Child Labor in America Throughout History

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Children struggling for 12 hours a day on their feet in hot crowded mills, or climbing down into dangerous dusty mines out West. These are images that have become rare in modern-day America, but were once common. It took reformers decades to get legislation passed at the state and national level to eliminate child labor. This lesson examines the history of child labor in the United States.

What is Child Labor

Child Labor is the practice of employing young children, often below the age of sixteen, in numerous industries. Although it had not been uncommon throughout human history to employ children as servants or to work on farms, the practice became even more common throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. This practice, although long lasting, quickly drew the attention of reformers who attempted to expose the frightful working conditions that many of America's poorest children were forced to labor in. Despite this, it wouldn't be until the Great Depression that significant legislation would be passed that would finally bring an end to the practice.

Mill Workers in Macon, GA
Mill Workers in Georgia

Child Labor in the early Republic

During the last decades of the 18th century, textile mills and linen mills began to be opened throughout the New England states. The mills were similar to those that were also being developed in Great Britain and were part of the Industrial Revolution. In New England, these mills often preferred to hire young, unmarried women as well as children. Children were sought-after employees because they were not required to be paid the same wages as either women or adult men. Also, children, being smaller, were able to crawl into the massive machines that powered the mills in order to clean them, sometimes while they were still running. In 1813, reformers in Connecticut were able to pass the first Child Labor law in the history of the United States. To modern eyes these reforms were weak; employers were only required to provide basic education and moral instruction to their child employees. Other states followed suit over the next several decades, with Pennsylvania, for example, setting the minimum age of factory workers at 12.

Child Labor in the Later 19th Century

Throughout the 19th century, child labor became more common, especially in the nation's growing industrial cities. Children were employed in numerous industries, including clothing manufacturing, chimney sweeping and meatpacking to name only a few. Meanwhile, in many western states, children found employment in mines as well as on many farms. Once again, children were prized employees because of their small size and their ability to work in cramped areas where many adults could not fit. Many of these children were the sons and daughters of poor immigrants who had arrived in the nation recently. They had numerous reasons to seek employment, usually to help support their families or to support themselves if they were orphans. Many labor unions during this era were virulently against child labor, not only because they felt it was immoral, but also because children were allowed to take jobs that might otherwise go to adult men. During this same era, the Populists and, later, the Democratic Party adopted planks calling for banning the employment of children below the age of 15 in factories.

Child Labor in the 20th Century

Despite these positive steps, by the turn of the century, 18 percent of the American workforce was below the age of 16. During the Progressive Era, many states passed laws to eliminate the use of children in factories. During this era, children sometimes took matters into their own hands; a series of Newsies (children who sold newspapers on the street corner) strikes occurred throughout the nation during this era as children unionized and fought for better working conditions.

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