Hull-House exhibit recalls the progress that began at home
Never has a sponge been so absorbing.
The large sponge is framed within Plexiglass on the second-floor south wall of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, 800 S. Halsted.
The beige sponge looks like a moon in twilight.
The scrub belonged to Lisa Thomas, a caregiver who used it to bathe Sarah, a 500-pound woman in Uptown. The utilitarian item is part of the groundbreaking “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics,” which runs through December.
The exhibit looks at the first generation of home economists who were equal-rights advocates, chemists and labor reformers who sought to refine domesticity. Other artifacts include sewing and nursing materials related to Mary Keyser, the housekeeper for Addams who moved into Hull-House in September 1889.
“If you care about urban farming, immigration reform, labor rights or universal health and child care, you need to know this history,” says exhibit coordinator Heather Radke.
The displays seamlessly connect yesterday’s reform movements with today’s.
Thomas, Myrla Baldonado and Digna Morales are household worker organizers with the Latino Union of Chicago, who helped curate the exhibit. The original Hull-House, built in 1856, also includes Addams’ bedroom, which features her FBI file alongside her Nobel Peace Prize. In 1931 Addams was the first American woman to receive the peace prize.
In the exhibit space across the hallway from the bedroom, Thomas looks at the sponge. She is silent before she gathers her thoughts.
“Sarah couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. “She had a catheter on. Most of the time I had to bathe her in the bed. It took about 30 minutes because me and her two sons had to lift her stomach up and place pillows under the stomach for me to be able to wash her.
“She was too big to wear a nightgown. She wore a pink sheet. I washed it every day. Her silver and gray hair went all the way down to her feet. The doctor had her on a strict diet. I would try to give her carrots. She would throw the carrots. But I love my seniors. I love taking care of them.
“And she was such a wonderful lady.”
Sarah died three months ago at the age of 85.
Thomas was with her four years. The 50-year-old native of Yazoo City, Miss., has been a caregiver for 21 years.
The exhibit is a timely one.
Baby boomers are going through caregiving issues with their parents. And soon boomers will be experiencing caregiving needs firsthand. The World Health Organization has estimated that dementia sufferers will top 2 billion by 2050.
That would be the worst medical disaster in human history.
“Unfinished Business” includes more than 100 items, including seven donated by Chicago domestic workers. Thomas, Baldonado and Morales conducted interviews with domestic workers in the summer of 2011. The results were published in “Home Economics: the Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” the first national study of domestic work. The 2,000 surveys are part of the exhibit. A key finding was that 23 percent of domestic workers are paid below the state minimum wage.
“Unfinished Business” adroitly walks back in time.
Radke looks at a Hull-House menu from the 1890s. “Here,” she says, “people are starting to realize there are problems with the way food works in this country. Upton Sinclair is writing ‘The Jungle.’ He wrote part of ‘The Jungle’ here [in 1906] at the dining room of the Hull-House. Home economists were interested in communal kitchens. They had the phrase, ‘Light one fire instead of many.’ ”
The exhibit includes an 1892 “Diet Kitchen” notice from the Hull-House Bulletin that “Miss Theodosia Styles will prepare Beef Tea, Chicken or Mutton Broth ... and Cereals and Gruels of various kinds …”
“Women were increasingly working in factories, and the structure of food in the home had to change,” Radke says. “But it was a failure because one of the problems they encountered was that New England women, for example, had their own idea what was delicious with immigrant neighbors. [Immigrants] were making spaghetti and meatballs in their houses, and these New England women wanted them to have other things.
“The most famous being beef tea.” Eeech!
“It was a moment of learning for Hull-House,” Radke admits.
The exhibit points out that Hull-House reformers discovered unsafe “swill milk” was coming from cows that were fed spent wheat from the making of beer. The wheat had no nutritional value. From 1899 to 1905, a tank with fresh milk was installed in the Hull-House courtyard.
During a recent weekday, the exhibition space was filled with children. A popular interactive installation to interrupt the typical life cycle of a T-shirt was created by artist “Carole Frances Lung as Frau Fiber.” Visitors use early 20th century sewing machines to “upcycle” used T-shirts, transforming them into cool tote bags. The exhibit only opened in mid-December but has been a hit with middle and high school-age audiences, according to Radke.
“I was interested in the way domestic space can be a space of social change,” Radke says. “And Chicago is beginning to emerge in this.”
Illinois is at the forefront of the movement. On Wednesday the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, a project of Latino Union of Chicago, met with the Illinois Senate Labor Committee to promote a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.
“It is a key moment in the campaign,” says Elisa Ringholm, development director of the Latino Union. “It includes domestic workers in existing labor laws. They will be included in the right to minimum wage. The right to be paid for all hours worked. One day off per week. The right to meal and rest periods. Paid time off. And the right to be free from sexual harassment. New York is the first and only state to pass this Bill of Rights. It was passed in 2010 after a six-year campaign led by domestic worker organizations.”
Baldonado, 59, donated her journal as a period piece of the time when she took care of an elderly patient 96 hours a week for $4.50 an hour with no overtime. Her writing was her only outlet. Portions of the handwritten journal sit in glass next to the sponge and a handcrafted broom donated by Costa Rican household worker Digna Morales:
Freedom Notebook! 6/13/08
“Today is Friday, my last day here. It was my first time to work five straight days & when I transfer tom. to Schiller Park my first 7 day straight. ... Today I’m anticipating the worst part of this care giving — changing diapers, wiping a sore and bleeding butt & applying ointment on it ...
“This morning , I assisted the husband in shopping. I saw some Filipino who did not smile back but probably thinking I’m just a caregiver seeing me following an old American around the supermarket. But why do I have to be defensive. It’s a decent way to earn money. It is what will make me follow my goals.”
“I was the first one to bring in my artifact,” says Baldonado, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2007. “I remembered this notebook. I was about to throw it away. It is personal.
“I have five children. My goal is to have them grow up to become independent. One of my friends asked me why I said all these private things.
“We want people to know who we are.”