Projects: Topic Modeling with Jane Addams

For this project I used the raw data of the correspondence in text files to look at some of the major topics that popped up in the letters and telegraphs Jane Addams sent and received between 1901 and summer 1918, the extent of data available. Jane Addams was a reformer from Chicago who was active at the turn of the 20th century. She is best known for founding and maintaining Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, though she was also a political activist for suffrage, temperance, peace, and labor rights. Addams is often considered the “mother” of social work in America. She involved herself directly in politics when she nominated Theodore Roosevelt for President when he ran the third time for the Progressive Party, often called the Bull Moose Party, in 1912. She died in 1935.

Jane Addams in 1914

The first thing I had to do was obtain the raw data from the site. Annalise, the web developer, did that for me so I did not have to collect the data manually. The next thing on the list was cleaning up the text to remove the html coding for rich text view, like underlining and indentations. Stripping it down to the text and only the text is a really important step, and eliminates a lot of extraneous, transcriber added symbols so that it is only the text itself that I’m working with and the algorithm does not get confused.

The next step was to take the .txt files that Cameron made from the spreadsheet, and upload it onto the topic modeling tool I was using, along with additional words I wanted to filter out, called stopwords. In addition to the standard stopwords, which includes words like the, an, but, and to, I also included words that I knew were added in by the transcribers. This included illegible, page, and her address. I knew these words would pop up often and felt they would hurt the integrity of the data, so I removed them. At some point in the future, I would really like to actually work with letters that have a lot of illegible words and see whether there is a pattern there, but that was too ambitious for this project. 

Jane Addams advocating for peace in 1915

What I found when I ran the program was that many of the topics were oriented towards basic letter etiquette. Were I to redo the topic modeling, I would add basic greetings and a number of names to the stopwords to try to get more to the meat of what Jane Addams talked about. But what this does tell me is the sheer number of letters she sent, as well as some of the years that she sent and received the most mail. In this case, 1912 and 1915 both popped up. 1912 was when she nominated Teddy Roosevelt for President. A well-known woman injecting herself into politics so directly had a highly polarizing effect, and Addams received many letters about her actions. While many were complimentary and praised her for supporting Roosevelt and fighting for the right of women to vote, there were many that were also critical of her. Some felt she should never have gotten involved in the first place, while others felt she was backing the wrong horse and should instead support one of the other parties, such as the Socialists. In 1915, she again took a polarizing position by becoming chair of the Woman’s Peace Party and putting her efforts towards working against World War I. Her pacifism ultimately destroyed her relationship with Teddy Roosevelt and impacted how she was viewed by the world at large, though it did not stop her from doing good wherever she could.

Though I categorized 6 of the 15 topics as “letter” as a miscellaneous kind of topic, the very first topic was “social work” and related directly to her activism on behalf of the poor, working class, and children. Words like legislation, labor, education, and service encapsulate who Jane Addams was and what she cared about. Peace and politics also rank very highly in the topics and 6 of the 15 topics are related to social work, politics, or peace. Addams talked the talk all the time. Looking at a different person’s correspondence would likely have radically different results. In this case, it is clear that she spent much of her time reading and writing about important social topics and goals, and the time she did not spend communicating specifically about these topics was often spent organizing groups, often of women, or writing books and articles to be published, which is also evident in the topics created from the files. It backs up the information already out there about Jane Addams and her work, that her private life and public life were consistent and focused on helping people.

A 1910 letter from Jane Addams to her partner, Mary Rozet Smith

Though there are no real surprises in the data, any additional information can be really valuable, especially when dealing with over 6000 letters! Using the algorithm to break down what Jane Addams talked about most helps tell her story without reading each individual letter and making manual notes and confirms what we already know. Eventually, I would like to do this through her death in 1935, and look at how things changed over time for Addams. 

To look at the data results, click here. Many thanks to Cathy Moran Hajo and the Jane Addams Papers Project at Ramapo College of NJ for their help!