Florence Kelley, "...less defined by incidents than her evolving mission and personality."

Children’s Crusader is set in one of the most creative and turbulent periods in American history and in the two cities, Chicago and New York, where the dynamic changes were most visible. Chicago, where Florence Kelley, the play’s central figure, spent most of the 1890s with Jane Addams in Hull House, had passed a million inhabitants; New York, the arrival point for the massive immigration from Eastern and southern Europe at the time, had already exceeded that number; in both cities forty percent were foreign born, most of them from rural, mostly agrarian backgrounds (true, too, of the native born drawn to these big cities).

Laissez-faire, survival of the fittest, were the watchwords of the economy. There was no ameliorating social policy. Hundreds of thousands of people lived for the first time in dense urban settings, most crowded into rooms in cheaply built housing, the men working as “hands” in factories (the Chicago stockyards alone employed 25,000 in the 1890s), women and children—some of these, as Florence Kelley found, less than ten years old—in ill-lit lofts. Drinking water was polluted, the streets were filthy and unsafe, disease prevalent, the immigrants were hampered by lack of English and little or no education to prepare them for living in an industrialized, urban setting. Under laissez-faire, unions and labor actions were not allowed; federal troops crushed the strike at the Pullman factory in Chicago. The technological and organizational innovations of this emerging industrial society did provide the employment that drew people from the hinterland and abroad; that surely, was a benefit, but on the dark side were brutal conditions of living and working.

The creativity of capitalism had a brighter side too, the skyscrapers created in the Chicago Loop, their lesser kin on Lower Broadway, the network of railways that made trade possible on a scale never before seen, extraordinary examples of the American genius for technological innovation hinged to economic activity. All of America joined in Chicago’s pride as sponsor of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 to the design of Daniel Burnham, a wondrous fantasy built by canals formed from the waters of Lake Michigan.  The “White City” of gleaming white pavilions (most made of plaster),  the title of the first act of the play, was a glaring contrast to the slums. In the midst of them  Hull House, was the center of reform, and from there Kelley, Addams and others helped create what came to be called the Progressive Era in America, in which reform was based on detailed observation of conditions; science-based advocacy countered laissez faire with regulations to protect working men, women, and children. “Investigate, educate, legislate, enforce” was how Florence Kelley summed up this approach. Among the elected leaders who responded were Governor Altgeld of Illinois, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, all of whom make appearances in the play.

After eight years working out of Hull House, Florence came to New York and joined Lillian Wald at the Henry Street Settlement House—our neighbor on the farther Lower East Side and still a vibrant presence in its neighborhood. From Henry Street amid the crowded tenements—there could be more than 2,000 people living within one city block in these walk-ups—Florence performed her most effective work in establishing safe working conditions for women and children,. Notably she provided a young attorney, Louis Brandeis with information to buttress his successful appeal to the Supreme Court to recognize government’s ability to regulate working hours for women.

The historical drama is a unique are form.  Inspired to find te story in te history, the playwright seeks a single drama in te broad sweep of a full life.  For Children's Crusader, Mr. Pennino finds a persona journey of sef-discovery in Florence Kelley's campaign for the rights of the disenfranchsed.  The play's world is one were time and ocation shift readiy as we folow Florence through a rapidy changing landscape, less defined by incidents than her evolving mission and personality.

Florence Kelley (1859–1932)
Though less well known than Jane Addams or Lilian Wald, Mrs. Kelley was as remarkable a force for change in American society. She was born into comfortable circumstances, and was largely self-educated in her father’s library. On extended stays in Zurich with her ailing mother, she attended lectures at the university and became acquainted with Russian political exiles (one of whom she married, Lazare, a character in the play), as well as socialist ideas promoted by the German Social Democratic Party, and began translating the work of Freidrich Engels into English before returning to live in New York with her husband and children.  The failure of the marriage led her, three children in tow, to Chicago and Hull House as the play opens. Characteristic of her approach to ameliorating the conditions that surrounded the settlement house was her carrying out a detailed inventory of living and working conditions in a one mile radius, a project that gained the attention of reformers around the country and government. Liberal Governor John Altgeld appointed Florence the state’s first factory inspector, and her work on behalf of workers stood as heroic achievements alongside her extraordinary efforts to aid victims of a smallpox epidemic that swept out of Chicago tenements and sweatshops after the World's Fair.

After eight years in Chicago, and after Altgeld lost his post as governor, she returned to New York City and took up residence at Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement.  There, she became acquainted with new governor Theodore Roosevelt.  She also headed the National Consumers League, and it was through that association that she provided data and observations to Louis Brandeis in his landmark argument before the Supreme Court in Muller v. Oregon.  Owing also to her and Ms. Wald's inspiration and petioning in Washington was the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912.

Florence Kelley helped establish more benign conditions in industrial society and is a major force in what came to be called the Progressive Moment, which created so many of the standards for working and living conditions tht later generations enjoy. Her mantra of “Investigate, educate, legislate, enforce” is as pertinent in the different conditions of today as it was in her day.