Ellen Gates Starr Papers
Ellen Gates Starr was born near Laona, Illinois, the third of four children of Caleb Allen Starr and Susan Childs Gates Starr. She attended local schools and enrolled at Rockford Seminary, Rockford, Illinois, in 1877. She spent only one year at Rockford because her father could not afford the tuition. She taught at a country school in Mount Morris, Illinois, and in 1879 accepted a position at Miss Kirkland's School for Girls in Chicago where she taught a variety of subjects. Although religion was not part of her early upbringing, she spent much of her life in search of religious truth. She was greatly influenced by her aunt, Eliza Allen Starr, a devout Roman Catholic convert, writer, and lecturer. In 1884 Ellen joined the Episcopal Church.
During these years Starr was in frequent contact with Jane Addams, a close friend from Rockford Seminary. In 1888, while they were traveling in Europe, Addams confided her dream of establishing a settlement house. On their return they opened Hull House in Chicago in September 1889. Although Addams was the financial and executive force behind the establishment of Hull House, she depended on Starr's support and contacts in Chicago society. In an attempt to enlighten the lives of the immigrant population of Chicago, Starr established reading clubs, decorated Hull House with reproductions of great art, organized art history classes, and in 1894, founded and became the first president of the Chicago Public School Art Society. In the late 1890s she spent fifteen months in London studying bookbinding with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Although she was eager to teach the art of bookbinding on her return to the United States, she found that it was of little practical value to the people of Hull House.
Noting the prevalence of sweatshops, child labor, low wages, and long hours, she joined with Florence Kelley and others in the battle against child labor. She was a charter member of the Illinois branch of the National Women's Trade Union League and in 1896, 1910, and 1915 she came to the aid of striking textile workers. She delivered speeches, provided food and clothing, and marched in picket lines. She was arrested during a 1914 restaurant workers' strike. Starr was a close friend of Sidney Hillman and Jacob Potofsky and was made an honorary member of Hillman's Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She joined the socialist party in 1916 and unsuccessfully ran for alderman in Chicago.
Her spiritual quest culminated in conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1920. Thereafter she spent much of her time writing and speaking about Catholic art and worship and her own conversion experience. She continued to be an occasional visitor to Hull House until 1929, when an operation to remove a spinal abscess left her paralyzed from the waist down. In 1930, she settled at the convent of the Holy Child in Suffern, NY, becoming an oblate of the Third Order of St. Benedict in 1939. She died in 1940 and was buried at the convent.