Florence Kelley


Florence Kelley was a pioneering social reformer during the Progressive Era. She rose to prominence as an advocate for improved working conditions, child labor laws, and Women’s Rights. She was instrumental in passing key legislation and led the National Consumers’ League for more than 30 years.

Florence Kelley, Pioneer of Social Reform, LOC

Florence Kelley. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Essential Facts

  • Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • She earned degrees from Cornell University and  Northwestern University
  • Kelley worked as a factory inspector in Illinois and served as General Secretary of the National Consumers’ League
  • She promoted child labor laws, minimum wage legislation, and improved working conditions
  • Kelley helped pass Illinois child labor law in 1893 and was involved in the creation of the Federal Children’s Bureau
  • She died on February 17, 1932, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Significance to American History

Florence Kelley is important to American History for her advocacy for social reforms during the Progressive Era. She played an important role in the establishment of labor laws that protected children and women, and her work laid the foundation for future Labor Rights Movements. Her efforts contributed to the passage of important legislation and the creation of institutions that continue to have an impact on labor practices and policies today.

Life and Career

A Pioneer of the Progressive Era

Florence Kelley was a prominent figure in the Progressive Era, known for her leadership in the consumer movement. She was born into a well-known family, as her father was a Congressman William D. Kelley from Pennsylvania. Kelley was an Abolitionist, a founder of the Republican Party, and friends with Abraham Lincon.

His daughter made history by being one of the first women to attend Cornell University. However, her pursuit of higher education faced obstacles due to gender discrimination; she was denied admission to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate studies because she was a woman. 

Determined to continue her education, Kelley went to Europe, enrolling at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. There, she studied law and government, embraced socialist ideals, and married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Polish medical student. Upon returning to the United States with her three children, the marriage ended. 

Kelley Joins Jane Addams at Hull House

In 1891, Jane Addams welcomed Kelley into Hull House, a Settlement House in Chicago. Addams also recommended Kelley to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics as an investigator. In this role, Kelley uncovered conditions in neighborhood tenement sweatshops, where children of all ages were working in unsanitary and dangerous environments.

Jane Addams, 1906, Portrait, NPG
Jane Addams. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Fight Against Child Labor and Sweatshops

In 1893, due to Kelley’s advocacy, Illinois enacted a law that prohibited child labor, limited working hours for women, and regulated sweatshop conditions. Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld appointed Kelley to enforce this law

However, Kelley faced significant challenges, particularly from the District Attorney who refused to prosecute factory owners for violating the law. Determined to overcome these obstacles, Kelley earned a law degree to take legal action herself. 

Despite her efforts, her success was limited. In 1895, the Illinois Supreme Court invalidated part of the factory inspection law, and when Governor Altgeld lost his reelection bid in 1896, Kelley was not reappointed.

National Consumers’ League

In 1899, Kelley was invited to become the General Secretary of the National Consumers League, an organization dedicated to investigating and improving working conditions. In this role, Kelley actively spoke and wrote about the need for better conditions for all wage-earners. She played a crucial role in the passage of minimum wage legislation, which was adopted in nine states by 1913. During this time, she lived at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City.

Children’s Bureau

In 1912, Kelley helped design the federal Children’s Bureau, part of the Department of Commerce and Labor. This was the first federal agency focused on children’s welfare and led national campaigns against child labor and for improving maternal and child health. However, in 1918, the Supreme Court struck down the nation’s first child labor prohibition (Keating-Owen Act). Frustrated, Kelley questioned why animals and natural resources were protected by federal law, but not children and their mothers.

Kelley continued to advocate for the just treatment of the vulnerable and tirelessly campaigned for a child labor amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite her efforts, she was never able to achieve this goal.


  • 1859 — Florence Kelley was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • 1882 — Graduated from Cornell University with a B.A.
  • 1891 — Joined Hull House in Chicago and began investigating tenement sweatshops.
  • 1893 — Illinois passed a law prohibiting child labor, largely due to Kelley’s efforts; appointed factory inspector.
  • 1895 — Earned an LL.B. from Northwestern University.
  • 1899 — Became General Secretary of the National Consumers’ League.
  • 1912 — Federal Children’s Bureau was established, influenced by Kelley’s work.
  • 1913 — Minimum wage legislation adopted in nine states, driven by Kelley’s advocacy.
  • 1918 — Supreme Court struck down the Keating-Owen Act, leading to Kelley’s continued fight for child labor laws.
  • 1932 — Florence Kelley died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.



Florence Kelley was a social reformer and labor rights activist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She worked at Hull House and became a prominent advocate for improving labor conditions, particularly for women and children. Kelley was instrumental in the passage of labor legislation, including child labor laws and minimum wage standards. She served as the first General Secretary of the National Consumers League, promoting fair labor practices.


Florence Kelley is part of the following in the APUSH curriculum:


These terms and definitions are relevant to the life and career of Florence, a Pioneer of Social Reform.


  • Jane Addams — Founder of Hull House and a Pioneer of Social Reform during the Progressive Era.
  • John Peter Altgeld — The 20th Governor of Illinois, known for his progressive reforms and support of labor rights.


  • Cornell University — A prestigious Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, known for its diverse educational programs.
  • Hull House — A Settlement House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams, that provided social and educational opportunities for working-class people in the neighborhood.
  • Sweatshop — A workplace, typically in the garment industry, where workers are employed at low wages under poor conditions.
  • Tenement — A multi-occupancy building of any sort, but particularly a run-down apartment building in a poor urban area.
  • University of Zurich — A major public university in Zurich, Switzerland, known for its research and academic programs.


  • Progressive Era — A period of widespread social activism and political reform in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s.
  • Settlement House Movement — A movement during the Progressive Era that was driven by groups of young people who wanted to provide services to poor urban communities.

Government Agencies

  • Children’s Bureau — A federal agency established to promote the welfare of children and mothers, focusing on issues like child labor and health.
  • Department of Commerce and Labor — A now-defunct U.S. government department that focused on promoting economic growth and improving labor conditions.
  • Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics — A state agency responsible for collecting and analyzing labor market information and enforcing labor laws.
  • Illinois Supreme Court — The highest judicial authority in the state of Illinois.
  • National Consumers’ League — An organization focused on promoting fair labor practices and consumer rights.
  • United States Supreme Court — The highest judicial authority in the United States, which has the final say on the constitutionality of laws.


  • Factory Inspection Law — Legislation intended to ensure that factories operate under safe and fair conditions, often involving regular inspections.
  • Keating-Owen Act — A 1916 U.S. law that sought to prohibit the interstate sale of goods produced by child labor.
  • Minimum Wage Legislation — Laws established to ensure workers receive a minimum amount of pay per hour worked.


  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) — An undergraduate degree awarded for a course of study in the arts or sciences.
  • Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) — A degree in law, typically the first professional degree in law.
  • Child Labor — The employment of children in an industry or business, especially when illegal or considered exploitative.
  • Congressman — A member of the legislative branch of the United States government, specifically in the House of Representatives.
  • Consumer Movement — A social movement that advocates for the rights and interests of consumers, ensuring fair trade, accurate information, and safety in the marketplace.
  • Factory Inspector — A person responsible for ensuring that factories comply with labor laws and maintain safe working conditions.
  • General Secretary — The chief executive officer of an organization, responsible for its overall administration and operations.
  • Governor — The elected executive head of a state in the U.S.
  • Graduate Studies — Advanced academic programs beyond a bachelor’s degree, including master’s and doctoral degrees.
  • Socialist — A person who supports socialism, a political and economic theory advocating for collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Florence Kelley
  • Date 1859–1932
  • Author
  • Keywords Florence Kelley, Who was Florence Kelley, What did Florence Kelley do, When did Florence Kelley serve as General Secretary of the National Consumers League, Where did Florence Kelley work, Why did Florence Kelley join Hull House, How did Florence Kelley fight child labor and sweatshops
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 2, 2024