Florence Kelley was educated at home for much of her childhood, both because the family lived in what was then far away, four miles, from the center of Philadelphia and because she was often sickly as a child. Occasionally she attended a Friends School, but then ‘ended in bed and a winter of rheumatism. Florence Kelley was one of eight children, six girls and two boys, one set of twins. Five of the children died, including both twins, some as infants, some when they were older. She was the only girl to survive to adulthood, one of her sisters, Anna, living until the age of six before dying when Florence Kelley was 12.
Her father taught her to read at age seven, using ‘a terrible little book with woodcuts of little children no older than myself, balancing with their arms heavy loads of wet clay on their heads, in back yards in England…” [read more]
At the age of ten she began reading through her father’s extensive library at home, starting at the southwest corner, floor to ceiling, and continuing until she had read all of the hundreds of books in the Congressman’s library. Florence Kelley’s father, William Darrah Kelley, was a self educated man who read and collected books his entire life.
Before free public libraries were to be found in every American city and small town, private libraries were storehouses of knowledge and culture, with a few universities providing deep collections of manuscripts and books from abroad. William Darrah Kelley had read widely in one such extensive private library at the invitation of the Master of the Ports in Boston. John Peter Altgeld educated himself by reading books in English owned by neighboring farmers whom he came to know when he worked for them as a farm laborer, since his parents did not speak or read and write English and did not want him to learn English.
William Darrah Kelley’s home library, which Florence Kelley had at her disposal as a solitary child who was often bedridden, included: political speeches and essays from America, Britain and Europe, treatises on natural science, books on chemistry, and the works of writers such as Emerson, Carlyle, Milton, Byron, Montaigne, Rousseau, the German philosophers, Walter Scott, and many more. Before college Florence Kelley also traveled with her father, the Congressman, on official trips to California and North Dakota, to visit steel manufacturers in Pennsylvania, and later with her family in England and Europe.
In September of 1876 Florence Kelley entered Cornell University, College of Arts and Sciences: ‘Entering college was for me an almost sacramental experience. Two long years I had lived for it, since that lonely morning when I found, in the otherwise empty waste-basket in my father’s study, Cornell’s offer of equal intellectual opportunity for women…’ [read more]
Florence Kelley’s class of women at Sage College was among the first, but not the first, class of women to enter Cornell University. There were 70 women residents of Sage College when Florence Kelley registered. The age of admission was 17.
The women who graduated from Cornell University and other colleges in the 1870’s and 1880’s were a cohort from which many, including Florence Kelley and her friend, M. Carey Thomas, the long standing President of Bryn Mawr College distinguished themselves in public life, often being associated with institutions such as Hull House and other social service and educational enterprises.
Although Cornell University prided itself on offering women the same education that it offered men, there were separate lecture rooms, library rooms, and other facilities for women, although they were joined by men for meals.
The requirements to enter Cornell University in 1876 included, in addition to the prerequisite of a good moral character, a demonstrated proficiency in the following: English grammar, arithmetic, plane geometry, algebra through quadratic equations, natural history (by election) trigonometry, Latin and Greek.
At Cornell Florence Kelley took a schedule of twenty five class hours a week, including: French, German, Latin, Algebra, Literature, Natural History and Astronomy, and later joining groups reading Swinburne and others. One year she brought her pony up from Philadelphia and went riding and driving with friends throughout the countryside.
Also in her curriculum were politics and economics, logic, philosophy, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of history – the latter subjects taught by a person she referred to as ‘a superannuated minister’ who was himself the entire philosophy department.
Social life was a German cotillion at the gymnasium on Saturday, the boys paying for the music one week and the women the next. A chaperone for the girls, and the dancing, which she apparently enjoyed, began at 6:15pm. Lights out by 10pm.
After a case of diphtheria which was aggravated by mistreatment, she spent the winter of 1881-1882 living with her father in Washington, DC and doing research at the Library of Congress for her senior honors thesis — Some Changes in the Legal Status of the Child Since Blackstone — on child labor laws. She graduated with a Bachelor of Literature and Honorable Mention in June of 1882. Her thesis was published that August in the International Review. Although there was no Phi Beta Kappa chapter when she graduated, she was awarded a key a year later when a chapter was founded at Cornell.
Florence Kelley’s next formal education was at the University of Zurich, where she attended lectures in Politics and Economics and Law. Having lost the physical copy of her Cornell degree by having it left, never to be seen again, on a railway platform at Rugby Junction on an earlier trip to Oxford, Florence Kelley arrived without credentials to the University of Zurich:
‘At the Polytechnicum, the Swiss equivalent for dean was Herr Pedell, and this functionary was as immobile as any English beadle celebrated by Dickens. Anxiously, I laid before him my bereft state without my Cornell degree, and asked whether I might perhaps be present at lectures as a listener; while waiting the long time required before the issuance of a duplicate degree by Cornell. Slowly he replied:
‘You may listen and you may study. When you are ready, you may present yourself for examination. An American degree has no value.’ I listened and studied, but never presented myself for a degree.’ [read more]
In Zurich Florence Kelley met remarkable people, people thrown together by unpredicted forces of history and circumstances, refugees, students, revolutionaries, people who came to study and read and argue and debate and find some way to survive. People came to quiet Zurich from all over Eastern Europe, Czarist Russia, and from what would become Germany, where the Socialists had been expelled by a decree from Bismarck.
‘There was also a Russian exile, a student of chemistry who translated Marx, put his manuscript into a small trunk and traveled as far as Freiburg on his homeward way. While he was gone to the consul to get his passport viseed, the landlord pried upon the trunk and the manuscript intended for the underground press. The student was forthwith arrested, delivered to the Russian police and thrown into the Peter and Paul fortress, and held there several years and sent to Siberia. Ultimately he escaped and crossed Bering Strait. Having acquired in prison an excellent command of English, he quickly found work as chemist in the Board of Health of a city in the Middle West where he remained for many years a much respected official. I was astonished to meet him in the course of my duties as chief factory inspector, in Illinois in the nineties.’ [read more]
Zurich was quiet, a ‘small and simple city, with many steep and narrow streets, some of them beautifully curved,’ where there was music, and theatre, and education and where lodging was reasonable, and comfortable. ‘Zurich is the loveliest place I have ever seen or dreamed of …’ Members of Florence Kelley’s family, her mother Caroline, and her younger brother, Albert then thirteen, came to visit for several months.
“… I have not enjoyed Christmas so much in many years. I did not seem to see the little absent faces of every turn reminding me of sorrow and grief I thought of the children but in a new place the sense of loss was less keen. I have lived alone with my own thoughts so much in that great rambling house, that I carry around with me my own recollections, but it is well to have a change, and this one is complete…” <
The long anticipated letters home are filled with the details of daily life abroad, the details of travel, what people ate, and what they encountered on the streets, on their journeys. William Darrah Kelley sends his son some sort of patent medicine, ‘a panacea,’ which has cost $14 and the recipients in Zurich must pay a duty on it of $24. Then there is what they thought and felt in a moment of calm.
Occasionally, perhaps for want of sufficient paper, or to save postage, a sheet will have handwriting going crosswise in the ordinary way, and then a new set of writing, perfectly legible, going crosswise at the perpendicular.
Throughout their marriage Caroline and her husband have always corresponded, in a time when telephones were not available. Carrie admonishes her husband to ‘write to me as often as you can, for my only consolation in your absence, is that you write so much more affectionately that you talk to me. … Your affectionate wife.’ In a letter dated October 27, 1856.
Life in Zurich was happy, and challenging, and full of hope, marred only by occasional bad news from home. ‘…except that Florrie did not feel like enjoying the occasion,’ her Christmas having been greatly saddened by the news of the death of a close friend from Cornell, Margaret Hicks. ‘… she withdrew without dancing to the great regret of the students who counted upon having her for a partner, not that she had allowed herself to give way to violent grief…’
Letters from William Darrah Kelley did come, often reflecting his preoccupation with political events in America:
‘My Dear Carrie, How I regret that you are not in the diplomatic gallery. We are on the eve of voting on the most important question submitted to the House in more than half a century: – the proposed amendment to the constitution. The division is so close that each side claims a majority of one or two, and many earnest conferences are taking place on the floor. The House is unusually full. I know of but one administration member who is absent. Samuel Dunn of our Indiana, who is at home sick. Warden of Kentucky is on the floor holding forth in much simplified language a last plea from the dying institution of American slavery. Poor fellow he honestly believes that he is defending the constitution.
The Supreme Court has adjourned. Chief Justice Chase and his colleagues on the floor. Chatting with them are many leading Senators. I also observe the Postmaster. The galleries swarm with people. Among them Union soldiers greatly predominate, among the Ladies gallantry requires me to say that youth and beauty prevail. Clothed in all the splendors … If we carry the resolution the scene will be historic and I shall always regret that you are not privileged to behold it. General Dumount has just arrived and very soon on the loyal roll will answer aye … The bill is carried…’
Florence Kelley’s next period of formal education would be her admission to the Northwestern University School of Law, soon after her arrival in Chicago. She was not awarded a degree from the University of Zurich. She was awarded a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in June, 1895, by which time she was already the Chief Factory Inspector and enforcing the Factory Inspection Law.
next: Arrival in Chicago