Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois, the youngest of eight children. Her father was active in politics, and her family was prosperous and came from colonial New England. Her father, John Huey Addams, was an agricultural businessman with large timber, cattle, and agricultural holdings; he also owned flour and timber mills and a woolen factory as well as being president of The Second National Bank of Freeport. Her mother, Sarah Weber Addams, died when Jane was two years old; her father married Anna Hostetter Haldeman, the widow of a miller in Freeport when Jane was eight years old. Four of her siblings died in infancy and another died at age 16 – all before Jane was eight years old.
John Huey Addams was a founding member of the Republican Party in Illinois and was an Illinois State Senator (1855-70). He was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and supported him in his campaign for senator (1854) and President (1860). “He kept a letter from Lincoln in his desk, and Jane Addams loved to look at it as a child.”
Jane was four years old when she contracted tuberculosis of the spine – Potts’s disease – and suffered from a curvature in her spine and health problems for the rest of her life. She walked with a limp and could not run very well; in addition, she considered herself ugly. In spite of all her problems, her father adored her.
Jane “was a voracious reader;” from her mother’s example and from Dickens she became interested in living and working among the poor. Her father encouraged her to become better educated but stay close to home. She wanted to attend Smith College in Massachusetts, but her father made her attend Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University) in Rockford, Illinois. She graduated from Rockford in 1881 and hoped to earn “a proper B.A.” from Smith.
John Addams died suddenly that summer from appendicitis, leaving each of his children $50,000 (“equivalent to $1.22 million today”). Anna Haldeman Addams, Jane Addams, Alice Addams, and Alice’s husband Harry moved to Philadelphia that fall in order for the three young people to study medicine for two years. Harry, already trained in medicine, studied at the University of Pennsylvania. Jane and Alice completed one year at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia; Jane was disappointed because she could not complete her degree due to “health problems, a spinal operation and a nervous breakdown.”
Stepmother Anna became ill, and the entire family returned to Cedarville. Harry – Jane’s brother-in-law as well as stepbrother – operated on her back in an effort to straighten it. He then advised her to travel instead of returning to school. Jane left in August 1883 on a two-year tour of Europe with her stepmother; friends and family members sometimes joined them. She realized she could help the poor without being a doctor. Anna and Jane returned home in June 1887; they lived together in Cedarville and spent the winters in Baltimore.
Jane Addams “was a pioneer American settlement social worker, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and leader in women’s suffrage and world peace. In an era when presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson identified themselves as reformers and social activists, Addams was one of the most prominent reformers of the Progressive Era. She helped turn America to issues of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, local public health, and world peace. She said that if women were to be responsible for cleaning up their communities and making them better places to live, they needed to be able to vote to do so effectively. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. She is increasingly being recognized as a member of the American pragmatist school of philosophy. In 1889 she co-founded Hull House, and in 1920 she was a co-founder for the ACLU. In 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.”