Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley, the daughter of United States congressman, William D. Kelley, was born on 12th September, 1859. She studied at Cornell University and the University of Zurich. While in Europe she became a follower of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Over the next few years she worked on an English translation of Engels' The Conditions of the Working Class in England and this was eventually published in the United States in 1887.

Kelley moved to New York City where she married a fellow member of the Socialist Labor Party, the Polish-Russian physician, Lazare Wischnewetzky. The marriage was not a success and in December 1891 she left him and moved to Chicago with her three children. Soon after arriving in the city she joined Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Alzina Stevens, Mary McDowell, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton, Sophonisba Breckinridge and other social reformers at Hull House.

Kelley was extremely successful at recruiting people to socialism. She told Friedrich Engels: "We have a colony of efficient and intelligent women living in a working men's quarter with the house used for all sorts of purposes by about a thousand persons a week. The last form of its activity is the formation of unions of which we have three, the clock-makers, the shift-makers, and the book-binders. Next week we are to take the initiative in the systematic endeavor to clean out the sweating dens. The Trade assembly is paying the expenses of weekly mass meetings; and the sanitary authorities are emphasizing the impossibility of their coping, unaided, with the task allotted to them."

Josephine Goldmark was one of those who saw her speak: "No other man or woman whom I have ever heard so blended knowledge of facts, with, satire, burning indignation, prophetic denunciation - all poured out at white heat in a voice varying from flute-like tones to deep organ tones." Frances Perkins added: Explosive, hot-tempered, determined, she was no gentle saint. She was a smoking volcano that at any moment would burst into flames.

John Peter Altgeld was one of the many visitors to Hull House. When he was elected governor of Illinois in 1892 and the following year he appointed Kelley as the state's first chief factory inspector. Kelley recruited a staff of twelve, including Alzina Stevens and Mary Kenney. In 1894 Altgeld and Kelley managed to persuade the state legislature to pass legislation controlling child labour. This included a law limiting women and children to a maximum eight-hour day. This success was short-lived and in 1895 the Illinois Association of Manufacturers got the law repealed.

In 1899 Kelley helped establish the radical pressure group, the National Consumer's League (NCL). The main objective of the organization was to achieve a minimum wage and a limitation on the working hours of women and children. Kelley, the NCL's first leader, travelled the country giving lectures on working conditions in the United States.

One important initiative introduced by Kelley was the NCL White Label. Employers whose labour practices met with the NCL's approval for fairness and safety were granted the right to display the NCL's white label. The NCL then urged consumers to boycott those goods that failed to earn the right to use the label.

In September 1905, Kelley joined with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Other members included Jack London, Clarence Darrow, Anna Strunsky, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism." Over the next few years she was a frequent speaker on American campuses and one of those students she recruited to the cause was Frances Perkins, the woman who was eventually to become the country's first woman cabinet minister and the person responsible for bringing an end to child labour in America.

A strong supporter of women's suffrage and African American civil rights, Kelley helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909. A committed pacifist, Kelley opposed USA involvement in the First World War and was a member of the Woman's Peace Party (WPP) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Florence Kelley wrote several books including Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation (1905), Modern Industry in Relation to the Family (1914), The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation (1925) and Autobiography (1927).

Florence Kelley died in Germantown on 17th February, 1932.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Florence Kelley, Autobiography (1927)

The century-long struggle to open wide the new world of higher education was hardly more than begun in my childhood. It is by no means over yet, while the law schools of Harvard and Columbia still exclude women, and Negro students strive now as we strove for admission on equal terms everywhere. So long as women hardly exist as full professors in state universities, and Dr. Alice Hamilton's experience as a member of the medical faculty of Harvard remains unique, that struggle is far from ended.

(2) Florence Kelley, Autobiography (1927)

On a snowy morning between Christmas 1891 and New Year's 1892, I arrived at Hull House, Chicago, a little before breakfast time, and found there Henry Standing Bear a Kickapoo Indian, waiting for the front door to be opened. It was Miss Addams who opened it, holding on her her left arm a singularly unattractive, fat, pudgy baby belonging to the cook.

At breakfast on that eventful morning, there were present Ellen Gates Starr, friend of many years and fellow-founder of Hull House with Jane Addams; Jennie Dow, a delightful young volunteer kindergartner, whose good sense and joyous good humor; Mary Keyser, who had followed Miss Addams from the family home in Cedarville and throughout the remainder of her life relieved Miss Addams of all household care.

(3) Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work (1995)

Amid this unresolved anger (for not being able to vote), Florence Kelley took a leap of faith that carried her into a lifelong commitment to socialism. Feeling physically stronger than ever before in her life, she shifted her emotional center and her prodigious burden of personal obligation from her family to a social movement.

The title of the portion of her autobiography that described this event, "My Novitiate," suggested a religious quest; she explained her acceptance of socialism in terms suitable for describing a religious conversion. "Coming to Zurich, the content of my mind was tinder awaiting a match," she said. Some of that tinder reached back into her childhood, including images of "the tragic oppression of the recently emancipated Negroes, by disfranchisement and lynching" and "pasty-faced little working children in jail-like textile mills in Manayunk, whom I saw in the streets year after year as I drove in the phaeton between my homes in West Philadelphia and Germantown." Some came from her recent trip to England -"the pitiable toiling mothers in the chain-makers' cottages, and the diminutive men and women in the streets of the textile manufacturing cities of the Black Country." Zurich provided a solution for these "baffling, human problems." There, "among students from many lands, was the philosophy of Socialism, its assurance flooding the minds of youth and the wage-earners with hope that, within the inevitable development of modern industry, was the coming solution."

This organic, historical theory of social change appealed to her intellectually, and the high-minded quality of socialist meetings appealed spiritually. Her first meeting marked a turning point. "It was in the old part of the city, on the second floor of a modest little eating-place permanently so clean that one could literally have eaten off the floor," she remembered. "As I took my seat I was so trembling with excitement that I grasped the sides of my chair and held them firmly," for Eduard Bernstein and other exiled leaders of the German Socialist Party were also present. "Here was I in the world of the Future!" Bernstein later confirmed her sense of religious awe, writing that the Zurich meetings "always struck me as resembling the meetings of the early Christians." In 1878 German antisocialist laws drove most leaders of the Social Democratic Party underground or into exile. London, where Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had resided since 1850, and Zurich, where many young leaders of socialism's second generation congregated, became their chief sanctuaries. An exile from her own society, Florence Kelley felt right at home among these banished leaders."

(4) Florence Kelley, The Need of Theoretical Preparation for Philanthropic Work (1887)

Under our industrial system the means of production are a monopoly of an irresponsible class, and the workers are forced to compete with one another for the privilege of employment in using them. In the struggle for existence that arises out of this competition the weak go to the wall, become the wreckage that philanthropy undertakes to deal with.

As loyal members of the ruling class our work must, I repeat, be merely palliative. For a radical cure of the social disease means the end of the system of exploiting the workers. But to stop exploiting would be suicide for the class that we are born and educated into, and of which we college-bred women form an integral part.

(5) Florence Kelley, Survey Magazine (June, 1927)

Hull House was, we soon discovered, surrounded in every direction by homework carried on under the sweating system. From the age of eighteen months few children able to sit in high chairs at tables were safe from being required to pull basting threads. Out of this enquiry, amplified by Hull House residents and other volunteers, grew the volume published under the title Hull House Maps and Papers. One map showed the distribution of the polyglot peoples. Another exhibited their incomes indicated in colours, ranging from gold which meant twenty dollars or more total a week for a family, to black which was five dollars or less total family income. There were precious little gold and a superabundance of black on that income map!

The discoveries as to home work under the sweating system thus recorded and charted in 1892 led to the appointment at the opening of the legislature of 1893, of a legislative commission of enquiry into employment of women and children in manufacture, for which Mary Kenney and I volunteered as guides. With backing from labour, from Hull House, from Henry Demarest Lloyd and his friends, the Commission and the report carried almost without opposition a bill applying to manufacture, and prescribing a maximum working day not to exceed eight hours for women, girls, and children, together with child labour safeguards based on laws then existing in New York and Ohio.

When the new law took effect, and its usefulness depended on the personnel prescribed in the text to enforce it, Governor Altgeld offered the position of chief inspector to Henry Demarest Lloyd, who declined it and recommended me. I was accordingly made chief state inspector of factories, the first and so far as I know, the only woman to serve in that office in any state.

(6) Florence Kelley, letter to Richard Ely, Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin, about working at Hull House (21st June, 1891)

I personally participate in the work of social reform because part of it develops along Socialist lines, and part is an absolutely necessary protest against the brutalizing of us all by Capitalism. Not because our Hull House work alone would satisfy me.

(7) Florence Kelley, letter to Friedrich Engels about living in Hull House (7th April, 1892)

We have a colony of efficient and intelligent women living in a working men's quarter with the house used for all sorts of purposes by about a thousand persons a week. The last form of its activity is the formation of unions of which we have three, the clock-makers, the shift-makers, and the book-binders. Next week we are to take the initiative in the systematic endeavor to clean out the sweating dens. The Trade assembly is paying the expenses of weekly mass meetings; and the sanitary authorities are emphasizing the impossibility of their coping, unaided, with the task allotted to them.

(8) Florence Kelley, letter to Friedrich Engels about her success in converted people to socialism (27th November, 1892)

The increased discussion of socialism here is very marked, though the study of books and requests for lectures come almost exclusively from people of the prosperous middle classes. Thus I have been asked to speak twice before the Secular Union and five times in churches in Chicago and its suburbs, and the more radically I speak the more vigorous the discussion in all these meetings.

(9) Florence Kelley, letter to Friedrich Engels about her job as a factory inspector (1893)

I find my work as inspector most interesting; and as Governor Altgeld places no restrictions whatever upon our freedom of speech, and the English etiquette of silence while in the civil service is unknown here, we are not hampered by our position and three of my deputies and my assistant are outspoken Socialists and active in agitation.

(10) Florence Kelley, letter to Friedrich Engels about her job as a factory inspector (1st January, 1894)

We have at last won a victory for our 8-hours law. The Supreme court has handed down no decision sustaining it, but the stockyards magnates having been arrested until they are tired of it, have instituted the 8-hours day for 10,000 employees, men, women and children. We have 18 suits pending to enforce the 8-hours law and we think we shall establish it permanently before Easter.

(11) Florence Kelley, Autobiography (1927)

My appointment (as chief factory inspector) dated from July 12, 1893. The appropriation for a staff of twelve persons was $12,000 a year, to cover salaries, traveling expenses, printing, court costs, and rent of an office in Chicago. The salary scale was, for the Chief $1500 a year; for the first assistant, also a woman, Alzina P. Stevens $1000; and for each of the ten deputies of whom six were men $720. Needless to say this had been voted by a legislature predominately rural.

It was Governor Altgeld's definite intent to enforce to the uttermost limit this initial labor law throughout his term of office. He was a sombre figure; the relentless hardship of his experience as a boy and youth had left him embittered against fate, and against certain personal enemies, but infinitely tender towards the sufferings of childhood, old age and poverty.

(12) Florence Kelley, Factory Inspectors of Illinois Report (1895)

In the winter of 1893-4 the increase of smallpox in the tenement house districts in which garment manufacture prevails became so marked that on February 9th a circular letter was sent from this office to each of the 176 wholesale manufacturers and merchant tailors whose goods are made up in these districts, warning them of the existing and increasing danger of infection. In April it became clear that while there was an occasional case of smallpox among the Scandinavian tailors on the North side, the disease was over-whelmingly epidemic in the Polish and Bohemian district. In this district, in the months of April, May, and June, smallpox was found in 325 different tenement houses.

(13) Florence Kelley, Factory Inspectors of Illinois Report (1895)

Tenement house manufacture is rapidly spreading in Chicago and entering a large variety of industries. Wherever the system enters, the trade becomes a sweated trade, carried on in the worst and most unwholesome premises, because it falls into the hands of the very poor.

Shops over sheds or stables, in basements or on upper floors of tenement houses, are not fit working places for men, women and children. Most of the places designated in this report as basements are low-ceiled, ill-lighted, unventilated rooms, below the street level; damp and cold in winter, hot and close in summer; foul at all times by reason of adjacent vaults or defective sewer connections. The term cellar would more accurately describe these shops. Their dampness entails rheumatism and their darkness injures the sight of the people who work in them. They never afford proper accommodations for the pressers, the fumes of whose gasoline stoves and charcoal heaters mingle with the mouldy smell of the walls and the stuffiness always found where a number of the very poor are crowded together.

(14) Federal Bureau of Information report on Florence Kelley (1923)

Kelley is a speaker for the Harvard Liberal Club has been a radical all the sixty-four years of her life, it seems. She was one of the much-applauded speakers at the meeting of the Trade Union Educational League in Washington in May, and at the June Conference of the League for Industrial Democracy at Camp Tamiment.

(15) Congressional Record Report on Hull House (1926)

Florence Kelley has not only preached communism and urged a study of the fundamental communist books by college women taking up philanthropic or social work, but as president of the Intercollegiate Socialist League - the organization chiefly responsible for socialist propaganda in American schools and colleges - Miss Kelley has had great influence for a number of years in promoting radicalism among youth while in school.

It is of the utmost significance that practically all the radicalism started among women in the United States centers about Hull House, Chicago, and the Children's Bureau, at Washington, with a dynasty of Hull House graduates in charge of it since its creation.

(16) Josephine Goldmark wrote about Florence Kelley in her book, Impatient Crusader (1953)

No other man or woman whom I have ever heard so blended knowledge of facts, with, satire, burning indignation, prophetic denunciation - all poured out at white heat in a voice varying from flute-like tones to deep organ tones.

(17) Frances Perkins, My Recollections of Florence Kelley (May, 1954)

Explosive, hot-tempered, determined, she was no gentle saint. She was a smoking volcano that at any moment would burst into flames.

(18) William Chafe, Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture (1977)

Female college students were infused with a self-conscious sense of mission and a passionate commitment to improve the world. They became doctors, college professors, settlement house workers, business women, lawyers, and architects. Spirited by an intense sense of purpose as well as camaraderie, they set a remarkable record of accomplishment in the face of overwhelming odds. Jane Addams, Grace and Edith Abbott, Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley - all came out of this pioneering generation and set the agenda of social reform for the first two decades of the 20th century.