The American Era of Child Labor
Child Labor Defined: Historically, “child labor” is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. However, not all work done by children should be classified as child labor. Children or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling is generally regarded as being something positive. This includes activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays.
Abusive Child Labor: What is to be prevented is child labor in its most extreme form: Children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves. Forms of extreme child labor existed throughout American history until the 1930s. In particular, child labor was rife during the American Industrial Revolution (1820-1870). Industrialization attracted workers and their families from farms and rural areas into urban areas and factory work. In factories and mines, children were often preferred as employees, because owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike.
Historical documents revealed American children worked in large numbers in mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, many labor unions and social reformers advocated aggressively for state and local legislation to prevent extreme child labor. By 1900, their efforts had resulted in state and local legislation designed to prevent extreme child labor; however, the condition in states varied considerably on whether they had child labor standards, their content and the degree of enforcement.
The lucky ones swept the trash and filth from city streets or stood for hours on street corners hawking newspapers. The less fortunate coughed constantly through 10-hour shifts in dark, damp coal mines or sweated to the point of dehydration while tending fiery glass-factory furnaces – all to stoke the profit margins of industrialists whose own children sat comfortably at school desks gleaning moral principles from their McGuffey Readers. By and large, these child laborers were the sons and daughters of poor parents or recent immigrants who depended on their children’s meager wages to survive. But they were also the offspring of the rapid, unchecked industrialization that characterized large American cities as early as the 1850s. In 1870, the first U.S. census to report child labor numbers counted 750,000 workers under the age of 15, not including children who worked for their families in businesses or on farms. By 1911, more than two million American children under the age of 16 were working – many of them 12 hours or more, six days a week. Often they toiled in unhealthful and hazardous conditions; always for minuscule wages.
Young girls continued to work in mills, still in danger of slipping and losing a finger or a foot while standing on top of machines to change bobbins; or of being scalped if their hair got caught. And, as ever, after a day of bending over to pick bits of rock from coal, breaker boys were still stiff and in pain. If a breaker boy fell, he could still be smothered, or crushed, by huge piles of coal. And, when he turned 12, he would still be forced to go down into the mines and face the threat of cave-ins and explosions.
Child Labor Reform: 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 in general began improving, increasing 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.
Determined efforts to regulate or eliminate child labor have been a feature of social reform in the United States since 1900. The leaders in this effort were the National Child Labor Committee, organized in 1904, and the many state child labor committees. These organizations, gradualist in philosophy and thus prepared to accept what was achievable even if not theoretically sufficient, employed flexible tactics and were able to withstand the frustration of defeats and slow progress. The committees pioneered the techniques of mass political action, including investigations by experts, the widespread use of photography to dramatize the poor conditions of children at work, pamphlets, leaflets, and mass mailings to reach the public, and sophisticated lobbying. Despite these activities, success depended heavily on the political climate in the nation as well as developments that reduced the need or desirability of child labor.
The National Child Labor Committee campaigned for tougher state and federal laws against the abuses of industrial child labor, and Lewis W. Hine was its greatest publicist. A teacher who left his profession to work full-time as investigator for the committee, Hine prepared a number of the Committee’s reports and took some of the most powerful images in the history of documentary photography. The Library of Congress holds the papers of the Committee, including the reports, field notes, correspondence, and over 5,000 of Hine’s photographs and negatives. This album depicts children at work in canneries and is accompanied by a follow-up report for a group of canneries previously investigated by Hine.
From 1911 to 1916, Hine traveled across southern and eastern states capturing thousands of unflinching images that exposed the heartless treatment of children. More often than not, Hine had to resort to trickery to gain access from resistant, even hostile, employers. He posed variously as a Bible salesman, industrial photographer, fire inspector and insurance agent to get candid shots, sometimes with a hidden camera. Children might be removed from view before he arrived or he might be barred from the premises altogether. When Hine couldn’t find a way in, he waited outside the gates and photographed the children as they entered and exited.
The tireless efforts of reformers, social workers and unions seemed to pay off in 1916 – at the height of the progressive movement – when President Woodrow Wilson passed the Keating-Owen Act banning articles produced by child labor from being sold in interstate commerce. The act was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court just two years later.
During the period from 1902 to 1915, child labor committees emphasized reform through state legislatures. Many laws restricting child labor were passed as part of the progressive reform movement of this period. But the gaps that remained, particularly in the southern states, led to a decision to work for a federal child labor law. Congress passed such laws in 1916 and 1918, but the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.
The opponents of child labor then sought a constitutional amendment authorizing federal child labor legislation. Congress passed such an amendment in 1924, but the conservative political climate of the 1920s, together with opposition from some church groups and farm organizations that feared a possible increase of federal power in areas related to children, prevented many states from ratifying it.
The Great Depression changed political attitudes in the United States significantly, and child labor reform benefited. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that finally brought significant federal regulation to bear on preventing extreme child labor in the U.S.. Almost all of the codes developed under the National Industrial Recovery Act served to reduce child labor.The Public Contracts Act of 1936 set the minimum age for employment at sixteen for boys and at eighteen for girls in firms supplying goods under federal contract. A year later, the Beet Sugar Act set the minimum age at fourteen for employment in cultivating and harvesting sugar beets and cane. Far more sweeping was the benchmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). For agriculture, it set the minimum working age at fourteen for employment outside of school hours and at sixteen for employment during school hours. For non-agricultural work in interstate commerce, sixteen was the minimum age for employment during school hours, and eighteen for occupations designated hazardous by the secretary of labor.
This success arose not only from popular hostility to child labor, generated in no small measure by the long-term work of the child labor committees and the climate of reform in the New Deal period, but also from the desire of Americans in a period of high unemployment to open jobs held by children to adults.
The Child Labor Public Education Project: Sponsored by the University of Iowa Labor Center and The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights’ Child Labor Research Initiative.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress: /www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm032.html
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). The American era of child labor. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/child-welfarechild-labor/child-labor/