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Child Labor before the Union and Muckrakers Stepped In

Article from Child Labor Public Education Project

  Child Labor Education Project

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  • Child Labor in U.S. History

    Breaker boys

    Breaker Boys

    Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co.

    Pittston, Pa.

    Photo: Lewis Hine

    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, because factory owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike. Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South. By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement. By then, American children worked in large numbers in mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers.

    Spinning room

    Spinning Room

    Cornell Mill

    Fall River, Mass.

    Photo: Lewis Hine

    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. 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.

    Child Labor Reform and the U.S. Labor Movement

    1832 New England unions condemn child labor
    The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen resolve that “Children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night, without any time for healthy recreation and mental culture,” for it “endangers their . . . well-being and health”
    Women's Trade Union League of New York

    Women’s Trade Union League of New York

    1836 Early trade unions propose state minimum age laws
    Union members at the National Trades’ Union Convention make the first formal, public proposal recommending that states establish minimum ages for factory work
    1836 First state child labor law
    Massachusetts requires children under 15 working in factories to attend school at least 3 months/year
    1842 States begin limiting children’s work days
    Massachusetts limits children’s work days to 10 hours; other states soon pass similar laws—but most of these laws are not consistently enforced
    1876 Labor movement urges minimum age law
    Working Men’s Party proposes banning the employment of children under the age of 14
    1881 Newly formed AFL supports state minimum age laws
    The first national convention of the American Federation of Labor passes a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment
    1883 New York unions win state reform
    Led by Samuel Gompers, the New York labor movement successfully sponsors legislation prohibiting cigar making in tenements, where thousands of young children work in the trade
    1892 Democrats adopt union recommendations
    Democratic Party adopts platform plank based on union recommendations to ban factory employment for children under 15
    National Child Labor Committee

    National Child Labor Committee

    1904 National Child Labor Committee forms
    Aggressive national campaign for federal child labor law reform begins
    1916 New federal law sanctions state violators
    First federal child labor law prohibits movement of goods across state lines if minimum age laws are violated (law in effect only until 1918, when it’s declared unconstitutional, then revised, passed, and declared unconstitutional again)
    1924 First attempt to gain federal regulation fails
    Congress passes a constitutional amendment giving the federal government authority to regulate child labor, but too few states ratify it and it never takes effect
    1936 Federal purchasing law passes
    Walsh-Healey Act states U.S. government will not purchase goods made by underage children
    1937 Second attempt to gain federal regulation fails
    Second attempt to ratify constitutional amendment giving federal government authority to regulate child labor falls just short of getting necessary votes
    1937 New federal law sanctions growers
    Sugar Act makes sugar beet growers ineligible for benefit payments if they violate state minimum age and hours of work standards
    1938 Federal regulation of child labor achieved in Fair Labor Standards Act
    For the first time, minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children are regulated by federal law

    Educational materials containing more information on Child Labor in U.S. History and Causes of Child Labor, including Workshop Materials—Core Workshop on Child Labor and K-12 Teachers’ Materials, are available through this web site. These materials include Power Point presentations, instructors’ manuals, activities, and handouts. You may adapt these materials to your group’s needs.


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    1. Pingback: Child Labor in India « Progressive Restoration

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