Lines of Activity: Performance, Historigraphy, Hull-House Domesticity

By Miller, Marla R. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Lines of Activity: Performance, Historigraphy, Hull-House Domesticity


Miller, Marla R., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity. By Shannon Jackson. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 384 pp., 36 photos; $45 cloth, $21.95 paper.)

Few people in the United States are unfamiliar with the extraordinary accomplishments of Jane Addams and her colleagues at Chicago's Hull House, a landmark, both figuratively and literally, in the history of social work and social welfare in America. The settlement house, founded in 1889, initially occupied a single building, the former Hull family mansion at the corner of Polk and Halsted streets, by then an immigrant and working-class neighborhood in the Nineteenth Ward, on the city's West Side; by 1907, Hull House's thirteen buildings comprised one of the largest institutions of its kind in the United States, its facilities including a day nursery, gymnasium, meeting and recreation rooms, arts-and-crafts workshops, classrooms for adult education, a music school, a theater for amateur dramatic performances, and a social service center. The list of "firsts" accomplished at HullHouse is impressive: the settlement established the first public baths in Chicago as well as the city's first public playground, public swimming pool, public kitchen and first public gymnasium; Hull House also housed the first little theater in the United States, and offered the first citizenship preparation classes. Hull House residents performed Chicago's earliest investigations into truancy, sanitation, typhoid fever and tuberculosis; the distribution of cocaine, and midwifery. Settlement-sponsored research led to creation and enactment of Illinois' first factory laws and the first model tenement code as well. Labor unions organized at Hull-House, including the Women Shirt Makers, Women Cloak Makers, the Dorcas Federal Labor Union and the Chicago Woman's Trade Union League.

Shannon Jackson's intriguing study Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity brings readers inside the hectic hive of Hull House. Her interest is less the personalities that shaped the settlement's mission or the political and intellectual climates in which their work evolved than on life inside the settlement itself, and what the various and sundry "lines of activity" constantly underway reveal about the settlement's internal culture, broadly defined. Jackson's scholarship embraces a particular approach that has become increasingly attractive to cultural historians in recent years, emphasizing the "performative" nature of social interaction, that is, the way in which the "interdisciplinary event of culture" can be understood through the multiple and recurring gestures, words, and movements of what are literally historical actors who rehearse and perform (e.g. express) their beliefs through overt ceremony (like bona fide theatrical events) as well as the common rituals of everyday life. As Jackson suggests early on, "Hull-House's legislative and governmental accomplishments are well known to scholars in American history. In this book, I want to track an adjacent history. By following the set of affective, aesthetic, rhetorical, and ethical preoccupations that propelled [the redefinition of the state's relationship to the polity via these innovative forms of intervention], I want particularly to understand the messy and paradoxical nature of reform work ... While the daily life of Hull-House is intimately bound up with activities in larger public spheres, social encounters and artistic practices are usually relegated to the periphery of critical inquiry" (pp. 5-6). Jackson wants to move those latter subjects - social encounters and artistic practices - to the center of her analysis in order to better understand Progressive-Era social activism and the impulses behind and consequences associated with turn-of-the-century reform.

Given Jackson's interest in plumbing deeply the routine encounters of settlement life for insight into the larger nature of social reform, Lines of Activity is essentially a microhistory of Hull-House, an intimate look at life inside the settlement. …

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