Illinois Factory Inspection, 1893-1897: Teaching strategy


By Laura M. Westhoff, University of Missouri-St. Louis



The Progressive Era witnessed the expansion of state authority into the workplace. Concerned about the effects of industrial labor on individual and public health, reformers investigated, educated, and lobbied for protective legislation. Florence Kelley and her allies in Chicago worked at the state level to pass a law regulating working conditions in sweatshops. The first of the kind in the nation, the 1893 anti-sweatshop law limited the hours women and children could work and provided for inspections of factories and workshops. Though the Illinois Supreme Court declared portions of the law unconstitutional in Ritchie vs. The People, the legislation was a critical moment in Progressive reformers’ efforts to use state regulation as a means to secure social justice. It set the stage for further protective legislation in the twentieth century.


To explore the nature of work in sweatshops and the anti-sweatshop campaign in the Progressive Era; to understand the logic and tactics used to expand the role of the state; to consider rationales for protective legislation.

Teaching Strategies

1. Start by reading “The Sweating System” and “The Sweating System of Chicago”. What is the sweating system and how did it work? What conditions gave rise to sweatshops and permitted them to flourish?

2. Continue reading “Home Shops”, “Disease and Infection,” “Report of Inspection by Committee,” and Testimony of Mrs. T. J. Morgan. Describe the working conditions of sweatshops. Discuss their effects on women, children, men, and public health.

3. Read “Protest of Labor: Mass Meeting Held to Denounce the Sweat Shop”; and Florence Kelley’s recommended bill to the Investigation Committee, 1893. Based on all the documents thus far, consider how Florence Kelley and other opponents of sweatshops built their arguments against them and gained public support for anti-sweatshop legislation. What were their assumptions about women, children, work, health, and the responsibilities of the state?

4. Read “Compulsory Eight-Hour Law Impossible”; and Factory and workshop Bill of 1893. What protections did the law extend to women and children? Who might oppose these protections? Why?

5. Read Opinion of the Supreme Court of Illinois, Ritchie vs. The People, 18 March 1895.”; How does the court define “liberty of contract.” What is meant by “labor is property?” What are the implications of this statement? What is the “police power of the state? Why does the court say it does not apply in this matter? What are the court’s reasons for striking down section 5 of the Sweatshop Law?

6. Was the Sweatshop Campaign successful? Why or why not?

7. Based on your reading of this case, how was state responsibility expanded? What might a Progressive Era social reformer learn about social movements from this campaign?

8. What future possibilities and problems did this law present to women’s rights and labor activists?

Short Paper Assignments

Imagine that you are Elizabeth Morgan or Florence Kelley and write an editorial response to Ritchie vs. The People. Prepare for a debate on the pros and cons of state protection of women and children. Choose a side and write a 4-5 page paper that presents your argument, drawing on evidence in the documents. Remember that good debaters address the opposition’s arguments, as well as make a case for their position.

For Further Exploration

Using the Internet and books such as Daniel Bender’s Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004) and Laura Hapke’s Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), research sweatshops today and write a 10-12 page paper describing them and their similarities and differences with sweatshops a hundred years ago. What recommendations would you make to combat sweatshop labor today?
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