Reflections on a Hull-House Neighborhood Photograph, circa 1900

By Michael Burrus

AHTC Summer Institute 2009



Although there were many highlights over the course of the Summer Institute, the experience at Hull-House and learning more about the brilliant life of Jane Addams was, and continues to be, a personal favorite.  Her humanitarian accomplishments were simply astounding.  To attempt to list all of her achievements here would be an injustice to her, but, to name a few, Jane Addams was a civil rights activist, a community organizer, an advocate for individuals, including immigrant children and their families, a teacher, a suffragist, a pacifist, and the first female to win the Nobel Prize. 

It is my belief that the most refreshing aspect of our Hull-House experience was seeing that the progressive spirit of Hull-House continues to thrive today.  From the urban farming and food canning operations to the book talks and lectures, our visit confirmed that Hull-House continues to be thoroughly committed to improving the lives of others.  That spirit began with Jane Addams.  In reading and learning more about her, I’ve discovered how instrumental Addams was in improving the lives of working class immigrant settlers in Chicago around the turn of the century and beyond.  For this particular assignment, I chose to focus on her commitment in regards to the health and well-being of her neighbors, and more specifically, the underprivileged children of her city.  

The beginning chapter of the book Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy, by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin (2006) sheds some light on the overwhelming garbage problem in the city of Chicago in the late 1800’s. The chapter also gives the reader a sense of Jane Addams’ level of commitment and thoughtfulness in regards to improving her community.  The garbage collectors in the city were often given their jobs because of political connections, and it is quite fair to say that they were uninterested in doing their jobs particularly well (p.1).  Garbage was everywhere, which in turn, attracted rodents and flies, which ultimately caused disease.  Conditions were so deplorable that “half the children born in Chicago in the late 1880’s died before reaching their fifth birthday.” (p.1)  Troubled by the state of this mess, and realizing the health effects on individuals, families, and children, and after repeated failed attempts through the “proper” political channels, Jane Addams became the garbage inspector for her ward in order to ensure that the garbage collectors performed their duties. 

In her autobiographical book, Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams wrote:

“The careful inspection brought about a great improvement in the cleanliness and comfort of the neighborhood; and one happy day, when the death rate of our ward was found to have dropped from third to seventh (of the city’s thirty-four wards) and was so reported to our Women’s Club, the applause which followed recorded the genuine sense of participation in the result, and a public spirit which had ‘made good’.” (p.190)

I decided to analyze a photograph for a primary source (University of Illinois at Chicago, University Library, Department of Special Collections, Jane Addams Memorial Collection, JAMC neg. 296.).  I chose the photo for a few reasons.  One reason was because I thought that the photograph superbly illustrates why Jane Addams was so uncompromising in her drive to improve the lives of the children of Chicago.  She realized that children needed a better, safer, and healthier place to play, and they needed activities that were specifically designed with their interests in mind.  I also chose this particular photograph because it would be perfect to use with my second graders.  I think that it would be wonderful to have my students examine this photograph, discuss it in groups, write down their questions about it, and let their questions guide more extensive research.  Lastly, I chose the photograph because I was intrigued by the story of Jane Addams becoming the garbage inspector for her ward, and the photo certainly goes hand-in-hand with that specific narrative.       

The photo was taken in 1900 and shows seven children playing in a trash-filled alley.  The identity of the photographer is unknown.  The buildings and fences surrounding the dirty and muddy alley appear old and worn.  No adults seem to be in the picture (there is another individual in the picture, but too far off in the background to distinguish age).  Two of the older children look as if they are playing “leap frog” and the younger children are all intently watching them.  One of the smallest children is wearing visibly tattered clothing, and her hair does not at all look like the hair of a “fortunate” child.  In analyzing the photograph, one of the items that struck me was that the children are playing in an area of the alley that has the greatest amount of mud and trash. 

In examining the photograph, there are many inferences which can be made.  Obviously, one can infer that the children are from economically disadvantaged families. Also, knowing that playgrounds were uncommon at the time, it becomes apparent that the children in this neighborhood (as well as many others) spent their leisure time in conditions such as this during times of play.  Additionally, the children in the picture do not seem to be phased at all in regards to their specific choice of location in the alley.  It looks as if they could have chosen to play in a relatively cleaner part of the alley, but they did not.  In thinking about this aspect of the photograph, I realized that the children were most likely just so used to the garbage and muck (and that it had probably just been that way their whole lives), that they simply didn’t think twice about it.  This was the environment in which they could and did play.  Simply put, this was their “playground”. 

This particular photograph and the life work of Jane Addams seem to be beautifully intertwined.  By viewing the photograph, I gained a great number of insights in regards to what most likely was a major inspiration behind the work of Jane Addams – an uncompromising drive to improve the lives of children.