Law School Launches Website about Social Reformer Florence Kelley

December 11, 2008

A new Northwestern University School of Law Web site -- powered by the latest technology in the Web 2.0 age -- focuses on the work of social reformer Florence Kelley with a rich interactive slice of Chicago’s history around the turn of the 20th century.

Kelley, the first chief factory inspector of Illinois, lived in the legendary Hull House, with Jane Addams, one of the nation’s most famous social activists, in close proximity to the tenements and factories whose miserable conditions were the focus of Kelley’s work in Chicago. 

Often resurrected from long dusty archives, the Web site’s documents -- now 21st century clickable and zoom capable -- offer a graphic snapshot of slum and sweatshop conditions that Kelley investigated, the factory law that was passed in large part because of her findings and the heated discourse and litigation challenging that law and her authority.

“The recent digital revolution gave us the means to bring together an astonishing amount of information from digital sources on health -- in Chicago’s 19th ward, 40 percent of children died by age five -- crime, immigrants and slum and housing conditions,” said Leigh Buchanan Bienen, senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law.

The Web site also benefits from the relatively recent availability of a wide array of digitized 19th century newspapers.

“The newspaper accounts give a great feel of the tempo of the times -- of the shocking conditions and the ways the public was reacting,” Bienen said. “A number of the articles offer in-depth, and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated, accounts of sweatshop conditions and support for Florence Kelley’s work.”

Often starving, workers, including children, routinely labored long hours in unsafe conditions, sometimes standing all day in noisy, crowded, filthy, overheated and unventilated rooms.

The spine of the Web site is a timeline of the litigation involving the challenge to Kelley’s authority and the factory inspection law that she championed. Highly controversial at the time, the law was adopted by the Illinois legislature in 1893. Basically, the law limited women’s working hours to eight per day, regulated tenement sweatshops and prohibited child labor. By 1895, the Illinois Association of Manufacturers was successful in persuading the Supreme Court of Illinois to declare the hours provision of the law unconstitutional.

The Web site includes legal records, such as the Illinois Supreme Court brief of the landmark Ritchie v. People case, which overturned the landmark hours legislation that Kelley helped draft.

Best known for her tireless efforts to improve working conditions and eradicate child labor, Kelley is the subject of three biographies and an autobiography. Her place in history was noted by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who referred, in a book foreword, to Kelley’s influence in “shaping the social history of the United States during the first 30 years of this century.”

Kelley received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a law degree from Northwestern, at a time when college graduate education was restricted to the few and highly uncommon for women. Her appointment by Ill. Gov. John Peter Altgeld as the first chief inspector in Illinois made her the first woman in the country to hold an important state office and the first such investigator entrusted with the statewide administration of a factory law. 

She was known for combining fiery stylized prose with well-researched findings in her advocacy and investigations.

“I was so struck by her writing and astonished with how much she achieved at a time when women couldn’t even vote,” Bienen said. “I keep asking myself, how in the world did she do all that?”

Bienen decided that Kelley’s work in Chicago had not received the attention it deserves. Her fascination with Kelley began when she was putting together “Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930,” a Web site featuring a hand-written dataset of 11,000 Chicago homicides as well as news articles, photos and other contextual material. The popularity of the homicide Web site (approximately 13,000 visitors a month) convinced Bienen that a history of Kelley’s accomplishments in Chicago deserved a Web site of its own. 

Providing a lens for looking back into this extraordinary period of social activism and reform, the 25,000-plus document pages on the Web site, organized through a powerful content management system, can be searched in numerous ways. The Web site can be used by academics for research and teaching purposes or by individuals simply looking for relatives who worked in Chicago factories during that time period.

The documents include Kelley’s “Hull House Maps and Papers,” published in 1895. The maps of Chicago streets near Hull House are based on Kelley’s leadership in “A Special Investigation of the Slums of Great Cities,” a nationwide economic study that was commissioned by the U.S. Congress to assess the extent of poverty in urban areas.

Leading the effort in Chicago during the spring of 1893, Kelley and other Hull House workers administered an extensive survey to every house, tenement and room in the district surrounding Hull House. Later the information was used to create the maps, which are color-coded according to nationality, wages and employment history of each resident. The data collected were published in the national economic study published by the United States Bureau of Labor.

The Kelley Web site also includes dozens of books and data sources that can be searched with the unprecedented ease and speed of today’s technology.

“Four short years after the launch of the homicide Web site, it is amazing how much more the technology allows us to do,” said Mark Swindle, senior web designer at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.  “Instead of putting a book on a scanner and taking shots page by page, through 300 pages, a machine now can open a book and shoot 300 pages in 30 minutes.”

The Web site collaborators made use of technologies that allow high-speed digitization of source material, and every single one of the 5,000 pages of the Web site documents can be searched like a database.

“That is good news for, say, the social scientist who is interested in a document that previously had been buried in the basement and now has been scanned and quantified for the Web site,” Swindle said. “That data now can be quickly and easily extracted for the researcher’s purposes or by anyone else interested in the information.”

The Florence Kelley Web site project is a prime example of cross-disciplinary cooperation, including the work of technical and Web people, librarians and high school, undergraduate and graduate students. The institutions involved in the collaboration included Northwestern University School of Law, the University’s School of Education and Social Policy as well as a number of libraries (Northwestern Law’s Pritzker Legal Research Center, Northwestern University Library and Academic & Research Technologies, part of Northwestern University Information Technology, as well as the Illinois Supreme Court Library, the Chicago History Museum and the New York Public Library).

Librarians played a central role in finding and gathering digital material for the Web site and in overcoming copyright hurdles. They also retrieved legal, health, factory inspection and other government records and statistics that had been buried in basements and remote archival repositories. 

Finding such primary documents, often deteriorated or misfiled in 19th century fashion, was a thrill for Pegeen Bassett, a Northwestern Law librarian at the Pritzker Legal Research Center. The primary documents take Florence Kelley’s story out of the shadows and give it the prominence it deserves within the context of Hull House, Jane Addams and social reform in Chicago, she said.

 “The primary documents offer telling details that often are missing and sometimes misrepresented in secondary sources such as newspaper accounts,” Bassett said. “Thanks to 21st century technology, those long neglected documents play a powerful role in bringing alive a truly compelling and very human story of a 19th century woman who made a big difference in Chicago.”    

One of the 19th century books that took a bit of searching to locate, “The Workers,” brought home to third-year law student Laura Lombardo the heartbreaking realities of workers and would-be workers who flooded Chicago during the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. The fair ran for six months and drew millions of visitors and people looking for jobs to Chicago.

Published in 1894, “The Workers” was written by a wealthy Princeton graduate who worked his way across the United States as an unskilled laborer and ended up in Chicago during the fair. At the time there were 100,000 homeless men on the street, who in the bitter winter night slept in alleys or sometimes on the floors of city hall or in police stations, which served as temporary shelters for the homeless. Similarly, where the Princeton graduate would sleep on any given night depended on what he earned.
“In the book, he described how he went down the stairs of a Chicago apartment building into this dirty, dusty and dark room filled with workers, from the very old to the very young,” said Lombardo. “An inspector came in and said you can’t have this, you can’t have that, you need to correct this. And this man, who was in his 20s, looked at the inspector and said, desperately, ‘it is bread we’re after not money.’”

The rich array of the Kelley Web site materials provide an entrée for a longitudinal discussion about the evolution of social conditions, Bienen said. “The documents offer great insights into social reform, Chicago history, economics, law, politics and women’s leadership,” she said. “As with the homicide project, we anticipate that the Florence Kelley Web site will be used in ways that we can’t even imagine.” 

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