How did an activist, labor organiser, teacher, and artist, especially one with a name like Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940), manage to escape everlasting renown in Chicago history? She made headlines in her own day; she ran for political office, was arrested on the picket line, was a bookbinder, and co-founded some of Chicago’s most important organizations and institutions, including Hull House (1889) and the Chicago chapter of the Arts and Crafts Society (1897). Her life exemplifies a struggle to balance effective teaching, activism, and art practice. Starr was both deeply committed to her community, and equally unafraid to criticize it, and while her strategies for social justice changed through the years, she never stopped teaching. Ellen Gates Starr met and became close friends with Jane Addams during the one year, 1877, in which Starr could afford to attend Rockford Seminary College in Illinois. She taught Literature and Art History at Miss Kirkland’s School for girls in Chicago for ten years before accompanying Addams on her groundbreaking trip to Europe in 1888. In London they visited Toynbee Hall, a social settlement founded in reaction to problems created by urbanization, industrialization and inadequate conditions for immigrants. Toynbee Hall was an important part of the Arts and Crafts movement in which the members combated the separation of art from life and labor. Both Addams and Starr were deeply impressed on their visit to the settlement and founded Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the US, on its example.
Ellen Gates Starr continued to teach at Hull House, presenting lectures and organizing reading groups as part of her work establishing young women’s labor unions, such as the Dorcas Federal Labour Union. Mary Jo Deegan and Ana-Maria Whal maintain in On Art, Labor, and Religion: Ellen Gates Starr that the Chicago chapter of the Arts and Crafts Society (CACS) stemmed from the organisation of this labour union and the Easter Art exhibits at Hull House. Ellen Gates Starr and George Mortimer Wendel Twose founded the CACS in 1897. The activities of the CACS included exhibitions, lectures, as well as evening classes for children and adults in woodworking, ceramics and metalsmithing. Bruce Kahler writes that the Hull House’s (This is confusing, is he talking about the hull house? Should not call it “the settlement” all of a sudden, or is he talking about the London settlement?) involvement with the Arts and Crafts led, in November 1900, to the establishment of its highly successful Labor Museum. In the museum members of the immigrant population displayed the hand working skills they had brought with them to Chicago. Children were then able to see their parents in an entirely different context than those of the degrading conditions that most of them, including the children, worked and lived in everyday.
The formation of the CACS marked a decidedly different attitude toward the current role of art education at Hull House. Before this, both Addams and Starr, in line with most cultural philanthropists at the time, believed that exposure to great art alone was enough to redeem the middle class and elevate the lower classes. Starr founded the Chicago Public School Art Society (CPSAS) in 1894, modeled on the efforts of T.C. Horsfall in Britain. The aim of the society was to promote art as a part of the life and the environment of public schools. This included everything from painting the walls of classrooms an agreeable color to providing these same rooms with good prints and original works of art. In 1886, Starr writes, an “investigation revealed that an incredible percentage of the children in the schools of one of our cities had never seen a cow, and did not know what trees were.” She wonders how children could truly learn and understand literature or science, or even to become human (Did she really say this? Sounds a bit elitist), when their lives were devoid of color, nature, great architecture, and public art. The members of the CPSAS, she explains, hoped “that a slender link may thus be formed between these lives and the beautiful, and that it may lead a few, perhaps many, to try themselves to strengthen it.”
Ellen Gates Starr continued to bring art into the lives of others by becoming an artist herself. In 1898, not long after the formation of the CACS, she traveled to England and studied bookbinding with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson at Doves Bindery. She explains that could no longer enjoy interpreting the art of the past when the conditions for the creation of art in the present were available only to the upper and middle classes; “Into the prison-houses of earth, its sweat shops and underground lodging houses, art cannot follow.” Starr believed, as did John Ruskin and William Morris, that art was the by-product of work done in freedom and pleasure, “Every man working in the joy of his heart is, in some measure, an artist.” Starr followed the more radical Arts and Crafts example by devoting herself to handcraft, while working for political change in which everyone in society would have joy in his or her labor. Starr taught apprentices at Hull House and used her bookbinding to support the work she did as a labor supporter and organizer. She was an integral part of the garment workers’ strikes of 1910 that began at Hart, Schaffner and Marx’s shop 5 on 1922 S. Halsted Street. She was also integral to the garment workers’ strike of 1915, and was arrested several times outside of Henrici’s restaurant supporting the waitress’s strike of 1913. This site is still a destination for protesters, as the Daley Center now stands where the restaurant used to be.
Starr often struggled with her dual role as artisan and activist and had critical insight into the various institutions of which she was such an integral part. She criticized the labor unions for being too narrow, too satisfied with small gains for too few people; “At its best the trade union is inadequate.” She saw settlement work as work for lasting change in which “sending little knots of children for country outings, or teaching them to hoard pennies, or mould clay—admirable as these objects are…will not need to trouble us…. Art must come back to life through the channel of daily occupation. All life must be redeemed.”
Starr did not believe that handwork and social work were synonymous, and despite being part of a highly successful and effective community effort such as Hull House, she was often frustrated by the space between her efforts, and criticized many of her own choices for being ineffectual. This space however, while discouraging, may have provided her with the critical room to see the inadequacy of efforts done in isolation. She, like her fellow residents, was working for change that would transcend philanthropy and militancy. Starr’s activism was inspired by, and became an integral aspect of, her teaching practice. Regular reading group meetings in which the aesthetic theory of Ruskin and Morris were discussed supplemented labor union meetings. Starr brought art, art history, and theory together in an attempt to make her community a place in which the practice of art was no longer symptomatic of a fragmented society, but instead a natural part of one’s life. Or in the words of her own teacher T.J. Cobden-Sanderson “…all men [are] potentially artists, each in his own degree, and one and all to be capable of co-operating to the one great achievement of the human race, the bringing into unison with the rhythm of the universe the innumerable minor rhythms of human activity.”