Born September 12, 1859 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died February 17, 1932 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Florence Kelley was a passionate crusader for workers' rights in an era when there was almost no federal or state regulation to protect them. She carried out much of her most important work in Chicago, Illinois, and lived at the famous Hull House settlement founded by Jane Addams (1860–1935; see entry). Kelley was tireless in her efforts to end child labor and improve working conditions for the women who were employed in the light-industry factories that produced consumer goods before the rise of organized labor. She was the first official inspector of factories in the state of Illinois, and she fought for the establishment of the Children's Bureau to protect the health and safety of the underage.
"She galvanized us all into more intelligent interest in the industrial conditions about us."
Background and education
Kelley was born on September 12, 1859, into a prominent Philadelphia family. Her father, William Darrah Kelley, was a local judge. One of the founders of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, he was elected to Congress in 1860 and served in Washington, D.C., for thirty years. Kelley's mother, Caroline Bartram Bonsall, hailed from an old Philadelphia family of Quaker faith. Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian group noted for its opposition to war, oath taking, and rituals. An ancestor, John Bartram (1699–1777), was known as the father of American botany and, in the 1720s, established the first botanical garden in the North American colonies.
Kelley was one of eight children in her family, but half died in infancy or childhood, and she was the sole daughter to survive. Her parents kept her out of school when she was young due to concerns for her health, but she was taught at home. By her teens she had become an eager reader with a sharp interest in politics and social reform movements. She entered Cornell University in 1876 as a member of its first coeducational class. Like her companions at Hull House, she was part of a new generation of college-educated American women who used their talents and energies to help the underprivileged and immigrant classes.
Continuing poor health forced Kelley to take time off from Cornell, but she eventually earned her undergraduate degree in literature in 1882. She hoped to enter the University of Pennsylvania law school, but even her family connections could not help her overcome the prejudices of the day against women professionals, and her application was rejected. For a time she taught night school courses for women in Philadelphia and then entered the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which was one of the few institutions at the time that would grant a doctorate degree to a woman. In Zurich she came to know a number of young Russians and Poles who had been forced to leave their native countries because of their radical political views, and she married one of them, Lazare Wischnewetzky, in 1884. He was a Polish-Russian physician, and they had three children together: Margaret, Nicholas, and John Bartram.
Translated famous book
Kelley's first major career achievement came thanks to that Zurich circle of political outcasts. She met Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), the German-born political philosopher who, with Karl Marx (1818–1883), co-authored the landmark 1848 work The Communist Manifesto. Engels asked her to translate an earlier book of his, The Conditions of the Working-class in England in 1844, into its first English edition in 1887. The nonfiction work described in horrific detail the living and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution's labor class and raised public awareness that some government regulation of business was needed.
By the time that work was published, Kelley and her husband had moved to America and settled in New York City. They were active in social circles there, but the marriage was an unhappy one, for Kelley's husband was physically abusive.
Friedrich Engels was born into a wealthy German family that had earned its fortune from textile manufacturing. When he entered the family business as a young man, he was sent to Manchester, England, to run a cotton-producing plant there. Manchester had quickly become one of Europe's leading textile centers, and many Irish immigrants, fleeing a terrible potato famine on their home isle, came to find work in its factories. Engels was horrified by the conditions he saw in Manchester's slums and began recording his informal investigations on paper. The first edition of The Conditions of the Working-class in England in 1844 was published in the original German in 1845. In his book Engels observed:
All conceivable evils are heaped upon the heads of the poor. If the population of great cities is too dense in general, it is they in particular who are packed into the least space. As though the vitiated [morally impure] atmosphere of the streets were not enough, they are penned in dozens into single rooms, so that the air which they breathe at night is enough in itself to stifle them. They are given damp dwellings, cellar dens that are not waterproof from below or garrets [rooms on the top floor of a house, usually under a sloped roof] that leak from above. Their houses are so built that the clammy air cannot escape. They are supplied bad, tattered, or rotten clothing, adulterated [contaminated because of inferior ingredients] and indigestible food. They are exposed to the most exciting changes of mental condition, the most violent vibrations between hope and fear; they are hunted like game, and not permitted to attain peace of mind and quiet enjoyment of life. They are deprived of all enjoyments except that of sexual indulgence and drunkenness, are
worked every day to the point of complete exhaustion of their mental and physical energies, and are thus constantly spurred on to the maddest excess in the only two enjoyments at their command.
Soon after the publication of his groundbreaking book, Engels joined with Karl Marx to produce their 1848 Communist Manifesto. It urged industrial workers to organize and overturn capitalism (an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and free market competition). The communist world envisioned by Marx and Engels would do away with land ownership and inheritance. All industry, public transportation, and utilities would be run by the government; citizens would enjoy equal access to free housing, health care, and education; and eventually a classless society would arise.
In 1891 she left him, taking the children with her, and moved to Chicago, where a divorce was easier to obtain than it was in New York. She arrived without a job or a place to stay, but she knew of the work of Jane Addams and Hull House. One of the first settlement houses in the United States, Hull House operated by the principle that only through living among the poor could a Christian aid worker or social reformer truly understand their situation and provide help. Addams introduced Kelley to a local journalist, Henry Demarest Lloyd (1847–1903), whose 1894 work Wealth Against Commonwealth helped arouse public sentiment against the huge monopolies (companies that had exclusive rights to sell or produce a product) of American business during this era. Lloyd worked for the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper started by his father-in-law, and he and his wife took in Kelley and her children. She later lived at Hull House for a time.
In New York City Kelley had been active in a group that called for regular factory inspections by government agents to help stop child labor. The practice of employing underage workers, some as young as eight years old, was legal at the time, but there was a movement underway to force its end. Because of her previous experience, in 1892 Kelley was hired as a special agent for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her duty was to visit tenements (rundown apartments that barely meet minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort) that also doubled as manufacturing sites. This arrangement occurred most commonly in the garment business. Clothing manufacturing was sometimes assigned on a piece-by-piece basis to the workers, and in some of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods of the city entire families sewed for fifteen hours a day.
Reform in Chicago
Kelley and her fellow inspectors launched a public awareness campaign, bringing in newspaper reporters to see the conditions in these garment shops for themselves. Chicago's dailies began publishing alarming accounts of toddlers infected with smallpox—a deadly contagious disease that caused high fever and a widespread rash—crawling near coats destined for the upscale Chicago department store Marshall Field's. Soon Kelley was called to testify before Illinois lawmakers in Springfield, where, reading from her notebook, she described conditions further, as quoted in Report and Findings of the Joint Committee to Investigate the "Sweat Shop" System:
The first Saturday afternoon in June I found this scarlet fever case at 98 Ewing street. The mother was working alone, and employed no one else, in her own bedroom. At 65 Ewing street, the following week, I found a case, in a Sicilian family, where four children were just recovering from scarlet fever, and cloak making had been carried on continuously throughout the illness. On the second Sunday afternoon in July I found, at 145 Bunker street, a Bohemian customs' tailor, sewing a fine, customs cloak, not more than six feet from the bed; and on this bed his little boy lay dying of typhoid fever, and I ascertained that the child died of typhoid fever the following week. At 128 Ewing street I found a diphtheria notice posted, and the patient suffering on the ground floor, in a rear room, with cloaks being finished in the room in front, and knee pants in the room overhead.
The state legislature passed the Illinois Factory Act of 1893, partly due to Kelley's efforts. It was modeled after a piece of draft legislation that Kelley had written herself. It limited women to an eight-hour workday, restricted child labor, and called for the establishment of an office of factory inspector. That same year she was named to head that office by a newly elected, reform-minded Illinois governor, John P. Altgeld (1847–1902). Kelley wrote a number of reports during her four years on the job, giving simple, factual descriptions of the slums where the poor lived and the unhealthy conditions under which they labored. She also worked towards her law degree during this period and graduated from Northwestern University in 1895.
Kelley's next major project was inspired by the 1889 work of English philanthropist and sociologist Charles Booth (1840–1916). His Life and Labour of the People of London surveyed that city's districts and examined living conditions in much detail. Booth's work was the first to use the term "poverty line," which was the minimum income needed by a household to live decently. Kelley conducted similar research by going door-to-door in some of Chicago's worst neighborhoods, aided by a team of women she gathered from Addams's settlement house. The findings, published in 1895 as Hull-House Maps and Papers, became a valuable historic source for data on Chicago's ethnic communities.
Altgeld did not win his 1897 reelection bid, and Chicago's reform period came to an end for a time. Kelley lost her position as the state's factory inspector, and the groundbreaking Illinois Factory Act of 1893 was challenged and eventually declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Remembering the impact of the newspaper campaign regarding the tenement garment factories had made on shoppers at Chicago's best stores, Kelley turned to consumer action as a method of spurring change. In 1899 she became executive secretary of the National Consumers' League and was the group's dedicated leader for many years. Its goal was to raise public awareness of the terrible conditions in which some of the finest American luxury goods were made. One of her first significant achievements as the league's head was the White Label, a federally approved mark on goods that assured shoppers the product had been manufactured under fair working conditions and without using child labor.
Champion of maternity care
Kelley had a long career even after she left Chicago in the early 1900s. She returned to New York City and was active in another well-known settlement house, Henry Street, until the mid-1920s. With its founder, Lillian D. Wald (1867–1940), she spent a decade advocating the establishment of the United States Children's Bureau. It was created by an act of President William Howard Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13) in 1912. Kelley also worked toward the passage of a federal bill that would guarantee a minimum wage for working women and campaigned for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that gave American women full voting rights. She was active in the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, which later became the Conference on Social Work, and in the final year of World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) she served as secretary of the United States board of control of labor standards for army clothing.
Among her extensive list of accomplishments, however, Kelley claimed she was proudest of the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act. This bill authorized the establishment of partnership programs between the federal government and states' public health departments to reduce maternal and infant mortality (death) rates. Kelley spoke in support of the bill before Congress in 1920, telling lawmakers that she could still recall the grief in her own household when each of her siblings had died. She challenged them to demonstrate concern that an average of 680 infants and toddlers died every day in the United States that year.
Kelley was an excellent public speaker and was known for her energetic personality and quick wit. In 1905, with novelists Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) and Jack London (1876–1916), she became a cofounder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. (Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production and distribution is owned collectively by all the workers and there is no private property or social classes.) This group fostered the establishment of socialist political clubs on the campuses of American colleges and universities, and Kelley was one of its featured guest lecturers for a number of years. One student she impressed and became a mentor to was a 1910 Columbia University graduate, Frances Perkins (1807–1965). Upon receiving her degree, Perkins joined the New York Consumers' League and became the first woman ever appointed to a cabinet post when U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) made her labor secretary in 1933.
Kelley did not live to witness Perkins's achievement, nor many of the workplace changes that she herself had spent her career working to enact. She died in Philadelphia in 1932 at the age of seventy-three and was laid to rest on the grounds of a summer home she had in Brooklin, Maine. Several months later Roosevelt was elected to the White House, and among the sweeping changes that came during his historic New Deal period of labor and economic reform was a 1937 minimum-wage law for women and children. A year later Congress also passed the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act. This bill guaranteed all workers a minimum wage and specified a time-and-a-half rate of that wage for any hour worked above forty a week.
For More Information
Diliberto, Gioia. A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner/A Lisa Drew Book, 1999.
Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Frank, Dana. "Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830–1900" (book review). Nation (June 5, 1995): p. 797.
Document 10: "Florence Kelley's Testimony on the Sweating System," Report and Findings of the Joint Committee to Investigate the "Sweat Shop" System (Springfield, Illinois: H.W. Rokker, 1893), pp. 135-39. http://womhist.binghamton.edu/factory/doc10.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Florence Kelley (1859–1932) never saw the fruits of her efforts to agitate on behalf of working women and children in the United States. Her early efforts led to minimum wage legislation for women and children in 1937, and to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Most historians credit her with creating conditions for the legislative abolishment of unregulated child labor and establishing a minimum work wage for all U.S. citizens.
Florence Kelley was born to comfortable circumstances in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 12, 1859, the daughter of U.S. Congressman William Darrow Kelley. Florence grew up in an intensely political household. She was exposed to talk about political changes occurring in the United States, including abolition of slavery and the women's rights movement which was then focused on passing a nineteenth amendment to the Constitution to guarantee the right of women to vote.
Kelley graduated from a Quaker-run school in Philadelphia and then entered Cornell University, graduating at age 23 with a bachelor of arts degree. She taught briefly after graduation, and then in 1883 went to Zurich, Switzerland for graduate studies.
In Switzerland at the age of 25 she met a young Russian medical student whom she married in 1884. While living and studying with her husband, Florence came into contact with a number of European socialists. She learned their new ideas about economics and social structure. At one point she received permission from Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), a collaborator and friend of Karl Marx (1818–1883), to produce an English translation of Engels' important book, The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Kelley and Engels corresponded regularly thereafter for several years, and Kelly was deeply influenced by Engels' socialist ideas.
Kelley and her husband returned to the United States in 1886. They had three children together, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1891. During her married life Florence Kelley embraced socialist economic ideas. After her divorce, while raising her three children, she began to put her ideas together with her work life.
Florence began her work life in 1891 as a special agent for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, inspecting "sweat-shops"—small unregulated manufacturing companies usually in the clothing manufacturing business, where frequently 10-year-old girls worked 12 to 16 hours a day sewing for dismal wages. At this time in the 1890s, there were no restrictions or laws against these practices.
In 1853 Kelley was appointed by the newlyelected governor of Illinois, John Attgeld, as Illinois's chief factory inspector. In this position she was able to establish within certain factories a free medical examination center for working children. She also recommended legislation related to controlling dangerous machinery in the workplace. She also personally examined more than a thousand shops during a smallpox epidemic in Chicago, ensuring that contaminated garments of clothing were discarded. Unfortunately, after Governor Attgeld lost his re-election bid in 1897, most of Kelley's progressive programs were reversed or abandoned. An Illinois law Kelley had worked on which established an eight-hour workday for women, and banned employment of girls under age 14, was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Despite such reversals Kelley went on to become the General Secretary of the National Consumers League, continuing her fight against child labor and poor working conditions in factories.
During the 1920s Kelley came to realize that progressive political reform in the United States, popular in the pre-World War I (1914–1918) era, had changed; the United States had become more politically conservative. More and more people in the United States were associating social welfare programs with "radicals" and socialist subversion.
Florence Kelley died in 1921. Despite setbacks in the implementation of her ideas an astonishing number of them were eventually put into practice, mostly during the Great Depression era (1929–1939). In 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Court decisions related to women's working conditions and millions of women achieved a minimum wage guaranteed by Federal legislation. Child labor was also abolished and maximum hours of employment were established and regulated.
Florence Kelley's "failures" during her lifetime likely represented a series of good ideas raised at the wrong time. During the 1920s, the peak activity of Kelley's work life, the forces of powerful unregulated business interests in the United States served to frustrate many social reforms aimed at improving the health and working conditions of millions of U.S. workers. Arguably it took a Great Depression in the United States to cause U.S. legislators and businessmen to see the values of social reform.
See also: Child Labor, Fair Labor Standards Act, Women in the Workplace
Blumberg, Dorothy. Florence Kelley, the Making of a Social Pioneer. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Press, 1966.
Forbath, William. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Goldmark, Josephine. Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1953.
Lemons, J. Stanley. The Woman Citizen, Social Feminism in the 1920s. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pa., the daughter of U.S. congressman William Darrah Kelley. She entered Cornell University in 1876, but poor health kept her from graduating until 6 years later, as a Phi Beta Kappa. She then studied at the University of Zurich, where she was influenced by Marxist thought. In 1887 she published a translation of Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1844, to which Engels added a preface in 1892.
In 1884 Kelley married a Polish-Russian physician, Lazare Wischnewetzky, and set up housekeeping in New York City. Their marriage was not happy, and she left him in 1889, moving to Chicago with their three children. Although they divorced and she reassumed the name of Kelley for herself and her children, she retained her title of "Mrs."
After 1889 Kelley turned in earnest to the study of social conditions, taking special interest in women and children working in the Chicago trades. In 1891 she joined Jane Addams and her associates at Hull House. Kelley's analyses of sweatshops and slum houses resulted in a new child labor law, and she was appointed chief factory inspector for Illinois. When she found her efforts to enforce the child labor law and the compulsory education law frustrated by uncooperative city attorneys, she decided to study law. She earned her law degree at Northwestern University in 1894. Her reports and legislative achievements were outstanding milestones in social investigation.
In 1899 Kelley returned to New York to become secretary of the National Consumers' League. She lived at the Henry Street Settlement House and worked with numerous reformers and reform organizations for minimum wage laws, woman's suffrage, and Federal aid for mothers and babies. Kelley considered herself a socialist, though she was not involved in the Socialist party. She wrote Some Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905) and helped establish what became known as the "Brandeis brief" (named for Justice Louis D. Brandeis), a process of integrating facts and experiences in legal action to demonstrate the need for changing laws according to human realities.
Kelley later wrote the Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality (1914) and a compilation, The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation (1925). She died in Germantown, Pa., on February 17, 1932.
Josephine Goldmark, a friend and associate of Florence Kelley, wrote Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953). Sketches of Kelley appear in Lillian D. Wald, Windows on Henry Street (1934); Jane Addams, My Friend Julia Lathrop (1935); and James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography (1935). □