Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development
Timeline History: 1900-1919

Location of the first state-operated public employment offices: Milwaukee and Superior.


Robert Marion La Follette

Early Wisconsin Industrial Plant
Early Wisconsin Industry

Two more state-operated employment offices opened in Oshkosh and LaCrosse.


James O. Davidson

In the 1900's the Wisconsin legislature enacted laws to protect children in the workplace. In 1917, a centralized work permit system was created under the Industrial Commission.


Early Work Permit
Work permit example from 1904

First State Civil Service Law enacted; creates a three- member Civil Service Commission. Wisconsin becomes third state to establish a civil service system.

More information about Robert La Follette


Governor Robert M. La Follette

Governor Robert M. La Follette
The Founder and Leader of Wisconsin Progressivism

Legislature set the maximum hours of labor for children to 55 a week and adopted a list of dangerous occupations prohibited to children under 16.


Children Working in a Factory
Child Labor in Industry

The Street Trades Law was passed to regulate child labor, specifically, children selling newspapers in Milwaukee.

The first attempt at workers compensation legislation came in 1909. Senator Theodore W. Brazeau introduced a proposal to provide compensation insurance. The senate postponed the proposal indefinitely. The legislature did, however provide for a joint interim committee of 3 Senators and 4 Assemblymen to study such insurance.


Senator Theodore W. Brazeau

The Wisconsin Bureau of Labor Statistics is replaced by a 3-member Industrial Commission. The Commission spent $59,718 in its first year.

One of the more notable Commissioners was John R. Commons. Dr. Commons was a Economics Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Commons influenced a generation of people who became involved in social reform and progressive legislation.

A reformer rather than a revolutionary, Commons championed laws that protected workers while preserving the efficiency of large-scale industry. Effective labor legislation, he maintained, could make the capitalist economic system work in favor of workers as well as employers. Commons' thinking influenced Wisconsin's most important new labor laws, especially industrial safety and unemployment insurance. On occasion, Commons' University classes became staging grounds for new legislation. Many of his students, including Arthur Altmeyer, became state or federal labor law administrators.

Arthur J. Altmeyer later became one of the most important figures in the history of Social Security. President Franklin Roosevelt called him "Mr. Social Security." The Social Security Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1935.

The Wisconsin legislature enacted more laws to regulate hours, wages and employment conditions of women and children.

Work week for children reduced to 48 hours.

Work week for women set at 55 hours.

Other industrial safety laws were passed.

Wisconsin established free employment services in its Milwaukee, Superior, LaCrosse and Oshkosh Employment Offices. These employment services were primarily local labor exchanges.

Nation's first modern apprenticeship law that included area vocational schools as a necessary component of apprenticeship programs. 625 apprentices were indentured in the first year in Wisconsin.

Nation's first state constitutional Workmen's Compensation Act (now Worker's Compensation) guaranteeing injury compensation as a legal right was enacted on May 3, 1911 and became effective September 1st to be administered by the Industrial Commission. TheConstitutionality of the Act was upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on November 1, 1911 (and by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926).

Workmen's Compensation Act
Workmen's Compensation Act Booklet


Francis Edward McGovern

First head of the Wisconsin Industrial Commission:
Joseph D. Beck

Additional Commissioners:
Charles Crownhart (1911-1915)
John R. Commons (1911-1913)

Economist and Commissioner John R. Commons
John Commons Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Video Clip about John Commons
Read more about John Commons

Wisconsin's first elevator safety code took effect in 1913.

The first Wisconsin wage law was enacted in 1913 and specified that a "living wage" must be paid to women and minors. In enacting this law, the Legislature specified that "every wage paid or agreed to be paid by any employer to any female or minor employee shall be not less than a living wage." Administrative authority was given to the Industrial Commission, which was to use an advisory board equally representing employers, employees and the public in its determination of a "living wage," thereby also necessitating consideration of the cost of living. There were several events which delayed the determination of a living wage and contributed to a 6-year lapse between the 1913 enactment of the law and issuance of the first wage orders in 1919.

. . . The Industrial Commission completed an extensive study in 1913- 1914 of the working conditions and cost of living of employed women in Wisconsin; and most pertinent - the constitutionality of the Oregon Minimum Wage Law (which was similar in principle to the Wisconsin law) was being challenged in the courts from 1914 to 1917, when a tie vote of the U.S. Supreme Court sustained the Oregon Law and thus helped clear the way for action in Wisconsin.


Additional Commissioner:
Fred M. Wilcox (1913-1933)

Women Working in a Factory
Women Working in a Factory
Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1914, the first building code in Wisconsin was adopted to help in the enforcement of the safe place statutes for all buildings and places of employment, including factories, stores, schools, theaters, churches, and hotels. Inspection responsibilities also were given to the commission. The Commission adopted the first boiler code after boiler explosions increased.

. . . World War I began . . .


A new Wisconsin apprenticeship law required apprentices to attend school 5 hours a week, at the employer's expense.

Current Employment Statistics (CES) began, managed by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and Industrial Commission (the program continues today!).


Governor: Emanuel Lorenz Philipp

Additional Commissioner:
George P. Hambrecht (1915-1921)

Commissioners Witte, Beck, Wilsox and Hambrecht

Commissioners are:
Edwin E. Witte, Secretary (1917-22); Joseph D. Beck; Fred M. Wilcox; and George P. Hambrecht.

Photo Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

The Wisconsin Industrial Commission created a Women's Department and assigned it the responsibility for the administration of laws concerning women and child labor, including the Minimum Wage law.


The U.S. Smith Hughes Act (Public Law 347) establishes federal-state vocational education program and creates Federal Board of Vocational Education.

The Wisconsin Free Employment Service had 31 public employment offices.

State Legislators centralized child labor permit-granting authority under the Wisconsin Industrial Commission.


Additional Commissioner:
Thomas Konop (1917-1921)

Learning Experience for Apprentices
Apprentices Learning

Occupational diseases were added to Worker's Compensation coverage.

A 22-cent minimum wage was established for women and minors 17 years of age and older.


A petition presented May 1, 1919, to the Industrial Commission by the Wisconsin Federation of Labor, the Consumers League of Wisconsin, and the Central Council of Social Agencies of Milwaukee initiated a wage action by the Commission. As required by law, the action involved appointment of an Advisory Wage Board and consideration of their recommendations and findings, as well as those of the Commission in its 1913-1914 cost of living study. After the required public hearings were held, the commission issued Wage Orders on June 27, 1919, and named their effective date as August 1,1919.

Arthur Altmeyer, "Mr. Social Security"
Arthur Altmeyer
Industrial Commission Secretary

Biography of Arthur Altmeyer


Roadsign commemorating first Workmen's Compensation law
The nation's first WC law is commemorated with a state historical marker on Highway 51 north of Stevens Point.

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