Child Labor in the US

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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“In 1908, a boy wakes up far before the sun rises and makes his way to work. He works at the spinning loom as a “doffer” to exchange bobbins on machines for twelve hours every day. At the end of the week, he is lucky to make $2.50 at best. This boy is only twelve years old, and he has been a doffer at the spinning loom since he reached the ripe old age of seven. Other children also appear at the loom as the day drags on, sweeping floors and cleaning windows for twenty cents each day.

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Children have always been a part of business. Before the rise of industrialization, family owned farms and small businesses relied on the children of the family for labor. This form of cottage industry meant that the work schedule was not extremely harsh or taxing. However, America would begin to revolutionize the definition of work in the 1700s that changed the way work was done. Mass production and big business began to grow in popularity with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Intimidating machines with complex parts and intricate designs paved the way for a new meaning of “work.” Jobs became more serious and controlled with longer work days, lower salaries, and a much more dangerous environment. Even though jobs now had an unspoken contract, child labor in America rose nonetheless.

This influx of child exploitation in the United States began in 1793, when Samuel Slater brought the first water-powered textile mill to America. The small factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island housed 72 spindles and nine children, all under the age of 12. The children lived and worked in the mill in what was called “mill villages.” When Slate’s mill became a huge success, the method of hiring entire families to live in the mill villages gained popularity. By 1830, half of the factory worker in theses

This number only further increased in the 1840s due to the influx of immigration from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. Irish immigrants were shoved into mill-owned villages soon after arrival to America, where the entire family worked for the factory. Mill owners would frequently visit the villages to make sure that all of the children did their part in order to live in the village, and for children who were discovered, eviction was often the consequence.

By the beginning of the Civil War, 750,000 children worked in factories. This number quickly grew to 1,116,000 by 1880. At this time in American history, one out of every six children worked in factories. By the time 1890 came around, the number of workers under 16 was 1,752,187, which equaled to roughly 6% of all workers (Robinson, pg.24). In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, tobacco factories often had so many child workers that they were regularly called “kindergartens.”

The work that the children were subjected to on a daily basis was treacherous and often life threatening. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, one half of the city’s children worked in mills, and 169 out of 1000 died each year. This was mainly due to the poor working conditions the children faced on the job. The children often got pneumonia and other lung diseases due to the crowded conditions and smog, and others were injured in a more sudden manner. Camella Teoli, for example, was 14 when she was working

in the Washington Mill as a spinner and was gravely injured by a spinning machine in 1912. Teoli’s hair got caught in a gear and her scalp was viciously torn off. She was sent to the hospital, where she received treatment for seven months. During those seven months, she never received any compensation for her injury. During that same year, on August 21, Giles Edmund Newsom in North Carolina received an equally traumatizing injury in a mill. When a piece of machinery fell on his foot, he fell onto a spinning machine, crushing his hand in between the unprotected gears. Two of his fingers were torn off in the heavy machinery, and the rest of his hand was also wounded. He was only eleven when this occurred (Rosenberg, pg. 29).

Many people argued against child labor (even before the Progressive Era rose in popularity). These people were often called “child savers.” The war between the child laborers and savers began in 1813, when Connecticut passed a law requiring the basic instruction for children factory workers. Massachusetts followed Connecticut in 1836 when a law was passed stating that “No child under the age of fifteen years shall be employed in any manufacturing establishment…unless such child shall have attended public or private day school… at least 3 months out of 12 months” (Mofford, pg. 10). This law was adopted by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania in 1850.

This was not the only law passed intended to increase the number of educated children. In 1852, Massachusetts enacted a similar law called the Compulsory School Attendance Law, which included “mandatory attendance for children between the ages of eight and fourteen for at least three months out of each year…” Of course, loopholes were endless. If the family qualified for poverty, then the children were not required to attend classes. Furthermore, the school committee did not hold the authority to enforce the law. Many businesses simply moved south, where laws against child labor did not yet exist. Other than promoting education, Connecticut also tried to compromise the excessive work hours the children often faced. Before any laws, many children were required to work over twelve hours a day. It wasn’t until 1842 that this was restricted to ten hours a day. After these laws were passed, child activism greatly slowed, and by 1881, only seven states had laws against hiring children under 12.

On April 27, 1875, Elbridge Thomas Gerry founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and in 1884, it drafted the Factory Bill for New York. This bill proposed the restriction of work for children 14 and under, and a 10-hor maximum work day for anyone under 21. Due to its radical approach, the proposal was quickly shot down. The NYSPCC quickly set out to revise this law, and in 1886, the New York Factory Act was published. This law prohibited children under 13 from working.

Despite this law, children continued to be hired illegally. “Proof papers,” forged permits which showed later birth dates, became a common occurrence.

After the creation of NYSPCC, other organizations began appearing for similar causes. In 1901, clergyman Edgar G. Murphy and members of the southern Textile Association created the Alabama Child Labor Committee, and in 1902, Florence Kelly and Lillian Wald introduced the New York Child Labor Committee. These two organizations met on April 25, 104 to form the National Child Labor Committee, and it was charted by the congress in 1907. The NCLC eventually became the most important society for children welfare in the nation as well as one of the biggest social welfare organizations (“National Child Labor Committee”). The NCLC hired Lewis Hine in 1907. A progressive photographer, Hine’s job was to capture the working conditions of the mills and mines with children and bring child labor to light. He journeyed from Maine to Texas, collecting more that 70,000 photographs in a span of six years. In the end, Hine travelled approximately 100,000 miles to take pictures of the unjust system (Burgan, pg.

Massive organizations were not the only resistance seen. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones organized the Children’s Crusade in 1903, a 100-mile march with children workers from Kensington through New Jersey to New York in order to confront the president on the conflict of underaged laborers. The march only consisted of a couple dozen children, and the three-week march ended with little success. Theodore Roosevelt turned down both the letters sent from Mother Jones asking for assistance and the children at the gate. Nonetheless, this event was important because it caught the eyes of the nation.

Hope appeared in 1912, when President William Howard Taft established the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency in the world to focus on improving the lives of children. After this agency was established, the protection of children from factory work and illegal labor soared. Between 1911 and 1913, 39 states passed child labor laws. President Woodrow Wilson signed the first federal law in 1916, called the Keating-Owen Act. This law denied the shipment of products from factories that hire children under 14 and materials from mines with children under 16. Even thought this law was labeled unconstitutional in 1918 by the United States Supreme Court, it was a great step in combatting child exploitation. The Child Labor Tax Law replaced the Keating-Owens act, placing a heavy tax on shipment in place of a restriction, yet it was also declared unconstitutional in 1922.

Finally, in 1933, the National Industrial Recover Act was passed, restricting workers under 16 during the school year, and workers under 18 in jobs that were deemed dangerous, such as mining and logging. In 193, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act: the first federal child labor provisions. This act was accepted in February 1941. The continued persistence against the conflict of child labor has led to the current position we are in.

Child labor still exists today. In West and Central Africa, 32% of children under 16 are still involved in labor. ”Over 100 million children still work in hazardous conditions in agriculture, mining, domestic labor, and other sectors,” says the Human rights Watch on modern child labor (“Child Labor”). Although there have been great strides in abolishing this unjust act, the conflict of child labor hits far closer to home than one might think. Over 500,000 children work on farms in the United States to this day, and many work a 72-hour work week. Furthermore, 100,000 of these children are injured every year as a result of the tedious work they are pushed to do and the harmful pesticides they encounter. Despite the fact that children make up 20% of farming fatalities, there are currently no laws against child labor in the agricultural field. The protection of our children is of upmost importance, and we must compromise the small promise of profit in order to protect the safety of our future generations (Aftunion).”

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Child Labor in the US. (2021, Jun 07). Retrieved from