AAUW’s Jane Addams Day!

Today was American Association of University Women’s Jane Addams Day. I think it went well, despite the mini-blizzard that we got. People came out and see us celebrate the men and women of Chicago history. We held the celebration in Hull House Museum’s Resident’s Dining Hall. It’s a beautiful wooden room with a lovely fireplace. It was perfect for the event.

Our Historian Paul Durica of Pocket Guide to Hell started with an incredible historical overview of Pullman and Jane Addams. It was really neat to find out that some of the architects who built Pullman also helped build some of the Hull House buildings.  George Pullman was in the luxury railroad car business and did very well. However, the railroad bubble burst in 1893 (worst depression before the Great Depression) and everyone was suffering.  He cut wages but didn’t change the rents.

Then Florence Kelley, a resident of Hull House who the governor would appoint Chief Factory Inspector, gave a moving speech about Pullman and the workers’ situation. Pullman earned 36% profit in 1893 while his workers’ wages were cut incredibly the next year. Blacksmiths used to earn about $4.00 a day but in 1894, they were making about $1.00. Rents were not adjusted with the wage decreases so sometimes people ended up with little or nothing after paying for rent.

Then the workers meet with George Pullman to list their grievances. First, they asked to raise the wages. Pullman rejected the wage increases because he couldn’t afford it. The competition for work was high and he had taken on jobs at a loss to keep workers in the factories (like 300 cars at $55 loss per car).  Second, they asked him lower the rents. Pullman also rejected the rent decreases since the relationship between workers and their boss was separate from those of landlord and tenant. The town had amenities that other parts of the area didn’t have so it was natural to pay a little bit more. Third, they asked him investigate the abuses in the shops because foremen and managers were ruling their shops like feudal kingdoms. Mr. Pullman did agree to look into this and promised not to lay them off for participating.

However, three committeemen were laid off (the following day I believe) so the workers decided to strike. A worker read a poem about what it was like to live there but then incited the workers to strike. It was fun putting together the chant and signs for the event. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find period signs but more recent chants still were relevant. Which I suppose is great for me, sad that we are still fighting these fights.

Jane Addams tried to get the two sides to arbitrate their grievances but Pullman asserted there was nothing to arbitrate. Pullman gave a speech defending himself, explaining that he had the best intentions for his workers but the depression had made it difficult. How can you run a business by taking money at a loss?

Years later, Jane would reflect on the experience and eventually write “A Modern Lear” where she largely chastises Pullman. She compares him to King Lear; both were so convinced of their generosity and good intentions that they couldn’t see the same in others. They had become so disconnected with their workers/Cordelia that Lear/Pullman couldn’t understand them that the workers/Cordelia were trying to negotiate their new world.  It’s a big critique of the notion of the philanthropist who bestows things to the poor, instead she posits that people have to work together (like the resident house). However, she does caution that the workers can’t forget employers in this new world, nothing will be gained by trying to take everything.

We ended with a spirited singing of “Solidarity Forever,” a song sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” or “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.” While the song was from 1915, one of the first times that the song was sung was for a hunger demonstration led by Lucy Parsons, a Haymarket widow, at Hull House.

It was great learning about Jane Addams and the Pullman strike.  Big thanks to everyone who performed and everyone who braved the storm.

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