The Start of a Midwestern Flowering

In 1877 a shy self-contained young girl aged seventeen left herhome in Cedarville to get a college education and prepare herself forher lifework. Jane Addams would have preferred to go to far-offMassachusetts to attend Smith College, where she had been accepted,but her father decided she should follow in the footsteps of threeolder sisters who had gone to Rockford Female Seminary, thirty milesto the southeast in neighboring Winnebago County. John Addams was nowon this institution's governing board; he liked the idea of Jane'sbeing close by where he could "keep an eye on her." Later on, hepromised, she could go to Europe, see the things deemed proper forladies in Victorian days, and widen her experiences. But thediversity that Jane had read about she would not yet know personally.Instead, hers would be the tight little world of a strongly religiousboarding school. Showing some of her father's stoicism, Janeappraised the situation, accepted the decision, and packed her bags.

Even in the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was unusualfor girls to go on to higher education. A woman's place was in thehome, so far as most middle-class Americans were concerned. Cooking,sewing, weaving, and childrearing were their proper areas ofinterest. That John Addams had both the desire and the means toeducate four daughters made his a truly exceptional family. Hesensed, quite accurately, that education was becoming a criticalfactor in post-Civil War America. Between 1860 and 1880 over fivehundred high schools were established in the United States, therebycreating thousands of teaching jobs for college graduates. The"schoolmarm" was already a stereotype in American society, but anincreasing number of young men now joined her in the classroom. Thedevelopment of a better psychology of education, with new methods,new subjects, and new textbooks, made teaching an intellectualchallenge and a personal fulfillment. By 1870, male teachers wereprominent in the school system.

An 1873 ruling handed down by the Michigan Supreme Court in theKalamazoo case gave communities the right to tax themselves for themaintenance of secondary schools, thus starting a new era in theMidwest. That same year, St. Louis opened the first public-schoolkindergarten; the experiment proved so successful that it spreadacross the country. Higher education also underwent a transformationduring Jane Addams' youth. Older universities were reorganized byfamous educators like Harvard's Charles W. Eliot, who introducedelectives, allowing undergraduates wide freedom to choose thesubjects they preferred instead of being compelled to take rigidlyprescribed courses. New institutions sprang up, the most celebratedbeing Johns Hopkins, a purely graduate school based on ideas importedfrom Germany. (Woodrow Wilson took his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in1885.) Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute, providingNegro students with more opportunities to acquire learning. RockfordFemale Seminary was only one of the many women's colleges thatflourished across the land.

The federal government provided assistance. The United StatesOffice of Education served as a clearinghouse for educationalproblems of cities and states. Land-grant colleges had already beenestablished under the Morrill Act of 1862. They expanded theiragricultural research and experiment stations with federal moneyappropriated under the Hatch Act of 1887--a boon to the Middle Westfrom which Jane Addams came. Meanwhile, many private citizens weretaking an interest in one major field with which Jane would have muchto do later on--adult education. Lecturers addressed adult audiencesat Chautauqua, New York, for the first time in 1874, and the word"Chautauqua" soon entered the language as a synonym for this type oflyceum.

Three years after Jane received her diploma at Rockford, JohnDewey took his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. He would go on to champion apragmatic philosophy called "instrumentalism" in which ideas aretreated as instruments for probing and changing reality, and areretained, revised, or discarded according to whether they work ornot. He would revolutionize education by insisting that the classroommust be integrated into the social background, so that Americanchildren may learn at school how to be worthy citizens of theirdemocratic society. The importance of John Dewey for Jane was this:His philosophy influenced her practice more than any other.

Change was in the air in the 1870's and 1880's. This was anextremely creative and expansive period for American education.

The Rockford Female Seminary

Leaving home with her father one sunny September morning, Janewent due south to Freeport, then took the main road east to Rockford.The ripened grain was golden in the fields; she felt close to thisland that she would always think of as her own. Groves of fine elmsand oaks could be seen on either side, surrounded by beds of colorfulprairie flowers. That night they reached Rockford, founded in 1834mainly by New Englanders. Named for the shallow rock-bottomed fordused by the Galena-Chicago stagecoach line before any settlementexisted there, Rockford was known as "The Forest City."

John Addams pointed out the local landmarks, such as the railroadstation. In 1852 the Chicago and Galena Union Railroad had reachedRockford, and the town had been growing ever since. John H. Manny'sreaper factory, founded in 1853, was considered a rival of CyrusMcCormick's in Chicago. Rockford's hosiery business, begun in 1870,was booming. The Winnebago Court House, built on the public squarefacing West State Street, had provided one of Illinois's tragic newsevents of the previous spring. On May 11, 1877, the partlyconstructed dome collapsed, killing nine workmen and fatally injuringtwo others. The main part of the building, in yellow limestone ofFrench rococo design, was finished in 1878.

But the place that interested Jane most was the Rockford FemaleSeminary on College Avenue. It had been chartered in 1847, makingthis one of the earliest institutions for female education in theMississippi Valley; by 1851, the women of Rockford had contributed$1,000 for the land, and the men $3,500 for a building. Thecornerstone of Colonial-style Middle Hall was laid in 1852, the sameyear Miss Anna P. Sill was elected principal, and the first sevengraduates received their certificates in 1854.

Conscious of the heroic sacrifices that made the school possible,the students applied themselves with a seriousness and intensity thatblanketed the campus. Rockford's chief purpose, as stated in thecatalogue, was "to develop moral and religious character inaccordance with right principles, that it may send out cultivatedChristian women in the various fields of usefulness." Spearheadingthis passionate campaign was Miss Sill, who dominated the seminaryand stayed at Rockford as principal for thirty-two years. Tenaciousas a bulldog, she did not give up an idea once she had got her teethinto it. From the day of her arrival, she interpreted "various fieldsof usefulness" to mean service to God, particularly in the field ofmissions. Jane clashed with this stern mentor on more than oneoccasion. "She does everything for love of God alone," Janewrote of Miss Sill in her diary, "and I do not like that."

For her part, Jane defined the phrase "various fields ofusefulness" in a broader sense, groping toward the principle thatservice to man, whether religious or not, must enter into any soundcriterion of right action as far as she was concerned. Her father hadtaught her to think for herself, and she did so--respecting theopinions of others, but not accepting them unless she felt personallycommitted. In a real sense, Jane differed not only with Miss Sill butalso with the original purposes of Rockford Seminary. Jane alwaysfelt that her moral development during her school years wassignificant precisely because she had the moral stamina to stand upto her strong-minded superiors there. Her efforts helped to transformRockford from a seminary to a college.

This side of her character, of course, did not reveal itself onthe day of her arrival. Diminutive in size, and away from home forthe first time, she suffered the qualms of most freshmen settlinginto college life. A classmate, Eleanor Frothingham Haworth,remembered that "on September 23, 1877 . . . I met a little girl withvery pretty light-brown hair, pushed back, and particularly direct,earnest eyes; but she looked as I know I was feeling, very tremblyinside. She said her name was Laura Jane Addams, and she had justcome from Cedarville.... I have always wondered if I looked as youngand worried as Jane did that day."

Even a careful observer would not have known during Jane's firstweeks at Rockford that so small and timid a girl had such a bold mindand spirit of her own. Only five feet three inches tall, and weighinga mere ninety-five pounds, Jane no longer carried her head on oneside, though her spine still gave her trouble. She had large blueeyes, well-defined thin features, and a light complexion. Even thoughshe was enjoying better health than she had previously known, sheseemed nothing more than an attractive but not outstanding newcomer.Before long, the picture changed. The rest of the undergraduateslearned that Jane Addams was a very special person who generated herown type of electricity. She would never lose the meditativeexpression of her childhood, but a decided tilt of her chin showed anew firmness--and she was always ready for a debate or for a frolic.Since she had been accustomed to serious and amusing talks with herfather for so long, she could meet her classmates on more than eventerms.

Plain food, simple living, and hard work prevailed at Rockford.All of the girls made their own fires, and kept their rooms in order.When their daily lessons were done, they talked endlessly in theevenings about philosophies of life, social problems, and thequestion of whether women ought to have the vote (which they answeredwith a resounding affirmative). The lively, consuming interest thatJane and her close friends had in ideas was mirrored in the mottofrom Aristotle they put up on the wall of the chess-club room: "Thereis the same difference between the learned and the unlearned as thereis between the living and the dead."

Piety, labor, reason

Tiny, independent Jane Addams read the prescribed books avidly,not just to obtain passing grades from her instructors, but becauseshe wanted to understand literature, philosophy, and science. Herdeep concern for religion, however, did not include a missionaryvocation, and she refused to pretend otherwise. She dryly noted inher diary: "The desirability of Turkey as a field for missionarylabor was enticingly put before me." Members of the student body andthe faculty, and even the zealous Miss Sill, argued with herunavailingly. She was caught by the ideal of "mingled learning,piety, and physical labor," but "much given to a sort ofrationalism." In short, she was determined to find her own way. Closeby was one who would mean more to her than any sermon, book, orteacher at Rockford: another freshman who arrived in the fall of1877, Ellen Gates Starr from Durand, Illinois. Ellen's consuminginterest in the arts and the beauty of form set her off from most ofthe other students; it also struck a responsive chord in Jane Addamsthat made them friends not only for the year but for life. This wasthe same Ellen Starr who would become the co-founder, with Jane, ofHull-House more than a decade later.

Where Ellen found her natural outlet in art, and wrote more aboutmedieval and Renaissance Florence than about biblical times in thecity of Jerusalem, Jane seemed to be most stimulated by science. Shejoined the school's newly formed science club and set out to proveseveral theories by tests of her own. She placed glasses of watercontaining wheat and corn grains near the stove in her room and keptcareful records of their germination. Biology, the favorite subjectof her stepbrother George (now studying at nearby Beloit College),introduced her to the theory of evolution, set forth in CharlesDarwin's Origin of Species in 1859.

Darwinism, Jane learned, involved two major points, the first ofwhich concerned organic development. Darwin held that new forms ofanimal life develop out of old ones by a slow, gradual process overan immense span of time. Therefore, the species we know have notalways existed--for example, the horse is descended from a dog-sizedcreature that lived eons ago.

Since Darwin applied his theory to man no less than to the lowerorders, and said that human beings are descended from nonhumanancestors, he provoked a heated controversy between scientists, whoaccepted evolution, and theologians, who felt that he was impugningthe biblical account of Adam and Eve. Echoes of this controversyreached Rockford Female Seminary, where Jane Addams found that itcould be exciting to speculate about evolution in a school where theprevailing sentiment of most teachers was all in favor of afundamentalist theology, which held that the world was quiteliterally created in seven days and that Jonah quite literallysurvived in the belly of a whale. She accepted evolution because shebelieved the theory to be true. Besides, she derived consolation fromthe interrelation of all living things, with man as nature's crowningachievement.

But she rejected Darwin's second point, at least in the form putforward by some Darwinians with regard to society and the state.Trying to explain the driving force behind evolution, Darwin arguedthat since all creatures have to struggle with their enemies andtheir environment, those born with helpful variations tend tosurvive. Thus, white foxes survive in the snowy Arctic because theyare nearly invisible to their prey; black ones, on the contrary, dieout for want of this protective coloring. In short, life developsthrough natural selection. The English philosopher Herbert Spencercoined the phrase "survival of the fittest," and used it as an excusefor denouncing social-welfare legislation, which he considered aviolation of the natural law governing the universe. While JaneAddams was at Rockford, William Graham Sumner of Yale University wasteaching his students Social Darwinism of an uncompromising kind andridiculing the idea that any government has a right to mitigate thestruggle for advancement, in which some people succeed and othersfail. On the basis of what he took to be hard evolutionary science,Sumner defended laissez-faire to the hilt. He persuaded manyAmericans--but not Jane Addams--to accept Social Darwinism. Theprinciple of allowing the fittest to survive, and the rest to gounder, contradicted her whole approach to social, political, andeconomic problems.

Jane read widely in the sciences during her undergraduate days atRockford, supplementing what was available in the meager schoollibrary with volumes borrowed from her brother-in-law Harry Haldemanon her visits home. (Harry, stepbrother of Jane and Alice before hemarried the latter, was to become "a clever and daring surgeon.") Shewas attracted to the scientific method: verification of facts byusing laboratory techniques. Although not a researcher by temperamentor inclination, she "pressed plants, stuffed birds, and poundedrocks" during summer vacations, "in some vague belief that I wasapproximating the new method." She was already concerned about theplace of women in American life, a concern that would later carry herinto the suffragette movement. In an essay she wrote in 1879, sheasserted that a woman could grow accurate and intelligent only"through the thorough study of at least one branch of physicalscience, for only with eyes thus accustomed to the search for truthcan she detect all self-deceit and dogmatism." So she urged girls totake up science for its training in hard, precise, objective thought.So that others might have access to more source material than she hadhad, Jane later presented to the Rockford Seminary library, in thefirst gift she made after coming into her share of her father'sestate, a thousand dollars to be spent for books on the sciences. Asan undergraduate, her vocational goal was to study medicine, take herM.D., and devote her life to the treatment of pain and disease.

As her years at Rockford passed, Jane Addams gained in confidence,authority, and influence--and caused her fellow classmate EleanorHaworth to form a new opinion: "I do remember that wheneverdifficulties with Miss Sill came up for settlement, most of us 'letJane do it' in presenting them. Miss Sill... tried regimentation, andthere was opposition to it. We were quite willing to work hard, butwe were sometimes on tiptoe with the desire to work in our own way.In our class in Moral Philosophy, Jane insisted on giving the name'Don Quixote' the Spanish pronunciation. We backed her up withlaughter at Miss Sill's 'Don Quix-ott.' Miss Sill suspended the wholeclass for two days, then took us back without comment. At chapelexercises that day Jane took my hymnal and wrote on the fly-leaf:

'Life's a burden, bear it.
Life's a duty, dare it.
Life's a thorn-crown? Wear it.
And spurn to be a coward.'

She was a rebel but she 'spurned to be a coward."'

Such leadership brought Jane a whole series of honors--classpresident, editor of the college's magazine, and its leading publicspeaker. A marriage proposal came from Rollin Salisbury, senior classpresident of Beloit College. Jane said "No." Salisbury took therejection very personally; he remained a bachelor, and years later,while teaching at the University of Chicago, he never called on JaneAddams at nearby Hull-House.

"Be sincere and don't fuss"

Nothing shows her earnest and agonizing efforts to "find her way,"especially in religious matters, so clearly as the letters she wroteto her intimate chum, Ellen Gates Starr. "Every time I talk aboutreligion, I vow a great vow never to do it again," Jane confessedafter struggling with theological abstractions. "My creed is ever besincere and don't fuss." But fuss she did, for months on end, in avain effort to come to terms with her inner doubts. "If I could fixmyself with my relations to God and the universe, and so be inperfect harmony with nature and deity, I could use my faculties andenergy so much better and could do almost anything." If, if, if--whata big little word that can be!

So Jane Addams kept searching, questioning, wondering. She tried"an awful experiment"-- giving up all prayer for three months,and--to her great surprise--"feeling no worse for it." Ellen imploredher to go back to her old ways, "for no good can come of suchexperiments, and harm might." Jane could not turn from herdoubting. For Ellen's benefit, she ended up quoting not the Bible,but a favorite quatrain from Matthew Arnold:


"Unaffrighted by the silence round them
Undistracted by the sights they see
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy."

Jane was trying to place the more speculative religious questionson the foundation of rationalism and thus somehow manage to roottheir abstractions in reality. Such an intellectual effort in hercollege days indicated that she could not rest content with herfather's individualistic conception of the "inner light," and wouldcontinue to seek a corporate religion--a church--that united itsadherents through a believable theology and realistic principles ofmoral conduct. If the "inner light" of John Addams led himunswervingly into righteous social action, Jane Addams felt the needof a more definite guide to keep her on the straight and narrow amidthe ethical dilemmas of the daily round.

Ranging freely through the world of ideas during her Rockfordperiod, Jane took delight in the masters of English literature whohad something to say about the individual confronting the universe.The poetry of Robert Browning reinforced her natural optimism whenshe came across lines like this: "God's in His heaven/All's rightwith the world." Thomas Carlyle inspired her with the thought thatmen should accept stern reality as essentially good despite itsattendant evils, that they should utter the "Everlasting Yea" tolife. John Ruskin taught her that optimism did not imply satisfactionwith, or acceptance of, the human condition in its institutionalmanifestations. Ruskin set his face against the iniquities of theBritish industrial system, denounced progress for the few at theexpense of the many, laid bare the fallacies of laissez-fairecompetition, and demanded that economic values be subordinated tohuman values. Matthew Arnold gave her the ideal ofculture--"sweetness and light"--as something to help raise themasses.

Jane was so intrigued with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions ofan English Opium Eater that she and four classmates slipped offto swallow doses of the drug--which was much easier to obtain withouta doctor's prescription in that period than it is nowadays. Theyexpected to enjoy the wonderful experiences described by De Quincey,"but," Jane recalled, "no mental reorientation took place, and thesuspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy." Theyoung teacher whom they had taken into their confidence was alarmed;she removed their De Quincey and the remaining opium, administered anemetic to each of the five girls, and ordered them to appear atworship after supper "whether you are able to or not!" Thus ended oneadventurous nineteenth- century student's scheme of using a drug tocreate an artificial dreamworld.

Liking to be a winner

Another outlet for Jane's considerable energy was debating. In herlast spring at Rockford she was chosen to represent the school at theInterstate Oratorical Contest. A young man from Illinois College,William Jennings Bryan (born, like Jane, in the year 1860), was theretoo. He would go on to become one of the golden voices of hisgeneration. But on this occasion, he did not win the contest. Neitherdid Jane Addams, who ended up "exactly in the dreary middle."Throughout her life, she liked to be a winner. But she had thecourage to know when she had lost, and the humor to allow her to seeeven a loss in perspective.

On a bright June morning in 1881, buggies, wagons, and saddlehorses converged on Rockford Seminary. It was commencement time, andthe three brick buildings were crowded with students and visitors. Asthe local newspaper chose to express it: "Seventeen Buds of BloomingPromise make their bow to Alma Mater and their debut before theworld." Parents and friends of the graduates thronged East Hall forthe commencement exercises at which the undisputed star was JaneAddams, class president and, as valedictorian, spokesman for theother girls who had gone through Rockford with her. She was anengaging figure as she stood at the rostrum discoursing on the rightsand obligations of women in human affairs. Her address reflected highidealism, moral fervor, undeviating optimism, and faith in thefuture--and she would never contradict what she said that day.

The applause died away, the ceremonies ended, carriages wheeledout of the seminary grounds bearing the girls back to their homes,and Jane Addams knew that she had reached a peak of achievement andacclaim. She did not know that a dark valley of frustration and doubtlay just over the horizon.


While still in their teens, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starrbegan a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. But theco-founders of Hull-House always had basic differences in theirpersonalities. In a letter to Ellen dated June 7, 1889, just beforestarting their joint settlement project, Jane wrote: "Dearest: Ithink I owe you an apology.... I gave $25.00 yesterday to BeloitCollege. I must stop doing things of that kind and save for ouraffair. I don't know why I am so weak and need you to keep me from myweakness. My greatest self-denial will come in my refusing to give toother things, and you must make yourself my bugbear for that. I needyou, dear one, more than you can realize."

Linn's biography of Jane does much to explain the dissimilar, yetcomplementary, talents of the two: "Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addamswere freshmen together in Rockford. [Then Ellen] left college toteach . . . in Chicago, at the famous old Kirkland School for Girls,fashionable but strenuously educational too.... Ellen Starr taughtEnglish and 'art'-- not drawing and painting, but appreciation....[When] Jane confided to Ellen Starr her scheme for a house among thepoor people somewhere in Chicago, Ellen embraced it at once, withthat vivacity, sincerity and confidence ... always characteristic ofher....

"A strange thing about Ellen Starr was that as she grew older shegrew more, not less, intense. Her major interests at Hull-House atfirst were what they had been at the Kirkland School--in teaching.She organized reading classes and clubs; drew the young people byscores into the studio of the Butler Gallery for the study ofpainting; began at the grammar. school nearest to Hull-House thatscheme for giving the public-schoolchildren of Chicago a chance tosee good pictures every day, which has since developed so splendidlyinto the Public School Art Society; and finally studied and taughtbookbinding as a fine art in a way that made it literallyfashionable. It was partly through Ellen Starr's connection with theKirkland School too that in the early 'nineties so many young womenof social prominence came to Hull- House.... She was aspirational,shining, and serene. But as time went on . . . her interest in theunionization of women became intense. She concerned herself directlywith strikes.... She picketed. She harangued. . . . She became amember in good standing of the Socialist Party, and argued for itstenets with a sort of charming fierceness. Her quest for beauty, herdream of bringing beauty into even the ugliest and most miserable ofthe lives about her, did not cease, but it was accompanied by a morepassionate quest, a more partisan longing, for social justice. Sheremained an artist, but she became a combatant.... She crusaded downdirty streets, and frail and gentle as she was in appearance, was nomore daunted by policemen than she would have been by Saracens....

"No one ever forgot that she was a co-founder of Hull-House. Onthe other hand . . . the House . . . stood for tolerance, foropportunity, not for combat. . . . It was a City of Refuge, to whommight come all who. . . were oppressed by riches andresponsibilities, as well as those who were oppressed by misery andby social theory. The only word upon the mat was 'Welcome,' the onlymotto over the entrance, 'May you find hope who enter here.' MissStarr never doubted that tolerance was good, but was it not a goodthat interfered with the Best? There arose a militancy in her thatfound tolerance difficult.... In the end she satisfied thatmilitancy, that desire for self- discipline, in the Church. Shebecame a Roman Catholic. And with that submission of herself toauthority, her old serenity returned."

Miss Starr left Hull-House after over forty years of residence andentered a Benedictine convent. She died in 1940.

"Significant Relationship" from Fishwick, Marshall W.Illustrious American: Jane Addams.Pp. 29. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Company, 1968. (Thisportion was edited to maintain continuity.)

Remainder from Fishwick, Marshall W. Illustrious American:Jane Addams. Pp. 21-30. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Company,1968.

Forward to "A Woman Caught Between Two Worlds"
Back to "Jane and Her Stepmother"
Back to the Index