Ellen Gates Starr (1859 – February 10, 1940) was a American social reformer and activist, co-founder with Jane Addams of the Hull House social settlement. She was an artist, and strongly believed in the value of being surrounded by beauty. She worked to instill appreciation of art and inspire creativity in students who lived and studied at Hull House. Finding little appreciation for this work, however, she joined the other "Great Ladies of Halsted Street" in their campaigns for social reform, contributing greatly to their successful efforts to bring about laws concerning child labor. Although she had previously abandoned her religious faith, in the latter part of her life Starr retired to a Roman Catholic convent, where she wrote and lectured on art. A believer in the significance of beauty in our lives, Lathrop made great contributions to the welfare of others, contributing to the emergence of a happier, healthier, more beautiful human society.
Ellen Gates Starr was born in 1959 near Laona, Illinois, as the third of four children of Caleb Allen Starr and Susan Childs Gates Starr. Her parents were not particularly religious, but Starr already as a child exhibited deep spiritual sentiment. Her aunt, Eliza Allen Starr, a devout Roman Catholic convert and a writer, had great influence on her, and probably had input in Starr’s later decision to enter the seminary. After graduating from high school, Starr enrolled into the Rockford Female Seminary (1877-1878) where she met Jane Addams.
After spending one year at the seminary, Starr had to quit due to insufficient funds. Instead, she started to teach at the local school in Mount Morris, Illinois. In 1879, she moved to Chicago where she started to work at Miss Kirkland's School for Girls, teaching a variety of subjects. She remained there for the next nine years.
In 1888, Starr joined Jane Addams on a tour around Europe. While in London they visited Toynbee Hall and became inspired by the success of the English Settlement movement. They determined to establish a similar social settlement in Chicago. Upon their return, on September 18, 1889, they opened the Hull House. First it was a kindergarten, but soon it expanded to a day nursery and a center for continuing education for adults. Many other significant women reformers later joined Hull House, including Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton, Mary McDowell, Alzina Parsons Stevens, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
Starr’s initial work in Hull House evolved around teaching art classes to immigrants and holding reading sessions with local people. In 1894, she founded and became the first president of the Chicago Public School Art Society. In the late 1890s, she spent more than a year in London studying bookbinding, wanting to teach the art of bookbinding in Chicago. She later realized that Hull House had more important things to work on, and she shifted her attention to social work.
With the beginning of the century, Starr joined Florence Kelley and other women from Hull House in the fight against child labor. She participated in numerous protests and gave lectures and speeches on the topic of child labor. She was also advocate for improvement of working conditions for women. She was a member of the Women's Trade Union League and helped organize striking garment workers in 1896, 1910, and 1915. During a strike of restaurant workers in 1914, she was arrested. In 1916, she joined the socialist party and unsuccessfully ran for alderman in Chicago.
Starr converted to Roman Catholicism in 1920, and spent next ten years in writing and lecturing about Catholic art. Her contact with Hull House ceased, only occasionally visiting her old friends. In 1929 she became paralyzed from the waist down, following an unsuccessful operation on a spinal abscess. She settled in the Holy Child Catholic convent in Suffern, New York. By the end of her life she became an oblate of the Third Order of St. Benedict.
She died on February 10, 1940.
Starr’s main contribution at the Hull House settlement was in the sphere of art. She possessed a great talent for artistic expression and strove to instill interest in art in other people. She believed that through artistic expression and the use of the creative impulse that is in every human being, people could change and becoming happier and more rational as human beings:
No civilized and happy people has ever been able to express itself without art. The prophet expands his "All great art is praise " into "The art of man is the expression of his rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part." A rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which a denizen of an industrial district in one of our great cities forms a conscious part, is inconceivable. (Art and Labor, 1895)
When she co-founded Hull House in 1889 with Jane Addams, she had a vision of offering something to the poor, working residents of Chicago. In the beginning, Hull House was only a kindergarten, but gradually it expanded and soon started to host educational classes for adults. Starr was responsible for several classes: cooking, reading, and art history. She particularly targeted immigrants and their families, wanting to educate them in the spirit of American culture. She also organized cultural events, where local people presented songs, dances, games, and food from their home countries.
Inspired by the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin, Starr turned Hull House into an art gallery. She decorated the whole house with great art pieces, and even allowed immigrant families to borrow some of her artwork to exhibit in their own homes. She believed that through art people can become happier, as possessing something with aesthetic value can be rather inspiring. Gray and empty rooms are often demoralizing, and simple artwork can have great effect on people’s lives:
To any one living in a working-class district of a great city today, the question must arise whether it be at all worth the cost to try to perpetuate art under conditions so hopeless, or whether it be not the only rational or even possible course to give up the struggle from that point, and devote every energy to "the purification of the nation's heart and the chastisement of its life." Only by re-creation of the source of art can it be restored as a living force… And when one sees how almost miraculously the young mind often responds to what is beautiful in its environment, and rejects what is ugly, it renews courage to set the leaven of the beautiful in the midst of the ugly, instead of waiting for the ugly to be first cleared away. (Art and Labor, 1895).
Starr spent fifteen months in London, studying the art of bookbinding. Upon her return to Chicago she started to organize classes to teach this skill. She soon established a reputation for herself as a master craftsperson. However, as the other women in Hull House increasingly focused on social activism and political battles, Starr felt that her work was of little practical value. She then shifted her interest toward joining her fellow colleagues to fight child labor, proving a useful asset in that arena too.
Although she never reached the fame of Jane Addams, Edith Abbott, or Florence Kelley, Ellen Gates Starr was an influential name at Hull House. She had a strong sense for beauty, and through her work tried to inspire others for art and aesthetics. She helped found the Chicago Public School Art Society and the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society. The Hull-House Museum still hosts some of her bookbindery works.
All links retrieved September 13, 2017.
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