“The Devil Baby at Hull-House” by Jane Addams (1916)

November 26, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |


Jane Addams

Jane Addams (1860-1935) is known as an early champion of women’s rights and suffrage, social equality, and international peace. Her notable essay, “The Devil Baby at Hull-House,” explores the tragedies of the working class immigrant women who have made sacrifices for their adored children.

The Jane Addams Hull House complex once covered a city block on Chicago’s West Side. (Chicago Historical Society, Barnes Crosby photo)

Born in Cedarville, IL, Jane was the eighth of nine children, and would graduate from Rockford Female Seminary (later Rockford College for Women). She began studying medicine shortly thereafter, but poor health forced her to change her expected career path. During a tour of Europe with companion Ellen Gates Starr, she visited Toynbee Hall in London, England, which would become the inspiration for Hull-House. Along with Starr, she would open Hull-House in 1889, making it the first settlement house in the United States.

She remained an outspoken pacifist throughout her life and was criticized for these views, particularly during World War I, when she was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1931, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She would later die in 1935, with funeral services held at Hull-House.

Essay’s Form

“The Devil Baby at Hull-House” is a social commentary on the lives of immigrant women workers in the early 20th century disguised as a rebuff of a circulating ghost story about a “Devil Baby” in the House.

The essay opens with various versions of the creation myth of the “baby.” Addams expresses a measure of disdain for visitors who come to see the devil baby rumored to be at Hull-House, but she finds the elderly immigrant women who come to see the baby have their own tragic “devil babies.” These women’s stories mirror the creation myth of the Devil Baby: a father disrespects the mother and creates tragically cursed child. Each woman tells some variation of this story, which shows the male’s dominance over the hard working women and the women’s helplessness towards raising their children.
Jane Addams downplays her presence as a narrative figure. Throughout the narrative she presents other people’s stories, removing the focus from herself. She becomes an observer after the first section of the essay, while the “Devil Baby” becomes the focus which draws in these various storytellers.

Immediate Context

“The Devil Baby at Hull-House” first appeared in the October 1916 edition of The Atlantic and was subtitled “A tale of poverty, superstition, and the struggles of ordinary women.” The Atlantic started circulation in 1857 as a magazine catering to well-read, literary-minded persons interested in politics, news, and literature. Authors who have appeared in the magazine include Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The same year that “The Devil Baby at Hull-House” was published, the Battle of the Somme during World War I was raging in Europe. The war lasted through July until November of that year. As a known pacifist, Jane Addams was unsurprisingly vehemently opposed to the war. In October of 1916, the same month the essay came out, Margaret Sanger opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in the United States, representing a step forward for women’s rights.

Subsequent Appearances

Jane Adams at The Hull House

Jane Adams at The Hull House

Jane Addams produced an essay regarding the devil baby shortly after the phenomenon began to gain popularity. “A Modern Devil-Baby” was written in 1914, two years prior to “The Devil Baby at Hull-House.” This version contains much of the information also seen in the first section of the later essay.

“The Devil Baby at Hull-House” was later collected into Jane Addams’ novel The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, originally published in 1916 as well. It would then eventually also be incorporated into her The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, published in 1930, one year before she won the Nobel Peace Prize and five years prior to her death.



“1916 in History.” BrainyHistory.com. BrainHistory.com, n.d. Web. 16 Apr 2011. <http://www.brainyhistory.com/years/1916.html>.

“1910-1919 including Popular Culture, Prices, Events, Technology and Inventions.” The Years 1910-1919 From The People History. The People History, n.d. Web. 16 Apr 2011. <http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1910to1919.html>.

“Jane Addams – Biography.” Nobelprize.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr 2011. <http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1931/addams-bio.html>.

Addams, Jane. The Long Road of Woman’s Memory. Chicago ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Print.

Addams, Jane. “A Modern Devil-Baby.” American Journal of Sociology 20.1 (1914): 117-118. Web. 17 Apr 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2762978>.

Addams, Jane. The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, September 1909 to September 1929, with a Record of a Growing World Consciousness. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930. Print.

Murphy, Cullen. “A History of The Atlantic Monthly.” The Atlantic Online. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2001. Web. 16 Apr 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/about/atlhistf.htm>.

Pastorello, Karen. “’The Transfigured Few’: Jane Addams, Bessie Abramowitz Hillman, and Immigrant Women Workers in Chicago, 1905-1915.” Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy. ‘Ed’. Fischer, Marilyn, Carol Nackenoff, and Wendy Chmielewski. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print.


All images of the article and advertisements were found in The Atlantic microfilm, located in Robert Manning Strozier Library (Film PR 274, Reel 28).

The image of Hull-House was found at http://tigger.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=img/show_image_in_gallery.ptt&image=159&gallery=5, part of the University of Illinois Chicago’s Urban Experience in Chicago site. The photographer is unknown, and the image was taken in 1902.

The image of Jane Addams was found at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671949/ and is part of the Library of Congress. The photograph was taken by “Moffett” (first name unknown) circa 1914.

Text and images: Kat Bell.