The Vault

A List of Diseases and Afflictions Suffered By Young Factory Workers in Chicago, 1895

The Vault is Slate’s history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This list from the 1895 book Hull-House Maps and Papers, put together by workers at Jane Addams’ Hull House, catalogs the results of medical examinations done on a group of Chicago children applying for certificates to continue their factory jobs.  

Hull House was a settlement house (or community center) where workers, including Addams, lived while carrying out charitable and educational reform missions in the surrounding immigrant neighborhoods. Hull House resident Florence Kelley collected much of the data in Hull-House Maps and Papers for the Department of Labor, also creating maps to visualize the makeup of the nearby neighborhoods.   

Writing about child workers in the section of the book that contains this list, Kelley and Alzina P. Stevens argue that dangerous workplaces were the ones most likely to employ young people: “Frame gilding, in which work a child’s fingers are stiffened and throat disease is contracted”; “bakeries, where children slowly roast before the ovens,” “binderies, paper-box and paint factories, where arsenical paper, rotting paste, and the poison of the paints are injurious.”

Kelley and Stevens echoed the concerns of many child labor reformers when they wrote that the current regime would result in “an army of toiling children, undersized, rachitic [afflicted by rickets], deformed, predisposed to consumption, if not already tuberculous.” This was a humanitarian tragedy, but also (Kelley and Stevens argued pragmatically) a future “burden to society.”

Illinois’s 1893 Workshop and Factories Act, responding to reformers’ concerns, curtailed child labor by providing that children must be 14 years old and healthy to be employed. The children inspected here over a four-month period—a group of 135—were suspected of being sick, or of being too young to have their working papers. Sixty-three had their certificates revoked as a result of this examination, and 29 of these were judged to be under the age of 14. 

Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested Area of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing out of the Social Conditions, by the residents of Hull-House, 1895. 

Internet Archive.