Born in Cedarville, Illinois, Jane Addams graduated from Rockford (Ill.) Female Seminary in 1881 and was granted a degree the following year when the institution became Rockford College. The death of her father in 1881, her own health problems, and an unhappy year at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania left her depressed and aimless for some years. She traveled in Europe in 1883-85, but neither there nor during her stay in Baltimore (1885-87) did she find a vocation.
In 1887-88 Addams returned to Europe with a Rockford classmate and close friend, Ellen Gates Starr. On a visit to the Toynbee Hall settlement house (founded 1884) in London's East End, Addams' vague leanings toward reform work crystallized. The two women returned to the United States and settled in Chicago. By September 1889 they had moved into the decrepit residence, built by Charles Hull in 1856, that came to be known as Hull House.
The building was located in the midst of a teeming immigrant ward. Eventually the settlement included 13 buildings, with literary clubs, art gallery, a summer school for women, a day nursery, a gymnasium, a community kitchen, a kindergarten, public baths, a library, a chemist, an employement bureau, a cooperative apartment for young working women, and a Juvenile Protective Association working on issues of sexual morality, prostitution and drug abuse.
Moreover there was a playground, as well as a summer camp near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Many prominent social workers and reformers such as Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, Grace and Edith Abbott, came to live at Hull House, as did others who continued to make their living in business or the arts while helping Addams in settlement activities.
Hull House offered college-level courses in various subjects; furnished training in art, music, and crafts such as bookbinding; and sponsored one of the earliest little-theater groups, the Hull House Players. In addition to making available services and cultural opportunities for the largely immigrant population of the neighborhood, Hull House afforded and opportunity for young social workers to acquire training.
Throughout her life Addams was close to many women and was very good at eliciting the involvement of women from different classes in Hull House's programmes. Her closest adult companion, friend and lover was Mary Rozet Smith (see picture at the left), who nurtured and supported Addams and her work at Hull House, and with whom she owned a summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Addams worked with labor as well as other reform groups toward goals including the first juvenile-court law, tenement-house regulation, an eight-hour working day for women, factory inspection, and worker's compensation. She strove in addition for justice for immigrants and blacks, advocated research aimed at determining the causes of poverty and crime, and supported woman suffrage.
In 1910 she became the first woman president of the National Conference of Social Work, and in 1912 she played an active part in the Progressive Party's presidential campaign for Theodore Roosevelt. At The Hague in 1915 she served as chairman of the International Congress of Women and consequently helped establish the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She was also involved in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (1920).
By 1926 she was a semi-invalid as a result of a heart-attack, but continued to receive numerous commendations for her work. In 1931 she was the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. She died of cancer in Chicago, just four yers later.
The establishment of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois in 1963 forced the Hull House Association to relocate its headquarters. The majority of its original buildings were demolished, but the Hull residence itself was preserved as a monument to Jane Addams.