Afflicted by illness in her youth that cut short her medical studies, Addams was determined to devote her life to helping people. Having inherited a substantial sum of money upon her father’s death, she became interested in starting a settlement house and traveled to London to visit Toynbee Hall in 1888. The following year, she and her domestic partner, Ellen Gates Starr, started Hull House in a Chicago mansion formerly owned by Charles Hull. Initially Hull House provided classes, lectures, concerts, and other cultural and educational programming designed for the working class. As time went on, the focus shifted to alleviating poverty. Hull House provided childcare; was the site of Chicago’s first public playground, bathhouse and public gymnasium; and influenced public policy in education, housing, occupational safety, immigrant rights, the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system, and urban planning. Unlike similar American institutions, Hull House was secular. Female residents and their children received medical care and many went on to become prominent reformers themselves. For her work, Addams won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.
Although Addams supported suffrage, she resisted becoming active in that movement, regarding it as irrelevant to her own work despite her long acquaintance with Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). “An experienced campaigner for women’s suffrage by 1860, the year Jane Addams was born, she knew Addams’ father, knew Addams herself, visited Hull House, the settlement house Addams co-founded, and tried her best in the mid-1890s to enlist Addams as an advocate for the cause,” (“Woman’s Suffrage as Rhetorical Dilemma: Jane Addams’s First Plunge into Arguing on Behalf of Women,” Knight, http://hdl.handle.net/1802/2486).
However, it was not until February 1897, the year of our letter, that Addams officially joined the suffrage movement when she accepted an invitation from the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association to host a reception in her honor while she was in in Boston lecturing on another topic. “Anthony’s instinct that Addams would be an invaluable supporter for suffrage proved astute. In the coming years, Addams would fight for women’s right to vote in Chicago, in Illinois, and across the nation, and become a vice president of the Illinois Women’s Suffrage Association of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association,” (ibid.).
Our letter, written in the early days of Addams’ involvement in suffrage not only mentions Anthony but also her close collaborator Rachel Foster Avery (1858-1919). Their close relationship is evidenced by the fact that Anthony called Avery her “most cherished young lieutenant” and Avery referred to Anthony as her “Aunt Susan.” The pair frequently traveled together, including to Chicago in January of 1897 where Anthony was honored by the Chicago Women’s Club, of which Addams was a member.
Our letter possibly refers to Addams visiting friends in Wyoming, New York, roughly fifty miles southwest of Anthony’s home in Rochester and the location of a mineral spring that Anthony was known to visit.
Although unidentified, the mention of “Miss Stetson” is interesting as another high profile women’s rights activist of the time was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) known at the time by her married name “Stetson.” She is most famous for her semi-autobiographical work The Yellow Wallpaper, which was groundbreaking for its discussion of mental illness. Written in 1890 after Gilman/Stetson’s experience with postpartum psychosis and published in 1892, it continues to be one of the most important works of feminist literature. At the time of our letter, Gilman/Stetson was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association as well as socialist organizations and a well-known and active lecturer. Gilman/Stetson’s diary records that she visited Addams the day before hearing her speak in December 1897, (A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900, ed. Hill).
Folded into thirds, with some light age-toning and the date noted in the upper margin of the first page in an unidentified hand; in very good condition.