Boy sweeper, wearing knickers, standing alongside carding machine in Lincoln Cotton Mills, Evansville, Indiana. Lewis Hine, photographer. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-91451

Child Labor Reform: An Overview

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, power-driven machines began to replace hand labor for the making of most manufactured items. Factories began to spring up everywhere, first in England and then in the United States. The owners of these factories found a new source of labor to run their machines — children.

Forms of child labor, including indentured servitude and child slavery, have existed throughout American history. As industrialization moved workers from farms and home workshops into urban areas and factory work, children were often preferred workers. Factory owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike.  Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn one dollar. Many children began working before the age of seven, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground in coal mines.

Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coalmines. By the mid-1800’s, child labor was a major problem. The widespread use of children in mines, manufacturing plants, street trades, and other occupations began to concern reformers. It was apparent child labor affected the health, education and morals of children. Church and labor groups, teachers, and many other people were outraged by such cruelty and they began to press for reforms.

Group of Child Workers. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection

Origin of the National Child Labor Committee

As early as the 1870s, reformers began efforts to enact legislation prohibiting certain types of child labor. For example, in 1876 the Working Men’s Party proposes banning the employment of children under the age of 14. In 1881 the first national convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) passes a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment. In 1883, Samuel Gompers led the New York labor movement to successfully sponsor legislation prohibiting cigar making in tenements, where thousands of young children worked in the trade.  The Census of 1890 showed that more than 1.5 million children between the ages of ten and fifteen years old were employed, nearly 20 percent of all children in that age group.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of child laborers in the U.S. peaked. Child labor began to decline as the labor and reform movements grew and labor standards began improving. These changes increased the political power of working people and other social reformers to demand legislation regulating child labor. Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle class consumers, such as state Consumers’ Leagues and Working Women’s Societies. These organizations generated the National Consumers’ League in 1899 and the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, which shared goals of challenging child labor, including through anti-sweatshop campaigns and labeling programs. The National Child Labor Committee’s work to end child labor was combined with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children, and culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set federal standards for child labor.

Given the overwhelming extent of child labor, it was only a matter of time until child labor became the top priority in the “progressive era” agenda. In 1901, Rev. Edgar Gardner Murphy founded the Child Labor Committee of Alabama, the first American organization of this kind. In New York City in 1902, Florence Kelley, a former resident of Hull House in Chicago, the chief factory inspector in Illinois, and the head of the National Consumers’ League joined with Lillian Wald the founder and head of Henry Street Settlement to influence the local Association of Neighborhood Workers to appoint a child labor committee to study the problem in New York. This resulted in the creation of an independent organization: New York Child Labor Committee. The membership included a distinguished roster of social reformers, among them: Mary Simkhovitch, Head of Greenwich House Settlement, Felix Adler, director of the Ethical Culture Society, Robert Hunter, Head Resident at University Settlement.

The first organizational efforts to establish a national child labor reform organization began in the South.  In Alabama, a clergyman, Edgar G. Murphy, began to denounce child labor in the late 1890s.  Advocating legislation to improve children’s working conditions, Murphy and his supporters faced great opposition, especially from the Southern Textile Association.  In 1901, they created the Alabama Child Labor Committee, the first of its kind in the United States.  In 1902, in New York, Florence Kelley, the head of the National Consumers League and a former resident of Hull-House, joined with Lillian Wald, the founder of Henry Street Settlement, to influence the Association of Neighborhood Workers to appoint a child labor committee to investigate the problem of child labor in New York. Others on this committee were Robert Hunter and Mary Simkhovitch.  In November 1902, this committee was organized as the New York Child Labor Committee.

At the 1903 meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, an entire section was devoted to Destitute Children.  The presentations included:

Child Labor and Pauperism by JANE ADDAMS; Use and Abuse of Factory Inspection, by MRS. FLORENCE KELLEY; The Social and Medical Aspects of Child Labor, by FREDERICK L. HOFFMAN; The Sociological Work of the Cotton Mill Owners, by D. A. TOMPKINS; Humanity and Economics, With Special Reference to Child Labor, by REV. C. B. WILMER; and Child Labor as a National Problem with Especial Reference to the Southern States, by EDGAR GARDNER MURPHY, Chairman of the Alabama Committee on Child Welfare. In opening his presentation, Reverend Murphy said: “I must begin what I shall try to say to you this evening, with a disclaimer and an explanation. As my disclaimer I would say that I use the word “national” in no political or federal sense. The conditions of industry vary so greatly and so decisively from state to state and from locality to locality that the enactment of a federal child labor law, applicable to all conditions and under all circumstances, would be inadequate if not unfortunate. As my explanation, I would say that I use the word “national” in that geographical sense in which we must all declare, and with all emphasis, that the problem of child labor is a national problem….”

Later in the presentation Rev. Murphy set out some of the sources of business opposition to reforming child labor:

“….The movement for the prohibition of the labor, in factories, of our children under twelve, has also been opposed by what I have regarded as a mistaken commercial prejudice. A few representatives of our “business interests,” under the leadership of some of the narrower trade journals of the south, have disputed the wisdom of protective legislation. Such opposition was inevitable. It has made plausible appeals to familiar forces. “Business” is everywhere a word of mighty omen. It is altogether natural that it should be so. At the south, especially, we have come to look with peculiar appreciation upon those practical and material forces which have wrought the rehabilitation of the land. After the desolation of war, and after the more bitter desolation of the period which followed war, it is inevitable that the question of bread-winning should have become with many of our people a question of absorbing and paramount importance. “Prosperity,” commercial and industrial “prosperity” has been a name of mystic and constraining force. To invite “prosperity” has been a form of patriotism. To alienate “prosperity” has seemed almost like apostasy. When, therefore, we offered the proposals of protective legislation for the children we were met with protests. We were greeted with indignant questions. “Do you not see that this legislation will touch the cotton factories?” “Do you not know that the cotton factories are the agents of prosperity?” “Do you want to compromise or to arrest the prosperity of the south?” “Do you not know that this child-labor law is an attack upon business?…”

Rev. Murphy’s presentation about the problems of child labor was focused almost entirely on cotton and cotton mills and their importance to the South.  He concluded with this thought:

“….If the cotton, the crude material of our textile industries, is peculiarly the south’s, so the human factors of our industry are also ours. The children of the northern mills — as Miss (Jane) Addams could inform you — are largely the children of the foreigner. If the northern states can legislate to protect the children of the foreigner, surely we can legislate to protect the children of the south. I speak not in jealousy of the foreigner — God forbid — but I dare not speak in forgetfulness of our own, of the children of’ these humbler people of our southern soil — a people native to our section and our interests, of our own race and blood, slowly preparing for their share in the advancing largeness of our life, and worthy, through their children of today, to constitute an ever increasing factor in the broader and happier citizenship of our future years. They are called a “poor” white people; but, from that knowledge of them which has come through a long experience of affectionate and familiar contact, I can say that their poverty is not the essential poverty of inward resources but rather the temporary and incidental poverty of unfortunate conditions….”

Following the 1903 meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy made contact with the leadership of the New York Child Labor Committee and together they began to plan the formation of a “national” organization on child labor reform. Invitations were extended to child labor reform advocates and interested people around the nation inviting them to a meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 15, 1904.

On April 25, 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formally organized. The leaders of the NCLC included major figures in social welfare.  Among the fifteen members of the board of directors were: Felix Adler, Paul Warburg, Jacob Schiff, Florence Kelley, Robert de Forest, Edward Devine, Homer Folks, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Graham Taylor and Benjamin Lindsey. The NCLC evolved not only as the largest and most important national child welfare societies, but also as one of the major twentieth-century social welfare organizations.

From its inception, the NCLC carried out systematic investigations in order to learn and document the extent and characteristics of child labor in the different industries and states. At the same time, it studied the existing laws and statutes and identified a “Uniform” child labor law. Needless to say, none of the existing statutes achieved the standards of regulation and enforcement the NCLC considered minimum. It was then that the NCLC activities turned into a fight for more and better state legislation.

In 1907 the NCLC was chartered by an Act of Congress. It immediately began to garner support and move towards action and advocacy. One of the first steps took place in early 1908 with the hiring of Lewis Wickes Hine, a tailor’s son from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Hine was a budding anthropologist and photographer at the time, and he left his teaching profession to work full-time as an investigator for the NCLC. In his work for the NCLC, Hine prepared a number of the reports and took some of the most powerful images in the history of documentary photography. His photographs helped awaken the consciousness of the nation and changed the reality of life for millions of impoverished, undereducated children.  In 1909, the NCLC claimed twenty-seven state and local committees and more than five thousand members.

In the 1920s, following a Supreme Court ruling that federal legislation banning child labor was unconstitutional, the NCLC turned its focus towards the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and towards the continued strengthening of state laws.

Editor’s Notes

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) continues to operate from an office in New York City. More information can be obtained at

The complete presentations by Jane Addams and Rev. Edgar Murphy are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The website for this resource is:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Child labor public education project. (2011).  Retrieved [date accessed] from


25 Responses to Child Labor Reform

  1. Someone says:

    Too short.

  2. look says:

    needs more information

  3. adam says:


  4. vk18123 says:

    not enough info.

  5. nicole says:

    Your post has many of the same sentences in the first paragraph used in the article Child Labor in U.S. History, this is the article
    It is appalling that you would use someone’s work and not at least credit them. Plagiarism is simply a way of you telling the world that your too indolent to use your own words.

  6. Rachel says:

    I like this article. Unlike many others, it is short, it gets to the point, and had the information that i needed. Thank you.

  7. KSPICE says:

    Thanks for the article. It helped me write my own article based on true facts

  8. coressia says:

    they actually worked 19 hours not 12-18 and it really need more information!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. noneyourbz says:

    child labor is still a problem today put that in your article.

  10. tonie says:

    maybe u could make it a lil longer to give people more information

    • jhansan says:

      Thank you for the comment. When I have more time, or another opportunity presents itself, I will add to this entry. Jack Hansan

  11. Chloe says:

    I was wondering if there were any other articles that you would recommend over this topic.

    • Kate Agnelli says:

      Hi Chloe,

      I would check out the link at the end of this article to the National Child Labor Committee. They are likely to have a lot of resources available.

  12. Melanie says:

    nice info but to short-needs more information about pay, their typical pay an hour -age they started- what kind of jobs were given to them-and when were the first child labor laws… how did they protect the children and what they could have done to help these kids who started to work at the age of 5 or 6. other then THAT it was good info

  13. A Thankful Commenter says:

    Thank you very much for this article. It helped me a lot on my research project. Keep up the good work!

  14. Ash says:

    Hello, great article and very helpful. I was just wondering who the publisher of this article is for my bibliography?

    • Kate Agnelli says:

      Hi Ash, there is an APA formatted citation at the end of the article that should give you the information you need.

  15. BANANA says:


  16. name says:

    i liked this article it helped me get some ideas for my reform

  17. Dakota Jandron says:


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