Author: Tommaso Bacci

Program of Study: Divinity School PhD

 

Nowadays the craft of bookbinding seems like an acceptable hobby for voracious readers, for aficionados of antique items, or in general for whomever enjoys the flicking sound of folding, cutting, and stacking paper together and the smell of fresh paper, leather, and glue. It might sound surprising, then, the interesting role and significance of such a crafty activity took in one of the most pioneering reform intuitions of the United States that took place in Chicago: Hull-House.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hull-House

Hull-House is probably the most famous settlement house of Chicago, although not the first in the world. The concept of a “settlement house” started in a slum in East London with Toynbee Hall, where some members of the educated middle class chose to live together in order to provide education and formation to local individuals that were less fortunate and educated than them.[1] Not too many years after its foundation two young women from Illinois, Jane Addams and Ellen G. Starr, visited Toynbee Hall and were inspired. After Jane Addams and Ellen G. Starr came back to the US, they decided in 1889 to start a similar settlement house in Chicago, at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets, named “Hull-House” after Charles Hull, a Chicagoan real estate developer who built the property in 1856. The intent of their project was “to provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.”[2] The success and the influence of this social project, alongside her many books and articles, was so pervasive that Jane Addams received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931.[3] Hull-House continued its social involvement for a long time after Jane Addams’ death, expanding its social outreach and service to the Chicagoan community, until 2012, when it abruptly ended for running out of funds, leaving several hundreds of workers without pay and insurance.[4] The original house built by Charles Hull is now a museum which can still be visited and that can inspire its visitors.

What has bookbinding to do with all of this? Well, Hull-House’s modus operandi for social outreach in the industrial districts of Chicago ranged from kindergarten, healthcare services and aid, sport activities, public library, and several art activities, workshops, and professional courses. Among many activities, bookbinding was implemented by the silent co-founder of the Hull-House settlement Ellen G. Starr, after she had experienced the craft in England in 1897 and 1899 with the famous bookbinder Thomas J. Cobden-Sanderson.[5] Both Addams and Starr shared the vision of involving arts and crafts into the works and the offerings of Hull House – mostly following Ruskin’s moral aesthetic – but it was Starr’s idea to start teaching bookbinding at Hull-House.[6]

The 19th century, with its Industrial Revolution, brought major changes both in the techniques and the process of printing and binding books. Starr’s bookbinding years (1899-1910 ca.), in particular, witnessed to a unique situation in which the traditional bookbinders “rage[d] against the machine”, because of the industrialization of book-making which they perceived as a threat to their expertise as well as the idea that bookmakers were being vilified for creating a medium that had been for centuries a luxury item worth of conventual libraries and noble estates. A clear example of this phenomenon is the establishment of publishers like Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris in 1891, which was devoted to producing precious and limited editions, such as The Kelmscott Chaucer (1896), one of the finest works of the press.[7]

https://www.journalstandard.com/article/20131221/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/131229947 https://thomasbirdmosher.net/wp-content/uploads/files/ellen-gates-starr.pdf

Despite her socialist sympathies, and the fact that she was teaching a potentially profitable profession to disadvantaged and oppressed individuals, Starr’s attitude towards bookbinding was not too far from the aforementioned quasi-luddistic reaction of William Morris. She would never have more than three devoted pupils at the time, and she would consider worth binding only books of a certain value, focusing on the goal of attaining a certain beauty to the created objects.[8] With the passing of time a division between Addams’ and Starr’s understanding of the role of aesthetic and art occurred: while Addams’ kept her Ruskinian perspective of art as socially valuable for its spiritual benefits, if not to soften the divisiveness of the social fight amongst classes, Starr seemed to opt for more radical solution: to bring social change. After about 1910, for Starr art became “a personal pursuit, a labor of love through which she could merge her interest in art and literature”, and she gradually abandoned her activities at Hull-House.[9]

The brief story of Hull-House’s bookbinding, and Starr’s involvement in it, is an effective portrait of the major historical conjuncture of the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which brought new social struggles, philosophies, and even aesthetics, where all these perspectives are brought – if not bound – together at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets. One thing is certain – the raison d’être of bookbinding in Hull-House has shifted from the aesthetic vision of Starr, after more than a century of a (struggling) relationship between humankind and technology. As this video shows, current bookbinders at the Hull-House Museum, like Regin Igloria, are not concerned anymore about creating lasting and precious volumes, but rather creating a medium that will be touched, used, and remembered by the hands of who is holding it. While it cannot be determined whether arts and crafts can foster social change or are a mere existential opiate for oppressed and less fortunate individuals, this long-lasting bookbinding tradition that continued at Hull-House is a testimony about how much they can bring a community together. At the end of the day, isn’t fostering solidarity propaedeutic to constructive social change?

[1] Louise Carroll Wade, “Settlement Houses,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, accessed Sep 9 2021, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1135.html.

[2] Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (Berkeley, California: Mint Editions, 2020), 112.

[3] For more information regarding the biography of Jane Addams: Jane Addams – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1931/addams/biographical/, accessed Sep 9 2021, and Hamington, Maurice, “Jane Addams,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/addams-jane/, accessed Sep 9 2021.

[4] Kate Thayer, “Jane Addams Hull House to close,” Chicago Tribune, Jan 20 2012.

[5] Starr’s involvement in the social value of arts and crafts can be appreciated in her involvement in movements such as the Chicago Public School Art Society and the Chicago Society of Arts and Craft, which she both founded.

[6] Mary Ann Stankiewicz, “Art at Hull House, 1889-1901: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr,” Woman’s Art Journal 10, no. 1 (1989): 36-37.

[7] Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, “William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism,” Modernism/Modernity 15, no. 3 (2008): 477–502.

[8] Mary Ann Stankiewicz, “Art at Hull House, 1889-1901: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr,” Woman’s Art Journal 10, no. 1 (1989): 37.

[9] Mary Ann Stankiewicz, “Art at Hull House, 1889-1901: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr,” Woman’s Art Journal 10, no. 1 (1989): 38.

Images directory

Image 1           Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Hull House.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 4, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hull-House.

Image 2           Harriet Gustason. “Looking Back: Ellen Gates Starr, an Overlooked Public Servant.” The Journal Standard, Dec 21, 2013. https://www.journalstandard.com/article/20131221/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/131229947

Image 3           Philip R. Bishop. “An Ellen Gates Starr Binding Revisited”. https://thomasbirdmosher.net/wp-content/uploads/files/ellen-gates-starr.pdf