It was the children who died most precipitously once they survived being born. For the period 1843-1872 children under five accounted for half of all deaths in the city, and proportionately higher in the slums and tenements. Chicago's statistics were the worst.  [read more]

Lives of Children


Florence Kelley’s first and unwavering commitment was to to improving the lives of the tens of thousands of girls and boys who worked. Her own writings returned again and again to the conditions under which children operated sewing machines in the tenements, carried water and molten glass through the night in the factories, stood knee deep in blood and entrails at the stockyards, and operated machinery which often claimed an arm, a leg, a hand, or a their eyesight.

For Florence Kelley, the children should be out of the sweatshops and bars and off the factory floor and streets, and in school. Always a teacher herself, her multiplicity of projects always had as their goal getting the children out from under their workloads and into a school.

Mothers and children were a primary focus of the Hull-House mission, whether it was providing food for those who had none, or just offering a temporary spot to leave the baby.

In the Nineteenth Ward the mothers worked, the fathers if they were present, worked; the older children took care of the younger children; as soon as they were old enough the children worked. Since the homes where every one worked, ate and slept were crowded, the children were often out on the street, in the back alleys or foraging in the streets or railroad yards.

Then there was the question of the health of the children in the nineteenth ward and, generally, in the factories and tenements in Illinois. [factory inspection reports] Florence Kelley and the other women who documented how people worked and lived were fanatical about the need for fresh air and clean water.

The health issues were always primary, whether it was vaccination or containing the smallpox epidemic, or getting rid of the garbage. Advocacy for the health of women became the central tenet of the legal battle in Ritchie v. People and the subsequent cases before the United States Supreme Court.

Forty per cent of the children in the nineteenth ward did not live to five, and the causes were mostly simple: the absence of clean water, bad milk, no indoor plumbing or water, communicable diseases (such as cholera and diarrhea), as well as unclean food and not enough food. In depressions such as that in 1893 children and adults died of malnutrition and hunger.

The children were also the hope of the community. Pictures of them tell the story of the times and how people lived and survived.

Next:  John Peter Altgeld