Reform in Chicago: Pullman and Hull House

By Yvphotos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Charles Hull mansion was built in 1856, in a sparsely populated rural area to the south of what was the Chicago city limits. By the time Jane Addams arrived in 1889, the Hull Mansion was in an urban setting. In the thirty years between the time Hull built his mansion and Jane Addams established her settlement house, the building had been through a number of transitions: it had been used as a factory, a furniture warehouse, and a home for the aged.

George Pullman via Wikimedia CommonsFarther south, although the town of Pullman existed when Jane Addams arrived at Hull House, it had been not long before that a swamp of interest only to ducks and hunters, and remained in contrast to the still rural area surrounding it.

Both the construction of the model town of Pullman and the establishment of a settlement facility at Hull House represented reactions to the conditions in Chicago created by rapid growth during the later half of the nineteenth century–two different reactions that are still in play in reforming urban conditions today. While Jane Addams approached the city of Chicago from a perspective of social reform, George Pullman set out to change physical conditions.

Incorporated as a town in 1833, Chicago then had a population of only three hundred and fifty. By mid-century, that number had increased to thirty thousand, by 1870 there were ten times as many, and, by the time Jane Addams arrived, there were over half a million people in the city.

The problems presented by such a rapid growth in population were innumerable. George Pullman arrived in Chicago in 1855 to oversee the raising of buildings to help in keeping cellars and streets drained. When he arrived most of Chicago’s land was only a few feet above Lake Michigan, which wouldn’t allow the paving of streets for fear they would only be washed away.

Having received an education and spent time traveling in Europe, Jane Addams sought to fulfill a vision of her childhood and set out to found the settlement later known as the Hull House.

Though each had a seperate focus, both Addams and Pullman understood that physical and social conditions were ultimately connected, and both understood that improvements in one could lead transformation in the latter.

Jane Addams described the physical conditions in Chicago at the time of her arrival.

The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets, and the stables foul beyond description… Rear tenements flourish; many houses have no water-supply save the faucet in the back yard, there are no fire-escapes, the garbage and ashes are placed in wooden boxes which are fastened to the street pavement.1
In short, Chicago was “a city of garbage, graft and gangsters.” 1 Hull House stated its mission as providing a center for a higher civic and social life, instituting and protecting educational and philanthropic enterprises, and investigating and improving conditions in industrial Chicago.

Meanwhile, George Pullman sought social transformation through a complete change in environment. To Pullman, the environment in Chicago’s neighborhoods was responsible for the social conditions. Not only crowded tenements, but access to vice and agitation brought squalor to Chicago.

Pullman felt that aesthetics had a commercial value from which he could derive profit by attracting and improving the quality of the worker. He believed his experience with passenger cars could be transferred into Chicago neighborhoods. Pullman had discovered that if he improved his passenger cars aesthetically, passengers would act better, pay more, and respect his property.

Pullman held a view that “beauty could improve the individual, and that a businessman who understood this could profit from it.” 2 Pullman would build a town and name it after himself–a town he expected to bring with it a civilizing force.

The idea that improving the physical environment would transform the individual wasn’t entirely absent from the model tenement movement, whose chief advocator was Brooklyn resident Alfred T. White. White was convinced that the poor were paying high rents for substandard properties and their owners were becoming rich. The movement held that well designed buildings could be constructed that could also turn a decent profit. In building the new tenements, the landlord was providing a service, as well as becoming involved with a sound business venture.

Pullman would take the movement one step further by adding aesthetic value to the light and ventilation found in the model tenement structures, as well as removing the harmful temptations to vice in Chicago by locating the town of Pullman in a secluded area. That of course meant building stores, churches, and civic and commercial institutions in addition to housing. Once built, Pullman stood in contrast to the neighborhoods around Hull House. Pullman was an ordered community.

A reporter visiting the town shortly after its construction described it.

The train halts at the station which is a gem of architecture and the conductor calls out “Pullman.” As you face the town there is a broad stretch of closely shaven lawn, acres of flower beds, and to the left, along the great shop front the green carpet extends and borders a beautiful lake. On your right as you face the east is the Arcade.
Pullman staked his money and name on the town of Pullman. A simple cross-section of the population in a Chicago neighborhood was not to be found in Pullman. The town was expected not only to have a positive influence on its residents, but also to attract a resident of above typical quality. The press and the spectator flocked to the town and received an almost overwhelming favorable impression.

Early on, along with being credited with improving the quality of the residents, Pullman was credited with even more miraculous feats, like lowering the death rate.

In the year 1883 the death rate of Pullman was half that of Hyde Park. This was likely due to the town having few residents over the age of forty. Experts reported what an Englishman interrupting George Pullman by saying “But y’ know there has been no time for anyone to die, yet.” 2

A year later Pullman would lose its title as “the world’s healthiest city,” as the death rate caught up with that of Chicago. Pullman would lose its gleam on other fronts too.

Most of those attracted to Pullman were employed in the manufacturing shops of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Few residents in Pullman had lives removed from the company, and none was independent of Pullman himself, as all property in the town was rented in order for Pullman to exert aesthetic and social control.

By controlling who was hired in the factories, Pullman could control who lived in the model town. From the town’s origins into the next century, most of its residents were male. The average age of a Pullman resident was twenty-nine, and only twenty-eight percent of men working for the company were born in the United States. The Chicago Herald explained the “weeding” process in 1886:

In making an application for a position in the employ of the Pullman Company, a man must face a formidable written examination involving a great deal of personal history. Among other things he must tell whether or not he has ever been married or divorced, whether he is in debt, and if so to whom, and how much, how long he went to school, whether he has any physical deformities, why he was discharged from or voluntarily left his last position whatever that position may have been, whether he used intoxicating liquors, plays games of chance or gambles in any way whatever.… 6
Because of relatively small numbers of any one ethnic group in Pullman, the ethnic enclaves found in Chicago were absent.

The population in Pullman was unstable. Because of the inability to purchase a home, many of the towns residents moved to neighboring communities where booze and other vices, restricted in Pullman, were available. Residents of Pullman often traveled regularly to Chicago and to neighboring towns to visit friends or escape boredom. As much as the theater and library in Pullman were expected to fill idle time, they were not a replacement for the neighborhoods left behind and not an suitable substitute for a rowdy saloon.

By 1855 the glowing reviews of the town had faded, and Pullman’s experiment was increasingly referred to as a “gilded cage.” In 1883, a New York Sun reporter, impressed with the town’s street scenes nonetheless reported Pullman’s repressive elements.

A stranger arriving at Pullman puts up at a hotel managed by one of Mr. Pullman’s employees, visits a theater where all the attendants are in Mr. Pullman’s service, drinks water and burns gas which Mr. Pullman’s water and gas works supply, hires one of his outfits from the manager of Mr. Pullman’s livery stable, visits a school in which the children of Mr. Pullman’s employees are taught by other employees, gets a bill charged at Mr. Pullman’s bank, is unable to make a purchase of any kind save from some tenant of Mr. Pullman’s, and at night he is guarded by a fire department every member of which from the chief down is in Mr. Pullman’s service. 6
Another account from the Pittsburgh Times recounts the company influence on life in Pullman:

The corporation is everything and everywhere. The corporation trims your lawn and attends to your trees;…sweeps your street, and sends a man around to pick up every cigar stump, every bit of paper, every straw or leaf; the corporation puts two barrels in your back yard, one for ashes and one for refuse of the kitchen;…the corporation does practically everything but sweep your room and make your bed, and the corporation expects you to enjoy it and hold your tongue. 6
As oppressive as Pullman might have been, the physical conditions were far superior to those in Chicago. Buildings were of brick construction with stone trim, streets were landscaped and clean, and recreation facilities abundant.

At the time the sense of community found in the Chicago’s ethnic enclaves was often seen as a barrier to social progress by both physical and social reformers. Although these groupings weren’t as apparent in Pullman, different ethnic and religious groups in Pullman clung to their roots and had little desire to use the common Greenstone Church; it sat empty throughout the first years of its existence.

At least as long as Pullman retained control over the model town, the class barriers had been somewhat broken.

During its first twenty years, Pullman attracted workers of different classes. After Pullman’s death, middle-class workers began to leave Pullman and by 1910 very few “professional” men lived in the model town.

At least psychologically, even in Pullman, communities centered around ethnic and class lines. It was those class lines that became clearly visible during the Pullman strike of 1894, but to Jane Addams and other the line between right and wrong wasn’t as clear.

The paternalistic nature of Pullman’s experiment lead to an increasing negative public perception.

Although sympathetic with workers, Addams did not regard Pullman as a “capitalist bogeyman,”1 as he had with increasing frequency been presented by labor organizers, but as a tragic figure whose philanthropic contributions were countered by his role as a benefactor preventing an equal human relationship between Pullman and his workers.

While Pullman’s motivations for reform were economic, Jane Addams came to Hull House probably out of a desire to find meaningful work for herself and other educated women who had little outlets for application of their talents in the business world.

Like the town of Pullman, Hull House sought to offer activities aimed at improving the lives of urban residents, but beyond the emphasis on art and recreation, Hull House offered an employment bureau, a cooking school, and a number of clubs.

Like Pullman, Hull House was looked at initially as a phenomenal success. By its second year in operation, Hull House was receiving 2,000 visitors a week and was seen as the first “mixed” residential settlement in America, though for many years all of the residents were women. Through Hull House, Addams set out to battle political corruption and improve health and housing conditions and met with some success.

For example, the mortality rate in the ward fell from seventh to third in the city by 1898. 1 A bacteriological study by Hull House resident Dr. Alice Hamilton led to the dismissal of nearly half the employees at the sanitary bureau for incompetence. Partially through the efforts of Hull House a Tenement House Ordinance was passed in 1901, and other investigations led to a law regulating the sale of cocaine.

To Jane Addams, socialist and capitalist arguments stood in the way of the self-governing democracy. In order to create this democracy, corruption had to be eliminated, an efficient and humane municipal government had to be created with one law applying to citizens regardless of race or creed, and immigrants had to be absorbed into a cosmopolitan, industrial society.

Settlement workers saw immigrant arrivals as ignorant of both civic duty and democratic process. Hull House was to provide knowledge of that democratic process through educational and recreational activities. In addition, Hull House offered concerts and art exhibitions which often proved more popular than the soup kitchen. But like the libraries in Pullman, many of the offerings were criticized as “frills.”

Though settlement houses appeared throughout nineteenth- century cities and Jane Addams went on to world-renowned fame, the actual positive impact of Hull House on the conditions in the nineteenth ward can be questioned.

Like Pullman, the ward surrounding Hull House was transient. As soon as workers could afford to leave, they did, leaving a constant battle with little visible improvement on social conditions in the neighborhood. This battle was fought in similar ways: many of the things George Pullman made available to his tenants were also provided by Hull House, and both retained certain elements of control, by forbidding alcohol, for example.

That is not to diminish the effect the environment at Hull House or in Pullman may have had on individual lives. The social events and art exhibits provided a sight of what life could be like outside of the tenement districts and may have served to entice those individuals to improve their own social conditions, even if that meant abandoning the neighborhood.

Likewise the town of Pullman presented a model for the effect aesthetics could have on an individual’s behavior, as well as serving as a model for racial and ethnic integration.

Hull House also had a physical impact, if only from its growth in size as an institution. The settlement grew to encompass many other buildings in addition to the Hull mansion, including a dining hall and several residence halls. When Addams came to the neighborhood, Hull House was bordered on one side by a funeral parlor and on the other by a tavern. The growth of Hull House erased traces of those and other establishments.

The neighborhood surrounding Hull House today presents little improvement in the lives of residents. Off of the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus which has grown around Hull House, the neighborhood is deteriorated. Still today, many of Chicago’s southern neighborhoods serve as gateways for new immigrants.

The Pilsen area today is home to one of the largest Mexican neighborhoods in the United States. Hull House, a National Historic Landmark, is preserved and used for University meetings and community gatherings. The Jane Addams College of Social Work maintains Hull House and the settlement dining hall which still stands next door.

After Pullman’s death, a court ordered the selling of property in Pullman not used for manufacturing. The town quickly grew to resemble other industrial neighborhoods. A lake was filled in, the parks fell into disrepair, and without restrictions the front lawns were filled in with store fronts. The arcade, which had been the site of all commercial property, was rendered useless by the stores which could now be located anywhere in the town. It was demolished in the late 1920s. In the 1970s, faced with mass clearance for an industrial park, Pullman was saved by a group of residents. Today Pullman houses a large Mexican population and is a National, State, and City Historic District. The Greenstone Church, the market, and several houses are preserved and on public display. The Florence Hotel is currently undergoing restoration.

The efforts of both George Pullman and Jane Addams provide historical examples of struggles with issues we still face today.

While in many respects, both efforts acomplished little, many of the ideas explored by Pullman and Addams are still being explored.

These examples demonstrate that a healthy urban environment cannot be created through design alone, nor can it be improved by concentrating on social improvement alone. While aesthetics are important to some degree, an environment cannot be forced. It has to be organic. The buildings and businesses must be owned by a variety of people and individual lives must have a variety of influences.

The social and physical fabric both must be in place for a neighborhood to work.

1. Jane Addams of Hull House, 1860-1935, Margaret Tims, 1961, The Macmillan Company
2. Pullman, An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930, Stanley Buder, Oxford University Press, 1967
3. The Slum and the Ghetto: Immigrants, Blacks, and Reformers in Chicago, 1880-1930, Thomas Lee Philpott, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont
4. Olmsted’s America: an ‘Unpractical’ Man and his Vision of Civilization, Lee Hall, Little, Brown and Company, 1995
5. Internet Documents from Hull House (University of Illinois at Chicago), The Pullman School, and the Chicago Historical Society
6. Pullman: A Town Reborn, Ira J. Bach, Chicago Historical Society

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at