Knowing Your Neighbors Can Affect Social Change

Guest Blogger • May 28, 2010

censusblogLast week I came home to discover little fliers stuck into the doors of three apartments on my floor, indicating a visit from the U. S. Census Taker. Now I know which people in my building are too lazy to answer ten questions. My neighbors in Chicago are part of the 28 percent of Americans who never filled out the 2010 census form they got in the mail, so the paid Census Takers are trying to track them down. I admire these Census Workers who are willing to learn, literally, “Who is my neighbor?”

In 1892, a young woman named Florence Kelley moved to Chicago from Philadelphia to begin a new chapter in her life as a divorced mother with three children.

She found a home and support system at Jane Addams’s Hull House and Miss Addams pulled strings to get Florence Kelley a job doing the first survey of the Nineteenth Ward, on the west side of Chicago, in the area that is now between Oprah’s TV studio and the Chicago Blackhawks stadium. Knowledge is power, and Kelley parlayed her personal knowledge of the immigrants around Hull House into some of Illinois’s earliest and most significant labor legislation. Following up on cases of very young children doing piece work of pulling basting threads, Kelley began work for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics and was soon doing piece work herself. She got paid for each house she visited and each data sheet she filled out. Her investigations fueled Hull House’s organizing and lobbying that got the Illinois Factory Inspection Act passed in 1893. This limited the hours that women could work in a factory to eight, prohibited employment of children under 14 years old, and set standards for cleanliness. The reforming Governor John Altgeld was smart enough to make Florence Kelly the first Factory Inspector to enforce these new laws.

At the same time, a national investigation into the Sweating System was authorized by Congress and Florence Kelley was appointed to collect data from Chicago. From April to July in 1893, four of the government’s “schedule men” examined every house, tenement, and boarding house room. Each night the men would return with their forms, Florence Kelley would take the forms and copy the data. Working with six other Hull House residents, they analyzed the data and created huge maps showing every building in their area, color coded for the nationality of the residents. These maps are now available online from the collection at the University of Illinois

The Hull House residents lived and worked in the entry point for thousands of immigrants. Rather than treating their neighbors with fear and scorn, they worked hard to learn who they were. Residents created hand-colored maps showing the nationalities of every tenant. You can see where the German, Dutch, Russian, Polish, Italian, Swiss, French, French Canadian, Bohemian, Scandinavian, and Chinese neighbors lived. Of course, the categories reflect the biases of 1895. The black squares stand for African-Americans who are called “colored” on the map and “Negroes” in the narrative. We know there were Mexicans active in Hull House clubs, but they are not shown on the maps at all. Asians were lumped under “Chinese,” and everyone from the Middle East under “Arabic.” The white squares stand for white people called “English speaking (excluding Irish).” The Irish are coded with green squares, so that the likes of me would not be confused with the English.

Although certainly crude by today’s standards, the “Hull-House Maps and Papers” were way ahead of their time. The methodology was copied by Philadelphia, New York, and other large American cities with slums full of immigrants. The thorough use of social statistics to affect positive social change became a dependable tool for reformers fighting the sweatshops and factories exploiting immigrants in Chicago.

Just as importantly, Jane Addams herself held up the importance of knowing and respecting all of our neighbors. She wrote, “We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows, and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics.” Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 8

Map Credit: Detail of “Nationality Map No. 1 – Polk Street to Twelfth, Halsted Street to Jefferson, Chicago” reprinted with permission from the Hull House Collection in the Special Collections & University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago Library.
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