Remembering Ellen Gates Starr

March 19th, 2013by Emily NordstromFiled under: Stories

Note: This post is extracted from an article originally published in Chicago History magazine. In “The Unknown Life of Ellen Gates Starr,” author Suellen Hoy uncovered the story of the cofounder of Hull-House. We share it today in honor of the 154th anniversary of Starr’s birth.

It is a well-known and frequently cited fact that in 1889 Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, college friends aged twenty-nine and thirty, opened the Hull-House Settlement on the city’s West Side. They sought to extend a warm and helping hand to their immigrant neighbors and, at the same time, alter the course of their own lives.

Starr ran for alderman of Chicago’s Nineteenth Ward in 1916.
Courtesy of Sullen Hoy

Far less famous than Addams, Starr is remembered almost exclusively by readers of Chicago history. Yet Hull-House succeeded because of their partnership. In the end, Starr led a more private life, although she lived it no less intensely or purposefully.

For many years, Starr taught popular classes in art history at Hull-House, and in 1894, she served as the first president of the Chicago Public School Art Society. In 1897, she traveled to London, where she studied bookbinding for fifteen months. Upon her return, Starr opened a bindery at Hull-House and became a respected bookbinder, earning a good part of her living in that way as well as teaching her new skill to a select group of students.

Exterior of the Hull-House Settlement, which Addams and Starr initially referred to as their “scheme,” Halsted and Polk Streets, c. 1910
Photograph by Charles R. Clark, CHM, ICHi-20975

Over the years, Starr grew more intense and demanding of herself. In 1909, at age fifty, she resolved to spend more time involved in activities with a broader purpose. She threw herself into many of Chicago’s labor struggles and aggressively protested unjust practices against working women.

She was a militant participant in the 1910 garment workers’ strike against Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, doing “a little of everything” on behalf of the poorly paid workers. Starr helped raise relief money, led picket lines, and housed and fed strikers in her small Hull-House apartment. She played similar roles in the 1914 waitresses’ strike against Henrici Restaurant and the 1915 strike to win union recognition for garment workers. Arrested more than once, she refused to be intimidated and spoke forcefully at public gatherings on the rights of labor. Her friend and colleague Alice Hamilton once commented, “Miss Starr is so difficult when she is striking.”

The formidable Starr under arrest during the Henrici waitresses’ strike, March 5, 1914
Chicago Daily News collection, CHM, DN-0062288

During this time, Starr felt increasingly isolated at Hull-House. Her radical politics and devout Catholicism (she converted in 1920) separated her from old friends in a place, she wistfully noted, “where I have lived almost half my life.” Yet Starr did not leave the settlement and seems never to have considered it.

She entered a quieter phase of life in the 1920s, but remained interested in politics and social justice and wrote nearly a dozen articles for Catholic journals. After falling seriously ill in December 1929, Starr left Hull-House for treatment. Following a series of surgeries and extended hospitalizations, it was clear that she could no longer live alone, and in 1931, she became a “lady boarder” at the Academy of the Holy Child in Suffern, New York.

In her later years, Starr made peace with her circumstances and delighted in the beauty of her surroundings. She cherished letters and visits from devoted friends, including Jane Addams. Although they had drifted apart during the course of their active lives, an attachment remained.

Frances Crane Lillie (right) was among Starr’s dearest friends. The two are pictured here c. 1915.
Chicago Daily News collection, CHM, DN-0065382

Starr died early on the morning of February 10, 1940. The following May in Chicago, her contributions were remembered at a small memorial service, part of the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Hull-House. Her friends and former colleagues recalled the settlement’s cofounder for her love of beauty, independent spirit, and forthright commitment to justice. Their reflections likely centered on the energy and enthusiasm that infused Starr’s long life, fortified by her living faith and cherished circle of friends.

> Read more about Hull-House

> Purchase Ellen Gates Starr: Her Later Years, a spirited biography of a largely forgotten figure

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