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Child Labor and the US
Children and work had a long history in the United States as it did in the rest of the world. On the farm, children were expected to work as soon as they were old enough and strong enough. Boys would work the fields and girls help with chores. Work was considered something positive. As more of the country moved from the farm to the cities, and more of the work moved to factories, more and more children worked in factories. In 1820 more than 40% of the mill workers in New England were children under 16. According to the census of 1870 1 out of every eight children worked. That number rose to 1 out of 5 by 1900. Children were an essential part of the workforce. They worked in garment factories of New York, in the Cotton Mills of the South and on the streets of the large cities selling newspapers and shining shoes and on the farm.
In the September 1906 edition of Cosmopolitan, there was a story of a Native American chief who is taken on a tour of New York- a city with skyscrapers the Brooklyn Bridge and millions of residents. The chief was asked, “What is the most surprising thing you have seen?” The chieftain replied slowly with three words: “little children working.”
Opposition to children working grew slowly. In England, labor reforms began early in the 19th century to work against child labor. Factory owners claimed that if children were barred from working it would bankrupt them. On the state level, some laws were passed to protect children. One of the first was passed in Connecticut in 1813, that law required that those children who worked in factories had to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1842 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law limiting the work hours of children under 12 to 10 hours. Connecticut applied the law to children under 14.
In 1872 the Prohibition Party became the first party to call for the end of child labor in factories. In 1874 a fire at the Granite Mill in Fall River MA killed 20 people most of them young children. The fire received nationwide coverage, and while most of the coverage dealt with the need for better fire safety, the fact that so many children were killed began to penetrate into the public consciousness.
Between 1885 and 1889 10 states passed a minimum age law for children while 6 set the maximum number of hours that a child could work. During this time compulsory education laws were passed in the North, and as a result, the number of children in high school increased 150% between 1890 and 1900.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the issue of child labor became more widespread. In 1904 The National Child Labor Committee was founded Edgar Gardner Murphy to help fight the child labor in mills. The NCLC worked to have states pass a uniform law that created a minimum working age for factories at 14 and mines at 16 and limited the workday to 8 hours. It also outlawed night work. The movement grew and in 1903 during a strike in a mill in Pennsylvania a march of children who had been injured working took place to President Roosevelts home in Oyster Bay New York. Roosevelt would not meet with them but issues a statement that he sympathized, but the Federal government could not pass a law on child labor only the states could.
More and more stories spread about the horrors of child labor. Companies fired back claiming it was good for the children and besides they would become bankrupt if stopped child labor.
In 1905 an attempt was made to pass a bill limited child labor in North Carolina, the bill was initially expected to pass, but last-minute lobbying by mills resulted in its defeat.
In 1906 the first national bill to limit child labor was introduced into Congress. The very introduction heightened awareness of the topic in the public minds. In March 1912 14-year-old Camella Teorli mesmerized the country when she gave testimony on to Congress. Sitting in the committee room was Helen Taft the First Lady. Camella told how when the labor laws had been passed to limit the number of hours that women and children the owners had sped up their machines. A year earlier a man had come up to her father and convinced him to let her work. Her father was not sure how old she was ( a common practice) so the man promised papers for money. Carmella’s hair became caught in the faster machines, and he lost part of her scalp. She was hospitalized for seven months, and the company refused to pay since her Father had lied about her age.
Slowly public opinion began to grow to do something. President Wilson was reluctant to support a bill but agreed not to oppose it. Before long he became an enthusiastic supporter. In 1916 the Senate by a vote of 52 to 12 passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act. The act barred interstate commerce for goods produced in factories and mines that employed children under 14 in a factory of 16 in a mine. Also, night labor was prohibited under the law.
This victory for those fighting child labor was short lived. The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1917 in the decision of Hammer Dagenhart.
Child labor was an important byproduct of industrialization. Physical labor might require an adult, but the operation of a machine could often by assigned to a child. The first child labor law was passed by the state of Massachusetts in 1836, which specified that children under the age of 15 could not be employed in an incorporated factory unless they had attended school for three months in the prior year. The Pennsylvania Senate conducted hearing on child labor in factories in December 1847. They were told that in many cases, children worked from sun up to sun down and that not infrequently children below the age of 12 were working in factories. The legislature responded in March 1848 with a law to limit the hours of labor and prohibit labor by children under 12. Rhode Island passed legislation in 1857, which prohibited:
- Employment of any minor under the age of 12 in manufacturing,
- Employment of any minor under the age of 15 in manufacturing, unless the child had spent at least three months in school in the previous year, and
- Employment of a minor between 12 and 15 for more than eleven hours in one day, or before 5:00 a.m. or after 7:30 p.m. Offenders in Rhode Island were subject to a potential fine of $20. Nationally, progress was not swift. By 1860, there were still fewer than ten states with child labor laws and only four had minimum ages for factory labor. Even in 1919, a statement by Catholic bishops showed that the job was not complete:
Child Labor Law Passed - History
About Lewis Hine
Photographer Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940) was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He studied sociology at Chicago and New York universities, becoming a teacher, then took up photography as a means of expressing his social concerns.
His first photo essay featured Ellis Island immigrants. In 1908, Hine left his teaching position for a full-time job as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, which was then conducting a major campaign against the exploitation of American children.
From 1908 to 1912, Hine took his camera across America to photograph children as young as three years old working for long hours, often under dangerous conditions, in factories, mines, and fields. Hine was an immensely talented photographer who viewed his young subjects with the eye of a humanitarian.
In 1909, he published the first of many photo essays depicting working children at risk. In these photographs, the essence of wasted youth is apparent in the sorrowful and even angry faces of his subjects. Some of his images, such as the young girl in the mill glimpsing out the window, are among the most famous photographs ever taken.
During World War I, he documented the plight of refugees for the American Red Cross. He later documented the construction of the Empire State building in 1930-1931 and even hung upside down from a crane to photograph workmen.
Child Labor in America
As early as the 1830s, many U.S. states had enacted laws restricting or prohibiting the employment of young children in industrial settings. However, in rural communities where child labor on the farm was common, employment of children in mills and factories did not arouse much concern. Another problem for children was the popular opinion that gainful employment of children of the "lower orders" actually benefited poor families and the community at large.
Entire families were hired, the men for heavy labor and the women and children for lighter work. Work days typically ran from dawn to sunset, with longer hours in winter, resulting in a 68-72 hour workweek. Many families also lived in company owned houses in company owned villages and were often paid with overpriced goods from the company store. Thus they lived a life entirely dominated by their employers.
By the late 1800s, states and territories had passed over 1,600 laws regulating work conditions and limiting or forbidding child labor. In many cases the laws did not apply to immigrants, thus they were often exploited and wound up living in slums working long hours for little pay.
Throughout America, local child labor laws were often ignored. On a national level, progress to protect children stalled as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled several times that child labor laws under question were unconstitutional. A subsequent attempt to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed.
In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was organized by socially concerned citizens and politicians, and was chartered by Congress in 1907. From 1908 to 1912, photographer Hine documented numerous gross violations of laws protecting young children. At many of the locations he visited, youngsters were quickly rushed out of his sight. He was also told youngsters in the mill or factory had just stopped by for a visit or were helping their mothers.
Attempts at child labor reform continued, aided by the widespread publicity from Hine's photographs. As a result, many states passed stricter laws banning the employment of underage children. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, better known as the Federal Wage and Hour Law. The Act was declared constitutional in 1941 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Act set a work week of 40 hours, with a minimum wage of 40 cents per hour. It prohibited child labor under age 16 while allowing minors 16 and over to work in non-hazardous occupations. The Act set 18 as the minimum age for work in industries classified as hazardous. No minimum age was set for non-hazardous agricultural employment after school hours and during vacations. Children aged 14 and 15 could be employed in non-manufacturing, non-mining, and non-hazardous occupations outside of school hours and during vacations for limited hours.
Child Labor Today
According to recent global estimates by the International Labor Office, the number of working children aged 5 to 14 in developing countries is in the order of 250 million, of whom some 120 million work full time in various jobs often under hazardous conditions amid crude living conditions. A surplus of unskilled workers and low wages have combined to create conditions for children similar to the worst features of factories, mines and mills from the 1800s with minimal chances for education and future happiness.
Return to The History Place - Child Labor Photographs of Lewis Hine
See also: UNICEF Webpage on Child Labor
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Child Labor Laws In the 1800’s
Child Labor, once known as the practice of employing young children in factories, now it’s used as a term for the employment of minors in general, especially in work that would interfere with their education or endanger their health. Throughout history and in all cultures children would work in the fields with their parents, or in the marketplace and young girls in the home until they were old enough to perform simple tasks. The use of child labor was not a problem until the Factory System. The Factory System is a working arrangement where a number of people cooperate to produce articles of consumption.
Some form of Factory system has existed even since ancient times. In the later part of the 18th century in Britain, owners of cotton mills gathered up orphans and children of poor families all through the country, and had them work for the payment of housing and food. Some children as young as five or six were forced to work from 13 to 16 hours a day. Social reformers as early as 1802 tried to obtain legislative restrictions against the worst parts of the child-labor system, but little happened and little was done even to enforce existing laws which limited work hours and establishing a minimum age for employment.
Children were permitted to work in dangerous jobs such as mining with the approval from political, social, and religious leaders. From this further impoverishment of poor families and a multitude of diseased and crippled children occurred. Agitation for the reform steadily increased. The first significant British Legislation was enacted in 1878, when the minimum age of employees was raised to 10 years and employers were required to restrict employment of children between the ages of 10 and 14 to alternate days or consecutive half days.
In addition to making every Saturday a half holiday, this legislation limited the workday of children between 14 and 18 years of age to 12 hours, with a 2 hour intermission for meals and rest. Meanwhile the industrial system developed in other countries such as the United States, bringing with it the abuses of child labor similar to those in Britain. In the early years of the 19th century, children between the ages of 7 and 12 made up one-third of the workforce in U. S. factories.
The Shortage of adult male laborers, who held ideas regarding the evils of idleness among children, and so cooperated with employers, helping them recruit young factory hands from families. The earliest feature of the factory system that concerned many among leaders was the high illiteracy rate among child laborers. The first effective step toward legislation governing the education of these children was taken in 1836 when the Massachusetts Legislature adopted a law prohibiting the employment of any child under 15 years old who had received less than three months of school in the previous year.
In 1848 Pennsylvania became the first state to regulate the age of youth employed in silk, cotton, or woolen mills by establishing a minimum age of 12. Several other states joined that, but none of the laws passed made provisions for establishing proof of the child’s age or for enforcement. The length of the workday was the next feature of the factory system to be regulated my legislation. By 1853 several states had adopted a ten-hour workday for children under 12 years of age. Despite the restrictions, the number of children in industry increased greatly in the U.
S after the American Civil War, when industrial expansion resulted in demand for workers. By the end of the 19th century nearly one-fifth of all American children between the ages of 10 and 16 were employed greatly. By 1910 as the result of the public-enlightenment activities of various organizations, especially the National Child Labor Committee, the legislatures of several states had enacted restrictive legislation that led to sharp reductions in the number of children employed in industry. The U. S.
Congress, in 1916, passed a law that set a national minimum age of 14 in industries producing non-agricultural goods for interstate commerce or export. In 1918, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the legislation was an unconstitutional infringement on personal freedom. The following year, the Congress tried another strategy to establish protection for child workers through taxation of employers. But in 1022 the Child Labor Tax Law, as it was known, was ruled unconstitutional for being overly “prohibitory and regulatory.
” In 1924, both houses of Congress passed an amendment to the U. S. Constitution, empowering Congress to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons less than 18 years of age. Even though the reluctance of state legislators to ratify the child-labor amendment, legislative attempts to deal with the problem nationally continued, notably during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The National Industrial recovery Act, passed by Congress in 1933, established a minimum age of 16 for workers in most industries.
In hazardous industries a minimum age level of 18 was established. This law contributed to a great decrease in the number of yond workers, but the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional in 1935. In the next year the Congress passed the Walsh-Healey Act, which prohibits firms producing goods under federal government contract from employing boys and girls less than 16 years of age. The nest important legislation on the problem was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, better known as the Federal Wage and Hour Law.
This act was declared constitutional in 1941 by the Supreme Court, which overruled its former child-labor decision under a more liberal way of the commerce clause of the constitution. The Fair Labor Standards Act, amended in 1949, applies to all workers engaged in interstate or foreign commerce. Under the child-labor provisions of the act, minors 16 years of age and over may be employed in any occupation that has not been judged hazardous by the secretary of labor. The minimum age for work in industries classified as hazardous is 18. No minimum age is set for non-hazardous agricultural employment after school hours and during vacation.
Minors 14 and 15 years of age may be employed in a variety of non-manufacturing, non-mining, and non-hazardous of occupations outside school hours and during vacations for limited hours and under other specified conditions of work. Every state today has child-labor laws. In most states employment of minors under 16 in factories and during school hours is not allowed. Other provisions include 40 hour work week, working at night is prohibited, and work permits for minors under 18. Children working on farms are not completely protected by federal and state laws, which make no provisions for hazardous farm work outside school hours.
The children of migratory workers, who move from harvest to harvest across the United States, are usually not subject to state laws because they do not fulfill residency requirements, and they are often unable to attend local schools, which have no provisions for seasonal increases in school enrollment. Other children exempted from federal and state labor laws are children employed as actors and performers in radio, television, and motion pictures, as newspaper deliverers and sales personnel, or as part-time workers at home. In the early 21st century, child labor remains a serious problem in many parts of the world.
Studies show carried out in 1979, the International year of the child, show that more than 50 million children below the age of 15 were working in various jobs often under hazardous conditions. Many of those children live in poorer/under-developed countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Living Conditions are crude and their chances for education are very small. The little income they get is necessary for their family’s survival. These families lack the basic necessities that we take for granted like adequate food, decent clothing and shelter, and even water for bathing.
In some countries industrialization has created working conditions for children that rival the worst features of the 19th century factories and mines. In India, around 20,000 children work 16 hour days in match factories. Child-labor problems don’t just happen in small undeveloped countries they happen all over the place even in America today. The most important effort to eliminate child-labor abuses through out the world come from the International Labor Organization, founded in 1919 and now a special agency of the United Nations.
The organization has introduced several child-labor conventions among its members, including a minimum age of 16 years for admission to all work, a higher minimum age for specific types of employment, medical exams, and regulation of night work. In the late 20th century the ILO added to this list of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery, prostitution, debt bondage(where children had to work to pay off loans made to their parents), and forced military service.
How Child Labor Ended in the United States
It took the Great Depression to resolve the debate over child labor.
Today, U.S. laws and regulations bar kids under the age of 14 from working in most industries. Children under 17 may not work more than three hours on school days, for example.
Ever wonder where these rules came from?
While studying this issue for more than a decade, I’ve learned that very few Americans thought there was anything wrong with child labor before the Civil War. Most kids under age 15 worked up to 14 hours a day, either alongside their parents or for an employer – unless they were rich. In that case, other children worked for their families.
Enslaved children typically began working alongside their mothers in the fields at a very young age. They also did housework, hauled water and took care of animals. Not only were these enslaved people unpaid “child laborers” the law cast them as property subject to the threat of sale.
After emancipation, the question of whether to outlaw child labor was hotly contested for more than 80 years. Northern reformers who sought abolition squared off against their Southern opponents.
Early Laws Only Regulated Child Labor
As I explain in my new book on the topic, it took the Great Depression to reserve full-time employment for adults.
After the Civil War officially ended child slavery, most Americans still did not think there was anything wrong with children earning their keep, as long as working kids could get at least a rudimentary education. While some states such as Massachusetts had child labor laws on the books, those measures only regulated employment. Children could be limited to working as many as 10 hours daily.
By the 1870s, unions condemned child labor on the basis that overly young workers competed for jobs, making it harder for adults to obtain higher pay and better conditions – not due to concerns about the well-being of kids.
The government first gathered data on child labor, which was defined at the time as the gainful employment of children under the age of 15, in 1870. That year’s census counted 750,000 employed children – 1 in 8 American kids. It was a low estimate that excluded children working for their families.
The 1900 census found that more than 1 in 5 children worked. Reformers believed the real rate was even higher.
Lax Southern Regulations
Some companies, meanwhile, were moving production to Southern states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to take advantage of their lax regulations. Cotton milling quickly became one of the nation’s most child-labor-intensive industries, along with coal mining.
By 1900, a quarter of the South’s nearly 100,000 textile workers were under 16. Northern reformers were calling for change. They objected not because they considered child labor a form of child abuse but rather because these little workers were white.
The image of pale, shrunken-faced, debilitated poor white boys and girls in Southern textile mills was sensationalized in the North as “white child slavery.” Once the issue became a national obsession, activists formed the National Child Labor Committee in 1904 to “change the public conscience” on this issue.
A Culture War
Southern industrialists resisted regulations, insisting that they were uplifting poor whites. They denounced child labor reform as “aggressive Northern interference.”
Despite Southern opposition, reformers argued that state-level regulations were rife with loopholes and difficult to enforce. In 23 states, for instance, there was no official way to determine children’s ages. Additionally, many states allowed poor children to work out of “necessity.”
The committee first pushed to outlaw child labor in 1906 on the grounds that it weakened the white race and, therefore, interfered with U.S. plans for global dominance.
Named after Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana, the Beveridge bill sought to use the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution to ban the interstate shipment of products made by child labor. Southern opponents defeated it.
In 1913, the minister Owen Lovejoy brought new religious allies to the committee, which by then focused on the sinfulness of child labor in America.
In 1916, they got Congress to pass the the first federal child labor law. Like the Beveridge bill, the new law prohibited shipping products made with child labor across state lines.
However, a North Carolina mill worker, Roland Dagenhart, challenged the measure in court on the grounds that it violated his right to have his sons employed. The case wound up before the Supreme Court, which ruled in Dagenhart’s favor in 1918.
Reformers would try again, this time using the federal taxing power to tax the products of child labor, but the Supreme Court would strike down that law – also challenged in court by a Southern mill worker – as unconstitutional in 1922.
The showdown came in the 1920s. Fed up with the Supreme Court for repeatedly overturning child labor laws, Northern reformers tried to amend the U.S. Constitution. Prohibition had recently secured the 18th Amendment, and women had just gained suffrage through the 19th Amendment.
Many observers wrongly predicted that a child labor Amendment would become the 20th amendment.
And yet those expectations didn’t materialize, due to a rural backlash.
Back then, most family farms relied on their own children’s labor. Many other children were hired as farmhands or “helpers” in seasonal agriculture. A 1922 study of seasonal demand for farm labor in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey found that three-fifths of white children and nearly three-fourths of black children were working before the age of 10.
Southern industrialists seized the moment, warning thousands of farm families of a government takeover of their farms. A collective uprising against a child labor constitutional amendment became yet another culture war, this time between rural and urban communities.
Reformers panicked, buying radio spots and distributing pamphlets backing off the notion that they wanted to interfere with family farms. The movement to pass a child labor amendment fizzled by 1925.
It took the Great Depression to resolve the debate over child labor.
Both Southerners and Northerners embraced an argument that union organizers had been making for decades and agreed that all available jobs in the nation should go to adult workers rather than children.
Subsequently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included the first federal child labor law not to be overturned by the Supreme Court. This 1938 law included provisions banning child labor under age 14 in most industries while exempting “children under 16 employed in agriculture” and “children working for their parents” in most occupations.
Today, FDR’s measure is still the basis of child labor laws in America. It was a major victory, to be sure. But its limitations reflect the mixed legacy of the movement to abolish child labor.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Child Labor Today
Child Worker in a North Carolina Tobacco Field. Image via Human Rights Watch.
Today, laws vary somewhat state-to-state on how old one must be to work, but these laws are especially lenient in agriculture. Under federal law, children under the age of 12 can work unlimited hours in agriculture with a parent’s permission and children over the age of 16 can be employed in hazardous industries.
The myth of the wholesome family farm has caused a legal blindspot in the United States. People are horrified when they find out children made their shoes in a sweatshop somewhere overseas, but are not so stunned by the idea of children making and growing their food.
Half of work-related child deaths in the U.S. happen in agriculture, but this number may be even higher if we consider that many people working in food production in our country are undocumented and their injuries and employment go unreported. Just as in the 1900s, children might falsify their age to obtain work and help support themselves and their families.
The Trump administration has attempted to even further roll back the very meager protections set in place for child farmworkers, who are already at much greater risk of injury or death than young people in almost any industry.
Great strides were made to protect our nation’s children, but the cynics among us could argue these changes were only made when it was economically convenient to do so. Regardless, forward progress in protecting the most vulnerable people in our society does not come easily and we need to be mindful of forces that seek to undo it.
History of Child Labor Laws
European settlers brought social-values with them to America. Many of these values remain today such as the value Americans place on work. The colonists equated idleness with delinquency. Children often helped out in farmwork or in their father’s trade or business to help support the family.
A 1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony law required families to provide education to their children and apprentices. This involved teaching children how to read, as well as a trade or some manner of employment. This law was intended to ensure that children all had an upbringing that prepared them to be industrious and hard-working adults.
Families in unfortunate circumstances, who could not afford to take care of and educate their own children, would often have their children enter apprenticeships at young ages. Children of slaves were born into servitude and often did not have the same rights.
The industrial revolution changed America from a predominately rural population to an urban one. Factories were dependent on women and children for cheap manageable labor. Families depended on the meager income of their children, however there was still growing concern about the working conditions of children.
Children as young as 6 worked up to 13 hour days in unhealthy and dangerous conditions for minuscule wages. However, social conscience blossomed and deplorable factory conditions began to be challenged. Education of youth became an issue and in 1836, Connecticut passed a law requiring working children to attend school 3 months a year. By the late 1800’s States had passed over 1600 laws limiting or forbidding child labor. Unfortunately, many of these laws were ignored, or did not apply to everyone, such as immigrants.
Progressive Reforms and Labor Movements
By the early 1900s there was a growing belief that the federal government should protect children. Many women joined the fight for social reform and against children working in factories. Two ardent progressive activists were Mother Jones and Florence Kelley.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones became the voice of children after her husband and children died of yellow fever in 1867. She was one of the strongest campaigners for the countries first labor union, The Knights of Labor, and a champion for the poor worker. In 1903 she led a group of child workers on a march to President Theodore Roosevelt’s mansion. She wanted him to ban child labor but he refused to meet with them.
Many women joined the fight for social reform and fair treatment of children. Progressive activist Florence Kelley was a leader in the battle. She organized marches boycotts of goods produced with child labor and pressed the federal government to outlaw child labor. By 1913, all but 9 states had passed laws setting the minimum age of 14 for factory work.
Child Labor in the United States
Children have always been a source of cheap labor, and the United States is no exception. This article recounts the history of child labor in the United States, and the steps taken to fight against its practice.
A History of Child Labor in the United States
In the colonial period, child labor was commonplace. Children were expected to assist their parents and work on the family farm. Young boys (ages 10-14) later became apprentices in different trades.
The Industrial Revolution, however, marked a new level of intensity for young workers. Children spent all day in factories with poor and dangerous conditions. Their small size allowed them to climb in and out of old factory machines. In addition to factory work, some employers used children in mines. These young workers were preferred because they were easy to control and direct. Salaries for children were also much less than those for adult workers. The large influx of immigrants into the United States in the mid 1800s led to an additional increase in child labor.
The most common reason for child labor in the United States during the Industrial Revolution was to support the family. Instead of going to school, children went to work in factories. During the nineteenth century some attempts were made to reform child labor laws and improve general working conditions. Education reformers promoted the idea that getting a primary school education was necessary to achieve self-advancement and a stronger nation. As a result, a number of states began to implement minimum wage and school attendance laws. However, they contained many loopholes and were rarely enforced.
American reformers have been actively working to fight child labor in the United States since the early 1900s. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was established. Along with smaller state child labor committees, the national chapter adopted a policy of “mass political action”–research reports, investigations by experts, dramatic photographs depicting oppressed children in factories, active lobbying, pamphlets, mass mailings and leaflets. However, progress was slow and often frustrating.
Committees identified state legislatures as the best vehicle to achieve reform. During the Progressive Era, many state laws regulating child labor were passed. Due to resistance from the southern states, federal child labor bills were later passed through Congress in 1916 and 1918. However, the Supreme Court ruled that they were unconstitutional.
Reformers decided to lobby for an amendment that would permit the government to pass a federal child labor law. The proposed amendment was passed through Congress in 1924, but several states failed to ratify it because of the conservative political environment at the time. Once the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s, child labor nearly disappeared as all the jobs went to adults instead of children. The National Industrial Recovery Act further placed regulations on child labor, and the Fair Labor Standards Act set federal minimum wage and maximum work hours. Children under 16 were not permitted to work in the manufacturing and mining sectors.
Due to the advancements in factory technology and the increase in required years of schooling, the issue of child labor has become largely insignificant. Violations of child labor laws still occur today, but the United States has definitely come a long way – “one of the more remarkable changes in the social and economic life of the nation over the last two centuries.”
Child Labor Law Passed - History
During the early twentieth century, the criminal courts often intervened in local labor disputes. Cook County state&aposs attorneys used common and statute laws prohibiting conspiracy (technically, associated persons pursuing an unlawful end or accomplishing a lawful end by unlawful means) to prosecute strikers engaged in picketing and boycotting. Grand juries frequently charged unionists with conspiring to injure replacements and employers. In 1906 and 1907, the state twice prosecuted teamsters&apos union officials for conspiring to boycott the Montgomery Ward Company during a heated five-month strike. Though neither trial ended in conviction, both financially weakened the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) and discouraged labor militancy. Similar prosecutions continued to contain union power and labor militancy, with prosecutions haunting Chicago&aposs most prominent union officers between 1910 and 1940.
Employers also restrained strikers by obtaining court orders. Between 1900 and 1920, Cook County judge Jesse Holdom repeatedly enjoined union pickets, often without a full hearing. In the 1920s, federal judge James Wilkerson became labor&aposs nemesis, issuing broad injunctions during the 1922 railway shopmen&aposs strike. Judges enforced their orders by holding violators in contempt, sending labor leaders to jail without a jury trial. Though lawyers like Clarence Darrow had some success defending unionists in court, such injunctions profoundly hindered efforts at organizing manufacturing workers.
But Chicago government often supported unions, and labor organizations held significant power in city government. In 1897, the powerful Building Trades Council pressured the Chicago Board of Education to pass a provision (later voided in state court) requiring contractors to hire union craftsmen. Labor&aposs representatives on the Civil Service Board used their power to organize public employees, while unions of engineers, plumbers, teamsters, barbers, and moving picture operators obtained license laws that helped them govern their crafts. For example, the 1909 “Barber Shop Law” gave the Journeymen Barbers&apos Union effective control over who might legally cut hair in Chicago.
Because of labor&aposs political strength, Illinois was among the first states to adopt laws protecting workers. In 1903, an alliance of unions and reform groups obtained a law limiting child labor. In 1909, the legislature passed the Health, Safety, and Comfort Act, which greatly reduced industrial accidents. A weak workers&apos compensation law followed two years later. These successes were limited, and labor did not obtain statutes addressing unemployment, wages, or hours. However, in 1925, after much lobbying, labor unions finally gained a constitutionally valid state law limiting labor injunctions. Illinois law still prohibits state and county judges from enjoining workers engaged in peaceful picketing during a bona fide labor dispute.
Federal legislation during the Great Depression transformed industrial relations in Chicago, limiting judicial interference and encouraging unionization. The NorrisLaGuardia Act of 1932 prohibited federal injunctions, while the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) established the right to organize and founded a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to oversee union elections. This new legal environment enabled committees affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize operatives working in Chicago&aposs meat packing and steel plants.
Over time, federal law became less friendly to labor. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendment to the NLRA overturned Norris-LaGuardia and freed federal judges to enjoin unions. The law also outlawed tactics such as the secondary boycott and other “unfair labor practices.” Since the 1940s, judicial and administrative decisions have weakened federal support for unions. Some local commentators attribute the waning power of unions in Chicago to the vitiation of the NLRA.
Event and Its Context
Before industrialization, few people questioned child labor. Work was considered to be beneficial for all except those whose life circumstances had provided them with the means to have others work for them. Child laborers were central to the Industrial Revolution. Early textile mills employed children because mill owners found them to be both good workers and malleable employees. Yet not all child workers were malleable children were important to the early trade union movement as both activists and as rank-and-file members. In 1835 children in the textile mills of Paterson, New Jersey, struck for the 64-hour work-week. Regulation of child labor began in states where the textile industry was concentrated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island had all passed laws limiting the number of hours that children could work. The Knights of Labor made opposition to child labor part of its program in the 1870s.
Up until a certain point, however, the labor movement had ambivalent feelings about child labor. On the one hand, employment of children depressed wages for adult workers. On the other, given that the wages of adult workers were inadequate to feed a family, child labor was essential to the economy of most working-class families. The development of a family wage, at least in some economic sectors, was a necessary precondition for the labor movement to place strong emphasis on regulating child labor. Throughout the nineteenth century, employers worked their workers too hard for too little remuneration as they built the capital to expand their businesses. An 1891 study conducted by the Illinois Women's Alliance and the Chicago Trades Assembly told of thousands of children under age 14 working for the garment industry in tenement sweatshops. Children in this period also worked in agriculture, in stockyards and slaughter houses, in canning factories, in coal mines, and all manner of occupations, many of them dangerous.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as industrialization entered a new phase of escalating mass production, reformers outside the labor movement developed new arguments against child labor. Chief among these was a rising belief in childhood as a time when one was entitled to the protection of the state. Reformers such as Grace Abbot and Florence Kelley placed child labor at the center of their critique of industrialization. In settlement houses like Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago and Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement in New York, they studied the living and working conditions of the working class as they sought to change these conditions. In 1902 Wald and Kelley organized the New York Child Labor Committee, and in 1904 they helped found the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Like most Progressive Era reform efforts, the drive to restrict child labor focused on the state level more than the national level. This made sense because the states were generally more active in regulating industry.
As trade unionists and reformers sought increased state involvement in workplace regulation, business interests argued against it. The business community profited from the low wages it paid to children, but it also opposed state regulation more generally. Business sought support from a larger community that regarded children as the property of their parents. In this viewpoint, parents controlled a child's labor and had the right to put the child to work for the good of the family.
In 1904 with the formation of the NCLC, the movement's focus shifted to the national level. In 1912 the U.S. Children's Bureau was created, and in 1917 Grace Abbot became director of its child labor division. By 1914, 40 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia had enacted some sort of restriction on child labor. Yet, reformers recognized the limits of these gains. With disparate regulations in the various states, businesses could move to states with less regulation. Enforcement was inconsistent some states had no public agency charged with enforcement. Increasingly reformers came to advocate national legislation and enforcement by the federal government.
The first such effort came in 1906. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana proposed a law that would have prohibited interstate transportation of the products of any factory or mine that employed children under the age of 14. Beveridge's law never passed. In 1916 and 1919 reformers pushed Congress to pass child labor laws, each tackling the problem from a different angle. Both times, the Supreme Court found the laws unconstitutional. The 1916 law, patterned on Beveridge's law, regulated interstate commerce in the products of child labor. In Hammer v. Dagenhart, the Court found that this interfered with the states' rights to regulate conditions in manufacturing. The 1919 bill placed a 10 percent tax on the net profits of manufacturers that employed children under age 14. Once again, in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company, the Supreme Court found that the law unconstitutionally regulated local labor laws.
Designing a New Strategy
Following the Court's decision in 1922, efforts began in both houses of the federal legislature for an amendment to give Congress the power to regulate child labor. These efforts responded to pressure from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and reform groups. The NCLC resolved that there was "no opportunity to secure legislation regulating child labor by the federal authorities under the present Constitution." Samuel Gompers convened a conference on child labor at AFL headquarters in Washington. Organizations represented at the meeting included the U.S. Children's Bureau, the National Council on Jewish Women, the National Education Association, the National Federation of Teachers, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National League of Women Voters, the YWCA, the American Association of University Women, the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations. Gompers was chosen chairman. Florence Kelley of the National Consumer's League became vice chairman. The group formed the Permanent Conference for the Abolition of Child Labor and agreed that a constitutional amendment would be the best way to get around the Supreme Court's insistence that the Congress had no business regulating child labor.
A constitutional amendment certainly seemed feasible in the climate of the times. The constitution had already been amended four times since 1913. Constitutional amendments had been the strategy used by both women's suffragists and advocates of a national income tax to overrule Supreme Court decisions. The success of the battle for the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) had raised awareness of a constitutional amendment as a strategy for policy change. These factors, added to the victories that child labor reformers had enjoyed in getting states to pass regulatory legislation, led the reformers to have confidence in this new strategy.
An amendment also seemed the only workable solution to a problem that was growing in both size and intensity. A report made by the Children's Bureau in 1923 indicated that few states had reduced their regulation of child labor since the Supreme Court's decision in Bailey. Only 13 states had child labor legislation that met the standard of the federal statutes that had been voided by the Court decision. State labor officials themselves wished for federal legislation to set national standards for child labor regulation. More factories had moved to states with less regulation of child labor. Not coincidentally, these states also had less union organization and fewer worker safety regulations.
Once reformers reached a consensus that an amendment was the best strategy, they had only to agree on the wording of the amendment. A battle shaped up between the NCLC and the Permanent Conference. The former group wanted to be sure that the amendment did not interfere with the rights of states to have stricter child labor regulations than the federal government. The latter, which was a broader group, simply wanted to see the U.S. Congress gain the authority to regulate child labor.
Hearings on the amendment took place from 7 February to 8 March 1924. A strong opposition to the amendment emerged under the aegis of the NAM. It included forces that had opposed women's suffrage just a few years previously. On 26 April 1924 the House voted in favor of a resolution for an amendment by a vote of 297 to 69. On 2 June the Senate supported the resolution 61 to 23. The amendment had been the result of a compromise between the NCLC and Permanent Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was a permissive law, not a regulatory one it simply empowered Congress to regulate child labor. It was worded quite broadly to allow for a good deal of congressional discretion in the future. The word "child" was dismissed as too vague and replaced with "persons under 18 years of age." The term "labor" was used in preference to "employment" to ensure that children working in family businesses or alongside their parents could be regulated as well as those working for wages of their own.
The proposed amendment had two sections. The first stated simply, "The Congress shall have the power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under 18 years of age." The second clarified this power in terms of existing state regulations as follows: "The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress." Thus, the first section was as broad and simple as the Permanent Committee wanted, and the second addressed the issue raised by the NCLC. It clearly permitted states to regulate child labor more intensively than the federal government did.
The Campaign for the Amendment
There was great popular support for regulating child labor, and most politicians recognized it. The fact that this was an election year enabled the passage of the amendment. All three presidential candidates, Calvin Coolidge, John W. Davis, and Robert M. LaFollette, supported it. Six states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Montana, and Wisconsin) ratified the amendment initially. Then the ratifications slowed. There was a second wave of ratifications between 1933 and 1937, part of a general trend toward more active government in that period. Fourteen states ratified the amendment during this period, 11 of which had previously rejected it in at least one legislative house. This brought the total of ratifying states to 20, or 16 shy of the required 36.
Ratification followed a regional pattern. States in the Midwest and West ratified it only Arkansas and Kentucky did in the South. Both the Central region and the Northeast were very mixed. Neither New York nor Massachusetts ratified it, though both had strong traditions of Progressive reform. This suggests that in some states the issue of state's rights overrode the issue of child labor itself in the debate.
The intensity of the battle in New York was surprising given the state's willingness to regulate working conditions. In 1925 the New York Committee for Ratification of the Child Labor Amendment was formed by the Women's Trade Union League, Consumers' League, and the New York Child Labor Committee. Even with a strong movement pushing for ratification, reformers were unable to win a majority in the state legislature.
All across the country the amendment faced a well-organized opposition. That opposition could appeal to states' rights and the general opposition to government regulation that many Americans shared. Some argued that controlling child labor would destroy parental authority. In this view, an alliance between Congress, social workers, and rebellious adolescents threatened to destroy both local government and parental prerogatives.
Another center of opposition was in agriculture. Farmers invoked what one progressive journal sarcastically referred to as "the sacred right of the 17-year-old farmer boy to pick blueberries on the hill." In short, they argued that children's participation in agriculture was a traditional part of a traditional family business. The only problem with this argument was that most children working in agriculture were doing so as underpaid employees, not as family members.
The NAM formed a National Committee for the Rejection of the Twentieth Amendment to lobby against ratification. Their arguments included all of those mentioned above and placed a special emphasis on the issue of local government. "Local" was a codeword for different things in different regions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the South, it meant "segregated." In many regions it meant "anti-Prohibition." Invoking localism, parental authority, and traditional practices was a powerful formula during this time. NAM succeeded in blocking ratification in enough states to prevent the amendment from being approved. It would take the Great Depression to get the federal government to assume power over the issue 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.
Since 1900, there have been several efforts to regulate or eliminate child labor. One of the primary leaders in this effort was the National Child Labor Committee, which was organized in 1904. The National Child Labor Committee and various state child labor committees were gradualist in philosophy, preparing them to accept whatever was achievable even if it was not sufficient. They used flexible tactics and were resilient in the face of defeat and slow progress. Furthermore, these committees pioneered the usage of mass political action, including expert investigation, photography, pamphlets, leaflets, mass mailings, and lobbying. However, their success was dependent on the political climate of the nation overall, as well as developments that reduced the need or desire for 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.
Between 1902-1915, child labor committees emphasized reform through state legislatures and, as a result, many laws restricting child labor were passed. However, gaps remained, especially in the south. This led to a push for a federal child labor law, which Congress passed in 1916 and 1918, but the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Opponents of child labor then sought a constitution amendment to authorize federal child labor legislation. Congress passed the amendment in 1924, but many states failed to ratify this amendment due to the conservative 1920s political climate and opposition from some church groups and farm organizations that feared increased federal power.
The Great Depression catalyzed changes in political attitudes in the United States, especially surrounding child labor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to prevent extreme child labor, and almost all of the codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act significantly reduced child labor. The Public Contracts Act of 1936 required boys to be 16 and girls to be 18 to work in firms supplying goods under federal contract. The Beet Sugar Act required children to be 14 to work in cultivating and harvesting sugar beets and cane. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) set the minimum working age at 14 for employment outside of school hours and 16 during school hours. Furthermore, non-agricultural work in interstate commerce required a minimum age of 16 during school hours and 18 for positions designated as “hazardous” by the secretary of labor.
Overall, these laws were successful, not only to the generally widespread disapproval towards child labor, but also because many previously unemployed adults became employed once children were limited in the workforce.
University of Iowa Labor Center & Center for Human Rights. (2011). Child labor public education project. University of Iowa. Retrieved from https://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/
Yellowitz, I. (2009). Child labor. History. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/child-labor
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). The American era of child labor. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/child-welfarechild-labor/child-labor/
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