Using Math to make Change: The Hull-House Statistics

In the late 1800’s, thousands of immigrants came to the United State seeking for “The American Dream”. Factories boomed as they flooded into cities such as Chicago and New York. But with so many incoming desperate workers, factory owners realized that they could demand long hours for little pay and the foreign immigrants would comply because they had no other option. They couldn’t speak English, they could be easily replaced, they didn’t know of any other life and so they obeyed. This was the era that Jane Addams was born into.

Jane Addams was born in September of 1860 to a very affluent family in Northern Illinois. Jane grew up wanting to make a difference. She read stories by Dickens and watched her mother care for the poor of her neighborhood. In this environment, she decided that she wanted to become a doctor so that she could work among the poor. Unlike many women of her time, Jane went on to get a higher education at the Rockford Female Seminary and the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia. She was unable to complete her degree due to health problems, but decided that there were other things she could do to help the poor. In 1889, she created Hull-House, a settlement house in Chicago, Illinois [1].

Now, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with math. Well, in that day and age, there was a prevalent idea that those who were poor lived in such conditions because of their physical inability to do better. They believed that you were poor because you were “stupid” and you couldn’t do anything to help that. As Jane lived at Hull-House among the poor of Chicago, she quickly realized that this idea was false. She grew to understand and love these people and saw that they could rise to higher positions in life if they were just given the opportunity. But to do so would require institutional change. And she, as a woman, could not even vote. She understood that for this change to come about, she would need support of the government and policies put into place to protect these immigrants. In order for her to gain the support needed for this change, she would need quantitative data.

In 1895, she co-authored The Hull-House Maps and Papers. This document provided a statistical analysis of the surrounding blocks of Hull-House. To gain this data, the women of Hull-House went door to door and asked a survey of the families who lived inside. These questions included questions such as: how many families lived in each apartment, how many were in each family, how long had they lived in the United States, did they speak English, where did they work, what was their wage, etc [2]. This data was then summarized and quantified into a series of color-coded maps. These maps divided the city blocks according to the wage earned by the family and their nationality. Each apartment was then color-coded so that the data could be easily seen and understood.

Wages Earned Map No. 1. Image: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co via The Newberry Library.


After collecting this data and compiling it into The Hull-House Maps and Papers, the women of Hull-House presented the information and data they had gathered to Congress. The data they gathered would eventually lead to new laws instating maximum working hours, minimum wage, and child-labor protection. This was one of the first times quantitative data was used to prove theories and change the political structure of an institution in this way. It was “a new type of Science” [3]. Through this statistical approach, these women were able to redefine what the general populace believed was the cause of poverty.

I think that there are many times that we get so caught up in the mathematical equations and the proofs that we distance ourselves from the social differences that can be brought about by it. This methodology of quantitative use of data is still used to make differences. The research of a pharmacist student to discover a new medicine and cure a disease. The survey of a teacher amongst his/her students to figure out what more he/she can do to better their educational experience. The analysis of a city-wide opinion on what to do with an area so that their community can be bettered. Each of these examples uses statistical data to bring about change. Each of us have within us the opportunity to do so. We just need to find a problem, grasp at the answers needed and go for it.