essay: Women Artists of the Hull-House between 1889 and 1940

by Kimberly Ewald, Illinois State University
submitted May 2009 


The founders of the Hull-house, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, were among many women that had a significant role in the American Reform movement and shaped the emerging welfare state with a gendered social science. The movement was based on the idea of creating “settlement houses” to offer social services to poor urban neighborhoods. Women were the backbone to the movement, predominately well-off and educated women, that found an opportunity to have political voice through helping the urban poor as well as the health and well being of women-workers and children. “Hull-House is in part a story of bourgeois women and men working to share their privileges and, with varying degrees, of commitment, working to undo the very system that guaranteed them those privileges.”


In the 1880s, for the first time, women were graduating with college degrees in significant numbers- Jane Addams among this first generation. Author Shannon Jackson states, “The period between graduation and the founding of Hull-House was characterized by what a much later generation might have called ‘twenty-something’ ennui. [It was a time] in which young people- exposed to a world of ideas and ideals- found no recognized outlet for their active faculties.’”


At Rockford College, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr met and bonded as close friends. Starr lacked the funds to continue higher education after her first year, so she left and pursued her teaching career instead while Jane Addams finished her degree in 1881. Starr taught for over ten years in the Chicago area before herself and Addams would take a significant journey to England in 1888 and visit Toynbee Hall, a successful settlement house that inspired the women to return to Chicago and start their own.


The Hull-house was founded in 1889, and was originally nothing more than a daycare. Starr and Addams turned to the Chicago Woman’s Club for support for the settlement house. The Chicago Woman’s Club was fond of their vision as well as the idea of keeping the settlement funded and supported by women, so both Starr and Addams were invited as members. The club provided both financial support and volunteers for the Hull-house.


Starting with the original Hull Mansion- the Hull-house eventually became the huge thirteen building complex that existed up until its demolition in the 1960s. It was Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s goal to be “neighbors to the poor, sharing with them their plight and working with them to improve the neighborhood.” They’re simple daycare expanded exponentially to full organized classes for children and adults, as well as a home to many live-in residents within just a few years.


Ellen Gates Starr became the force behind art in the Hull-house curriculum. She believed that education in art was necessary for pursuing a higher standard in life, and taught the first few art history classes held there. It was said that Starr and Addams “wanted to bring an appreciation of beauty and great art to those forced to live in the drab and unattractive slums.” Soon art classes and clubs were held at the mansion, starting with just drawing classes several evenings a week for it’s first two years. The drawing classes were “led in different seasons by an array of settlers and volunteer teachers, the class usually met in the dining room of the mansion.” Soon the art classes expanded with options in painting, sculpture, clay modeling, basket weaving, as well as other craft and manual training activities. Hull-house’s art classes “were offered as worthwhile leisure activities and sometimes as vocational training; they provided continuity with handicrafts traditional to neighborhood ethnic groups and reached out to children as well as to recent immigrants.”


A long list of visiting artists and residents worked or volunteered for the training of Hull-House guests and several of them were also professors at the prestigious universities in the Chicago area, many from the Art Institute of Chicago specifically. Women in particular led many of these programs. “The settlement provided space in which women could participate in the arts on equal terms with men and in which they could display or perform their work publicly. Women created and participated in a vibrant and wide-ranging art program that valued the aesthetic power but also the social function of art.”


The Butler Art Gallery, created in 1891, was the first addition to the old Hull Mansion. Fundraising was organized primarily through Ellen Gates Starr, one the main donors being Eliza Starr, Ellen Starr’s aunt. Ellen Gates Starr backboned the creation of the gallery because she believed the community should have access to great art, as well as an opportunity to display the local art created. It was documented that “Hull House has had two exhibits every year since the gallery was built, which were well attended.” The works shown were mainly from well-known artists in the Chicago area, and were given out on loan from other galleries or museums, and sometimes the artists themselves. The gallery also contained at least fifty framed reproductions of great works that were allowed to be checked-out for several weeks, free of charge, for anyone interested. These pictures were also renewable. Men and women of the working class were the usual subscribers to this art loan system provided by the Hull-house- but its most enthusiastic patrons were the children.


The Butler gallery was also used for its space to teach painting, sculpture, and watercolor classes with fewer disruptions. After the first few years, the mansion was using every room available for its numerous classes and club meetings. By 1892, the fine arts program was primarily under the direction of Enella Benedict, whom established the actual School of Art in the Hull-house. “Later, Benedict would change the function of the Butler’s yearly exhibits, organizing them to display the artistic work produced by her neighbors rather than to import aesthetic ‘harmony and reasonableness’ from the outside.”


The Hull-House became increasingly interested in the arts and crafts movement as it became more popular during the end of the 19th century. The Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded at a meeting at the Hull-house. The aims of the group varied from encouraging beauty in everyday things, handicraft, influencing the manual-training movement, and holding exhibits and founding centers for crafts activities.


With the increasing interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, encouragement of manual labor in the arts, and the inception of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, the Hull-House decided to create the Hull-House Labor museum in 1900. According to Marion Foster Washburne, “The Hull-House leaders, established the Labor Museum where they hoped to reserve the art associated with handicraft skill that seemed to be on the way to extinction in an urban, industrial age… Hull-House residents thought that by showing the relationship between raw materials and finished products, they could instill a lost pride of workmanship and respect for things of beauty.”


Bookbinding was also taught through the labor museum “to present a working model for the masses.” Starr emphasized that it was an important craft to continue to educate and practice. Roughly two years prior to the Labor Museum, Starr left for fifteen months to apprentice at the Doves Bindery in England and master the art of bookbinding. When Starr came back, she established the bookbindery officially within the Labor Museum. The Labor Museum and the bookbindery were promoted through the Chautauqua Movement, the national program of adult education that had strong allies at the University of Chicago.


In addition to the bookbindery, education and displays of traditional wheel throwing, basket weaving, spinning and woodworking were available to the visitors of the Labor Museum. Although the museum was only open on the weekends, projects by Hull-house participants would always be in progress; each week there would be something new to witness for display. The “hands on” museum template established first at the Hull-House became the model for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the now popular Children’s Museum.


Another significant art program that generated from the Hull-house was the Hull-House Kilns–co-founded by Myrtle Meritt French and The Hannell’s in 1927. The Hull-House Kilns was a pottery shop that taught a variety of ceramic classes within the facility as well as produced a line of pottery for sale. The pottery was located in the Boys’ Club Building. The majority of the ceramicists involved in developing and reproducing the line of Hull-House pottery were Mexican neighbors in the west side community. The pottery continued to produce work until 1937- when the depression became too devastating to support production of homemade pottery. French encouraged exhibitions for artists of the Hull-House kilns, and for several years, much of this work was shown at the Art Institute.

As stated in the introduction, the settlement movement was based on the drive of many bourgeois women to help build urban and lower class communities with a ground-up strategy that allowed these women a certain amount of political power. The Hull-House, as well as many other settlement houses, gave a place for women of the late 19th and early 20th century to have authority and reverse gender roles. “Hull-house put a new twist on the middle-class domestic model of reform. The project turned the middle-class home into a public space available to neighbors and people from all over the city, who were welcome to socialize in its rooms, leave their children, and join its numerous clubs and discussions.”


The settlement was a haven for women that chose a career over family and further education over woman’s work. Most of the women identifiable as artists from this time frame were from bourgeois families and either had husbands in the arts, or found a structure that supported them. The Hull-House was such a structure for many women. The Hull-House allowed women to ‘pursue’ their directions in art and other fields. The majority of the women that were residents at the Hull-House were unmarried and used the Hull-House as their communal support for independence; such women included Jane Addams herself, Ellen Gates Starr, artists Enella Benedict, Myrtle Meritt French, Norah Hamilton, and scientist Alice Hamilton.


I created a list of nine women artists that were associated with the Hull-house up until 1940. These artists were either live-in residents, teachers, or apart of the Labor museum or the Hull-House kilns. The list includes: Ellen Gates Starr, Enella Benedict, Myrtle Meritt French, Alice DeWolf Kellogg Tyler, Norah Hamilton, Emily Edwards (De Cantabrana), Sadie Ellis Garland Dreikurs, Hazel Johnson Hannell, and Jessie Luther. It is in my conclusion that the relationship between the settlement and the artist as a mode of their success is necessary to consider historically. The majority of the women to be further acknowledged would not have accessed the freedom to devotionally create art without the support of the Hull-House.