Today in History

Today in History: November 17

Grace Abbott

Progressive Era reformer Grace Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on November 17, 1878. Reared in a family of activists, Abbott grappled early on with political and social issues. Her Quaker mother participated in the Underground Railroad and the woman suffrage movement; her father was a leader in state politics. Susan B. Anthony stayed with the Abbotts when visiting Grand Island in 1882.

Grace Abbott
Grace Abbott, Chief of the Children's Bureau of the Dept. of Labor, August 24, 1929.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

After graduating from college and teaching high school, Abbott left Nebraska in 1907 for the University of Chicago. While completing a master's degree in political science, she joined the residents of Jane Addams' Hull House. For the next nine years, Grace Abbott lived at Hull House while gaining national recognition as an advocate for immigrants.

As head of the Immigrants' Protective League in Chicago, Abbott established a way station for recent arrivals near the main Chicago railroad terminal. She worked for legislation to regulate the employment agencies that frequently exploited immigrants and convinced officials at Ellis Island to extend their protection and guidance beyond New York Harbor. At hearings held in Washington, D.C., in 1912 and 1914, Abbott testified against implementation of a literacy test designed to stem the flow of southern and eastern European immigrants. Despite her efforts, a literacy qualification was instituted in 1917.

Textile Worker
Girl in Cherryville Mill. Location: Cherryville, North Carolina,
Photo by Lewis W. Hine, November 1908.
National Child Labor Committee Collection
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

That same year, Abbott left Chicago to join the staff of the Department of Labor. Assigned to the Children's Bureau, a division charged with investigating and reporting on issues pertaining to child welfare, Abbott began implementing the first federal law restricting child labor. In 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the legislation. Disappointed, Abbott used her influence to ensure that wartime contractors did not rely on child labor.

After the war, Abbott briefly returned to Chicago. By 1921, however, she was back in Washington as head of the Children's Bureau, where she extended the reach of her division. With passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921, the Bureau administered a grant-in-aid program to the states for child and maternity health care. Despite the success of the program, Congress rescinded the act in 1929.

The Children's Bureau led the campaign for a constitutional amendment limiting child labor. Although never ratified, the amendment set a precedent for New Deal legislation regulating the labor of children under the age of sixteen.

In 1934, confident that the work of the Children's Bureau would continue under the administration of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Grace Abbot retired from the government. After years of fighting to fund and protect the Children’s Bureau, Abbot saw that the tide had turned in favor of the causes that she championed. She also left knowing that, through her urging, the Social Security Act would provide assistance to mothers and children.

One of many turn-of-the century women striving to ameliorate the social problems arising from industrialization, reformers like Abbott created new professional opportunities for women in government administration. She died in Chicago in 1939.

Three suffragists
Three Suffragists Casting Votes, 1917.
By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

Several American Memory resources provide a glimpse into the life and times of this remarkable woman.

The Suez Canal

On the Suez Canal
On the Suez Canal,
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
December 1894.
Around the World in the 1890s: Photographs from the World's Transportation Commission, 1894-1896

After ten years of construction and costs more than double the original estimate, the Suez Canal opened on November 17, 1869. Stretching 101 miles across Egypt's Isthmus of Suez, from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south, the waterway connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean.

In 1888 the Convention of Constantinople was signed—"respecting the free navigation of the Suez Maritime Canal" and opening the canal to ships of all nations. The longest canal in the world without locks, the Suez Canal is one of the world's most heavily traveled shipping lanes and the fastest crossing from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.

In 1894, a group of Americans visited the Suez Canal as part of a tour to promote U.S. trade and gather information about foreign transportation systems. Unlike the journalist Nellie Bly, their contemporary who circumnavigated the earth in just seventy-two days, the World's Transportation Commission (WTC) made its worldwide journey in three years. Readers of Harper's Weekly kept abreast of the trip through an illustrated series on the commission's tour.

William Henry Jackson, the WTC's photographer, who had extensive experience photographing American railroads and geological survey expeditions, took nearly 900 photographs en route. Around the World in the 1890s: Photographs from the World's Transportation Commission, 1894-1896 chronicles the trip through these photographs. North Africa, India, Thailand (formerly Siam), Oceania, China, and Russia were among the many places that the Americans visited.

Five men on top of the Great Pyramid
Five Men on Top of the Great Pyramid,
William Henry Jackson, photographer,
1894.
Around the World in the 1890s: Photographs from the World's Transportation Commission, 1894-1896

Jackson's work is highlighted in three American Memory collections.