinet-shop. They hired and restored it, and made of it a cheerful and delightful home, a place to which one who was invited went with pleasure, because it was an artistic and beautiful house, and offered the graciousness of a refined hospitality. It is situated on the corner of South Halstead and Polk Streets, a mile west of State Street and a mile south of the court house, in the middle of the Nineteenth ward. The neighborhood is markedly cosmopolitan, even in Chicago. Between us and the river on Polk and Ewing and a few other streets lives most of the Italian population of the city. South, on an area suggested to any Chicagoan by the names of Liberty and Maxwell Streets, are the Russian Jews. Both these people are ill-adjusted to American city life, and in periods of business depression many of them must receive charity. Among us are many Irish and Germans, as well as Teutons of the second generation who often have property, and Celts of the second generation who carry on our politics. Beyond our immediate neighborhood, to the south-west, are the Bohemians, and on the north-west a small French colony. Here and there are scattered Americans.

With neighbors varying in fortune from the estate of habitual paupers to that of self-respecting, industrious, intelligent working people, sometimes with independent means, the House must be many-sided if it is to answer to their diverse needs. Every activity of the House has sprung out of some neighborhood need; and it has thus been perhaps a necessity, at any rate a natural development, that it should undertake many things, as it realized the untoward conditions about it, rather than that it should do a few things with the thoroughness which a laboratory implies. Easily enough a free kindergarten was its first work. A day nursery has grown out of an increasing acquaintance with a neighborhood where the willful or enforced idleness of husbands, or their ephemeral character, makes it necessary for many women with families to work for hire. The day nursery has now rather overgrown the kindergarten, and is fast absorbing it as an adjunct in the care of the children daily brought to the nursery.

Neither nature nor landlords provide any play-ground save the street and the back alley for tenement-house children, unless we count on an occasional vacant lot where the dump-cart has quite ousted nature. It was a double advantage to the neighborhood when the owner of a piece of land covered with the poorest sort of wooden tenements gave its use for the purpose of a play-ground. The tenements were removed, this in itself being a consummation devoutly to be wished, and the lot converted into a clean, sand-covered space, with swings and turning-poles and see-saws.

There are various clubs for children and for young people, as well as the Hull House Men’s Club, which pays rent for its club-room, and the Hull House Women’s Club, both very dignified and substantial organizations. All these clubs have a more or less serious purpose of culture; but all reach it, I suspect, chiefly through social intercourse and enjoyment. It is needless to say how hateful is the social life of a tenement district in a great city, or rather how much to be deplored is the lack of such life. Yet it is hardly possible for one who has not lived in such a neighborhood to realize its barrenness of innocent pleasure. I am inclined to think that such power of usefulness as the House enjoys comes primarily very largely from the fact that it offers at various times and in various forms, to the thousand or so people who visit it weekly, social opportunities not otherwise obtainable. There are picnics and outings and Sunday afternoon concerts and lectures and receptions and parties. Dancing to a healthful young person is as natural as frisking is to a kitten; and favored young people find the love of motion and music recognized, and this amusement provided for them with conventional and respectable surroundings. But in a tenement district all this is changed. The homes are so small that a dance is inevitably held in a public hall, and becomes a more or less indiscriminate entertainment. Thus it is a great privilege to have the beautiful new Hull House gymnasium to dance in, and to have as much observance of decorum as any one could demand. Even the Social Science Club, which is a little coterie of men with a sprinkling of women meeting every Tuesday evening, shows the influence of a social atmosphere. The club is usually addressed by a speaker who is an authority on some political, social, or economic subject; and an hour of free discussion follows. I do not believe there is any vagary of social theorizing which has not been heard there; nor do I believe, to tell the truth, that the philosophy of any one has been changed, —unless it may be that some of us who pass for conservative have been enlarged, – but I am perfectly sure that a strong bond of human sympathy has been created, that the neutral ground and the “friendly roof” have had a real influence toward giving a common understanding and tolerance.

The House makes an earnest effort to strengthen the municipal life of its neighborhood. Any such district has the same suffrage power, voter for voter, as the best in the city. It has the same right to demand that it shall be well drained, paved, and lighted, that its streets shall be well cleaned and its garbage duly removed, and that it shall have adequate school-houses, and that it shall enjoy the advantages of public reading-rooms and bath-houses, and of whatever benefits municipal association confers. But it is a fact that such a district is never fairly treated, simply because the people who live there have no conception of their rights and duties as citizens. Too many of them simply regard their votes as one of their transferable mortal possessions. They are in the attitude of the street-car conductor- not in Chicago – who said to a passenger: “What do you think, sir, that votes are going at this fall? I have been offered two dollars and a half for mine, but I am holding it for four.” The House has endeavored not only to obtain needed improvements, but to stimulate by every proper means a persistent, intelligent local demand. One of the first things it obtained was a public reading-room. The Chicago Public Library has a system of branch reading-rooms. It had never placed one in our part of the town; nor would it have done so, had it not been that in a new building provided by a friend of the House for an art exhibit room and studio there was a fine ground-floor room which the House offered to the city rent free. Such a reading-room, with the dignity of the city ownership behind it, was much more desirable than one provided by private means as a charity. Of course, the saloon offers the only cheerful, well-furnished place of resort in such a neighborhood. The Hull House coffeeroom and the gymnasium and the club-room are an effort to furnish the opportunities for social enjoyment which are only found at the saloon otherwise. In our sales-kitchen, which uses the methods of the New England kitchen in Boston, foods are prepared for home consumption and the coffee-room is supplied. Much difficulty is found by doctors and the visiting nurses in obtaining wholesome nourishment for the sick, and the kitchen is of great use in furnishing proper food in such cases.

The cheap boarding-house of a tenement district is unattractive enough for men, whose freedom renders them somewhat independent of it, and who can supplement its pleasures by resorting to the saloon; but for young women its crowded, tawdry discomfort is most trying. The Jane Club, a boarding club of working-girls, was suggested to solve this problem. It is an independent organization with its own officers, though fostered by Hull House. It pays its current expenses upon a weekly charge of $33; and for this sum its members have clean surroundings, good food, and pretty sitting-rooms in which to receive their friends. The girls perform the duties of steward in turn as they are elected. They have no matron, no chaperone, no board of lady managers; but they have a dignity and a hearty esprit de corps which disprove all sweeping assertions about the inability of women to co-operate.

Constant dealing with abject poverty and sickness is always necessary in our neighborhood, and friends sometimes give us funds to use for relief; but it is our purpose to act as a bureau of information for our neighbors, and not as direct dispensers of charity. There are hospitals and relief societies and asylums enough; and the best service we can perform is to co-operate with them, and, if possible, increase their usefulness.

For four winters the House has had evening classes, which have been taught in part by residents, but chiefly by young men and women from other parts of Chicago. In pursuance of its policy to do nothing which any other agency was performing, it has not taught branches which the public night schools teach. Its programmes show classes in history, literature, science, languages, art, and music; and among its teachers are numbered some of the most brilliant people in town, who find great pleasure in this volunteer service, partly from its novelty, but more from the responsiveness and eagerness of the students.

I have said that the House is profoundly interested in the labor movement. No one can live among working people, and fail to see the increasing power of organization among them. Several unions of women have been organized at the house, and in several cases the House has been able to exert a conciliatory influence in strikes. The trades-union must be reckoned with as a fact, and can never be scolded or fought out of existence. It is not necessary to deny the crudeness and selfishness of some of its manifestations. It is necessary to remember that these qualities are rather universal. The trades-union needs – what we all need – a high ardor for humanity, a living belief in the solidarity of human interests. I do not know what modifications of our present economic and industrial life are to grow out of the labor movement; but of this I feel certain: that, if the movement fails to develop reasonably, it is the fault not more of those who direct it than of those who stand aloof from it.

The House has been always much interested in the public schools in that part of the city. They are overcrowded, and in many ways inadequate for the needs of children, hundreds of whom never hear English at home. The educative influence of art has always been held by the House to be especially needed in such quarters as this; and one of the residents has made collections of choice photographs and hung them in the school-rooms, and lectured upon art to the public school-teachers of different parts of the city, frequently. There has been a most cordial spirit of co-operation between the public-school teachers and the House. It was through the investigation and urgency of a resident that a new school-house was last year erected near us, with a kindergarten as a recognized department. We live in the midst of what is known as the ” sweat-shop district”; and it was through an effort of a resident that the legislature of Illinois made an investigation, resulting in the present ” sweat-shop law.”

As a piece of sociological investigation, I think perhaps the most satisfactory thing in this connection would be to refer to the maps made in 1892. At that time the government conducted a so-called “slum investigation ” in certain large cities, among them Chicago. Hull House borders upon the district chosen for investigation, and the person appointed to carry on the work was a resident of the House. As the schedules were brought in, the facts as to wages and to nationality were taken off, and later indicated in color and symbol upon surveyors’ maps of the district, thus giving a graphic presentation of a house-to-house canvass. They afford a vivid idea of the wage penalty required of foreigners for being unskilled, ignorant, and unassimilated; and they indicate with unflattering clearness the financial prosperity of the native-born population, who are pursuing unholy avocations on the eastern side of the district examined. Then, too, a resident of the House who came to us out of the East, bringing with her excellent training in household economics and the chemistry of food, spent several months in collecting dietaries, which have since been published. The House is constantly adding to its stores of recorded data upon all the matters with which it has to do, and I think it is not too much to say that it furnishes from the information it has gathered a considerable fund of sociological material.

It should always be reckoned into the account that its acquaintance gives it the power to obtain information upon any specific matter, when it is needed, which a stranger could hardly gain.

A Delegate: Tell us about the election in which Hull House was interested.

Miss Lathrop: That is rather humiliating, because we did not elect any one last year. The Hull House Men’s Club of more than one hundred and fifty members embraces many of the most influential citizens in the Nineteenth Ward. Some of them have had large experience in the politics of the ward. One of the candidates for alderman a year ago was a member of this club, and the club worked very hard to secure his election. It is at least doubtful if he could have been elected without their effort. He was elected as a reform alderman; and, what is much more to the point, he is still regarded as such. The club and all of us as fellow-citizens feel a righteous pride in him. We would have been glad at the last election to have seen an equally good man elected, but the politics of the ward were so organized that the House could do nothing.

A Delegate: Have you any system of visitation of families for philanthropic or religious purposes?

Miss Lathrop: That is rather a difficult question to answer. Any one who has lived long at the House has a large circle of acquaintances in that part of the town. Few of us have much time for social calling; but, on the other hand, I have never made a visit in that part of the town without as adequate a reason as would be demanded if my hostess lived on Calumet Avenue. I don’t say the same reason, but I say one which would equally satisfy the hostess. We have no ” system” of visitation. I do not think it would be possible to carry on a formal system and maintain the social relation which we endeavor to preserve. Nobody likes the census-taker, in what ever guise he comes. Of course, we do make a friendly investigatory call the condition of outdoor relief. So far as the religious purpose of the House is concerned, it does not undertake, and I think very few settlements do, to give religious instruction. We offer a common hospitality to all who come to the House for any of the purposes for which it is opened. It would be impossible to harmonize in clubs of men or women or in societies of boys and girls, as we constantly do, various religious faiths and nationalities, if we undertook any sort of religious propaganda. I am not in the least criticising that work. I am only saying that, undertaking to do the one, it would be impossible for us to do the other.

A Delegate:  How is Hull House supported?

Miss Lathrop: The land upon which stands Hull House proper, as well as the library and the building containing the kitchen, coffee-house, and gymnasium, is under a free lease from the owner, so that we are not only relieved of paying rent, but are relieved of responsibility of ownership. As a rule, the residents are unsalaried; and thus the ” wages of superintendence ” are practically eliminated. The House has many friends who constantly contribute toward carrying on the nursery and kindergarten and gymnasium and outdoor relief work, and all the various avenues for spending money which in such a place it is so easy to discover. Friends have erected the building in which are the coffee-house, kitchen, gymnasium, and club-room. Another friend erected the building containing the library and art gallery. In fact, it is the liberality of Chicago people interested in the experiment which many of them consider the House to be which alone renders possible its extended activity. Perhaps I have not made it clear that the House simply has the use of these buildings and grounds. Fortunately for itself, I think it has thus far owned no property. Property makes people conservative and prudent; and, though some of our friends think we ought to have a little on that account, yet, as a matter of fact, I think a large estate would, up to the present time, have necessitated a rigidity in method which would have lessened the usefulness of the House.


Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Twenty-First Annual Session Held May 23-29, 1894 in Nashville, Tenn. Pp. 313-319. Retrieved from


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