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Florence Kelley: First Female Factory Inspector


Breaking Barriers: Florence Kelley and the Rise of Female Factory Inspectors

March is Women’s History Month—To celebrate, we’re sharing the store of Florence Kelley, a woman who’s responsible for many of the seemingly basic work-rights we have today.

Florence Kelley is a social and political activist who made significant contributions to work and labour standards for factory workers and children—Read on to learn more about her incredible life.


Florence Kelley was born to William D. Kelley, abolitionist, judge, founder of the Republican party and congressman. Florence was often sick as a child, and she would read to pass the time–Learning was heavily encouraged heavily by her father.

Florence’s father, William Kelley, encouraged learning in all its forms. Kelley wanted his daughter to be aware of how children in other circumstances worked, and he would take her to tour factories where children manufactured steel & glass in dangerous conditions, for long hours and very little money.

At Zurich University, Kelley translated the popular German book “The Condition of the Working Class in England” by Frederick Engels, a project she is well-known for.

These experiences and her studies informed the work she would dedicate her life to.


Hull house was a social settlement in the Chicago slums that helped residents and community-members with things like childcare, kindergarten and college classes and grew to include shops and even community-clubs. Women who lived there typically worked there, too. Classes focused on traditional subjects, and also taught the community about topics like civil rights & duties.

Hull house’s main work and achievement was to develop and enact state child labour laws, a juvenile court system and protection agencies for children. Hull House also supported Women’s Suffrage and various international peace movements. Unfortunately, Hull House was demolished in 1961 and the small, original house was made into a museum. Here, Kelley focused her attentions to

Following Florence’s work with the Hull House inhabitants, Florence Kelley studied and submitted a report to the Illinois State Bureau of Labor. This led to Kelley being named Chief Factory Inspector in Chicago—The first woman to hold the position.


Florenece Kelley at Hercules SLR
Florence Kelley

Kelley eventually stepped down as Chief Factory Inspector, but also worked as a special agent inspecting both the work, and living conditions in Chicago garment factories. With this experience, she then began work with the National Consumer League as their National Secretary.

During this time, Kelley organized Consumers’ Leagues at local and state-levels and travelled, speaking out about the league’s various causes, like worker-rights issues. She founded the New York Child Labor Committee in 1902, and went on to found the National Child Labour Committee just two years later, in 1904.

She often attended protest meetings, and would speak against sweatshop work conditions in factories. Kelley brought the media into factories. During this time, a very high number of children were diagnosed with smallpox in one large Chicago factory. Kelley presented her investigation findings’ to Illinois lawmakers, which saw that families infected with illness like diphtheria and smallpox were steadily manufacturing clothes during their illness.

Her efforts were huge in passing the Illinois Factory act of 1893. This act was actually based on a previous legislation draft she had written, and included some of the ideas she championed throughout her career. These details of the act included:

  • An 8-hour work day for women
  • Restricted child labour
  • Establish an office of factory inspections

Other causes Florence Kelley published writings and crusaded for, were:

  • Compulsory schooling, available for all children
  • Children under 14 should be prohibited from work
  • A minimum wage for workers

Meanwhile, she also lived at a location known as the Henry Street Settlement, where she continued to promote social reformations, particularly those that involved child labour practices. She worked for the National Consumer League for 34 years, until her death.


Who knows where the North American workforce would be without the work of Florence Kelley? She not only studied, but took action to ensure work conditions were better for women, children and families.

Her contributions were brave, vital and important for women, children and all industrial workers.