Jane Addams and Charity Organization in Chicago

By Schneiderhan, Erik | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Jane Addams and Charity Organization in Chicago


Schneiderhan, Erik, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Jane Addams has been studied almost to exhaustion. Scores of articles and dissertations attest to the importance of her place in American history and society. Her papers, as well as any documents linked to her, however tenuously, were catalogued as part of the Jane Addams Papers Project and are on microfilm at universities across the world. In the past three years alone, two excellent and substantial biographies of Addams2 have been published. It seems reasonable to conclude that in the realm of Addams scholarship, the celebrated words in Ecdesiastes ring true: "There is nothing new under the sun." Or is there? This article presents some surprising new evidence of Addams's significant involvement in the early stages of charity organization development in Chicago during the latter part of the 19th century. Specifically, it attempts to draw the attention of researchers to several historical documents that do not appear to be part of the existing literature on Addams. These documents are important, not only because they signify that the Addams research project is not complete, but also because they recast a small but significant part of the Addams narrative. In what follows, the new data, the questions they raise, and their implications for Addams scholarship and Chicago history are discussed.

This article requires a basic knowledge of charity organization, so some background is in order. Most people know that America experienced unprecedented social upheaval at the end of the nineteenth century. Massive immigration, in part a response to increased demand for workers, caused city populations to explode. The city of Chicago, for example, saw a two-fold increase in its population just between 1880 and 1890.3 American manufacturing grew at an amazing rate and, with a growing reliance on the factory system, workers were increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market. Economic downturns were devastating to workers, who were paid poorly to begin with and had few of the employment protections found in today's workplace. Local governments at the town and municipal level provided limited "outdoor"(in-home) and "indoor" (poorhouse) relief, but the brunt of the burden was carried by private institutions such as churches and relief societies, with limited coordination by State Boards of Charity. These institutions simply did not possess the capacity to respond adequately to the needs of the day, and what response they did provide did not seem to be particularly effective. The result in the early 1870s was a proliferation of charitable entities, part of the birth of "modern American philanthropy."4 The charity organization movement was a central part of this new wave of charity provision.

The existing literature holds that the first charitable organization appeared in Buffalo, New York in 1877. It was founded by S. Humphreys Gurteen, an Englishman who literally"wrote the book" on charitable organization activity by publishing the first handbook of charitable organization in the United States. Between 1877 and 1900 there was a proliferation of charitable organizations across the United States, starting in the larger cities and then moving to smaller population centers. The charitable organization "movement," as it came to be called, was in part a reaction to the widespread belief that "outdoor relief" had failed to alleviate poverty. Inspired by the Manchester school of political economy, Malthusianism, and Social Darwinism, the principles of scientific philanthropy provided the charitable organization with a new approach to the problem of poverty. The charitable organization had strong practical and philosophical ties to business.. One movement leader summarized the philosophical link quite succinctly, pointing out that the "same wisdom which has given this generation its wonderful industrial capacity will preside over the administration of charity."5 The boards of most charitable organizations included prominent members of the important elements of the economy, including banking, steel, textiles, and railroads. …

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