Historic Moment in Social Work Preserved by the Census

by Julie Hill

Posted on October 5, 2011

You can learn a lot more from a census record than just someone's name. Since we added the 1790 to 1930 US Census records to Archives.com recently, we have been enjoying exploring these new collections. It's really interesting to see how even simple records can be a finger to the pulse of a social movement.

For instance, in the 1900 Census, we found Hull House. Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr, Hull House was an early fixture in the settlement house movement. The settlement house movement sought to change social work by having social workers live within the community they served.

Hull House boarders recorded in the 1900 Census:


As you can see on this census image, the boarders at Hull House came from a variety of professions. By this point, Addams was manager of the house and Starr was listed as a "book binder." Among the boarders there were multiple teachers--including a piano teacher--writers, artists, a clerk, a manufacturer, and one "capitalist."

"There is a constant tendency for residents to 'lose themselves in the cave of their own companionship,'" Addams wrote in Twenty Years at Hull House, responding to the criticism that boarders were drawn to settlement houses like hers less out of a desire to serve the surrounding neighborhood than as an opportunity to enjoy the collective living. "But on the other hand," she continued, "it is doubtless true that the very companionship, the give and take of colleagues, is what tends to keep the settlement normal and in touch with 'the world of things as they are.'"

Just looking at the list of occupations, we imagine the lively intellectual climate boarders must have enjoyed. Addams made a lasting impact on social work and was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor awarded her in 1931. The Hull House mission continues today under the auspices of the Jane Addams Hull House Association, offering childhood education, job training, housing, and other social services to 60,000 families and individuals at 40 locations in the Chicago area.

There are so many fascinating things we can learn from census records about our ancestors, and other historical figures. Learn more about census records on Archives.com here.

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