Reform: Much Easier in Hindsight

By Matt Buckles

AHTC 2009 Summer Institute Reflective Paper


            I began the Summer Institute this year expecting to learn about the era of American history defined as the “Progressive Era” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Our weeklong study of “Reform, Reformers, and Reformatories” certainly did cover the Progressive Era – including a visit to Jane Addams’ Hull House, one of the most important centers of the movement.  However, by focusing on the broad concept of “reform,” we were able to look at varied topics that textbook chapters on the arbitrary “Progressive Era” would otherwise ignore such as the role of gangs in Chicago.  Tiffany Clark defined reform as “any effort to ‘improve’ some social problem.”  This definition of reform is much more appropriate for students to think historically about Hull House, gangs, mental institutions, or any other social “problem” or reform. 

Reforms (at least those that work) are usually placed in our historical memory as part of a gradual upward progression towards the modern era. True analysis of primary sources reveals something different, however.  Beyond the implication that we have “arrived” at equality, this understanding of reform ignores the competing interests of the era – as well as those who the reform may have hurt.  Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star made countless successful reforms for immigrants in Chicago through Hull House and led an international movement to look more closely at conditions affecting the underclass.  Even so, for all the benefits the world received as a result of Hull House, the institution did have some negative implications for some people.  Addams and Star chose to live within the neighborhood of the people who needed their assistance, buying the Hull mansion on Halstead Street in Chicago.  Certainly they could never have accomplished so much without living in the neighborhood, but as their enterprise grew, so did the size of the complex – from one house to thirteen buildings.  In most cases, tenement buildings were torn down or rebuilt for Hull House.  This double-edged sword resulted in some scorn towards Addams after she had Chicago’s first public playground built, as the film Chicago: City of the Century describes.

Of the documents on the subject, the first to note is the writing of Addams herself on conditions of children within the city in “Child Labor and Other Dangers of Childhood”, a 1906 speech given to the American Humane Association.  Addams knew she was speaking to a group of educated, wealthy individuals, and she begins her speech by championing the “the industrial and commercial enterprise” and “capitalists and business men…pushing forward great commercial enterprises and interests which benefit the community at large to a great extent.”  However, the purpose of her speech is to educate people about conditions lower class children faced to argue that these conditions “threaten the future welfare of our country.”  She goes further to challenge her audience by saying, “It is the duty of every thinking man and woman to limit as far as possible, if [child labor] cannot be abolished.”  The first thing she points to as a negative for the development of children is the lack of play time and space as a result of child labor.  Addams goes on to provide several supports for child labor reform; she offers vignettes of boys expected to bring home wages and then being led into a life of crime because of a childhood being robbed of them.  It is the play space that I wish to investigate further, however.  Of course Addams did more than simply speak out in favor of reform – she did whatever she could to start it herself in her Chicago neighborhood.  She built the first public playground in Chicago to provide that developmental necessity of which she spoke so highly in her 1906 speech.

 The photographic essay “Where Should Children Play?”, the University of Illinois-Chicago organizes some photographs showing the need for a play space for children.  Photograph 4 shows the incredibly dense population of the neighborhood – making “play” rather difficult and forcing children to go to dirty alleys or streets as in Photograph 5.  Photographs 13, 15, 19, and 20 each reveal an image of the Hull House playground being enjoyed by local children.  Through these photographs, we see children enjoying a large, open space free to play as in a modern grade school recess in Photograph 15 complete with a jungle gym and other built structures.  Photograph 20 shows some of the many organized activities provided for children and families.  Picture 19 shows a permanent fence structure separating the space from the street, providing a safe space for children to play outside.

In a study of reform with my students, I would begin with this definition and have students analyze its loaded terminology.   “Effort” implies that reforms are not always successful.  I would ask students to investigate reform efforts by first considering the costs to society for making this perceived societal change and to think about what it takes to make a successful reform on society.  For example, why did many reformers lobby for alcohol bans?  What unexpected problems occurred as a result of prohibition eventually leading to its repeal?  Secondly, the words “improve” and “social problem” imply that there is inherently something “wrong” with society in the first place that needs to be “fixed.”  When making any such reform, some segment of society would always disagree with this assertion, while others would never notice or care.  In addition, those in support of reforms often use arguments much different than our modern conceptions of the topic in order to achieve the changes they seek.  For example, to achieve suffrage, women used stereotypical societal images of themselves such as a “moral superiority” in order to further their cause.  These questions would help students move beyond the gradual progression image, and truly analyze reforms within their historical context.

In my analysis of the Addams speech and the photographic essay, I followed the general outline of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Document Analysis and Photograph Analysis.  I would provide these documents for my students in small groups after the initial discussion analyzing the concept of “reform.”  After a class discussion about the documents in general and the benefits, I would ask the students to return to the concept of reform?  Who would not like the idea of a playground for children?  They should mention the business owners Addams speaks of in her speech.  I would focus then on the photograph of the densely populated neighborhood.  Are there are any problems with building a playground here?  I would then show the clip from Chicago: City of the Century.  Many immigrants rejected the playground because it displaced people from their homes in a neighborhood that already had a severe housing shortage for the number of people in the area.  Over time, the benefits of the playground would abound, but in the short term, many residents had to be extremely irritated with the wealthy woman on Halstead.  One can imagine them thinking, “Shakespeare is fine, but when you tear down my home (even if this is to prevent it from falling over), I have to draw the line.”  The important question to ask students when analyzing the sources, why are there no primary sources in the children’s play section of UIC’s collection of primary sources of Jane Addams?  What image are they trying to protect?  Does this mean the sources should be considered secondary sources instead of primary if there is a bias? 

It is this balance between competing interests with which I want the students to wrestle – both in terms of American history and the present world.  For that reason, this document analysis would transition quite nicely into a research project on a modern reform.  I would have students look for something they would like to see changed (i.e. gay marriage, human trafficking, food production practices, health care) and research movements that are trying to institute reform and movements trying to stop that reform.  How can these groups compromise?  What is the most effective way for reform groups to achieve change?  How will society be improved long-term as a result of the reform?  If more groups were willing to address these questions from both sides, political ideological battles might actually be productive.