Child Labor in the 1900s

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about child labor in the early 1900s. We will identify the conditions under which children worked and highlight key themes and developments.

Children Today vs. Children in 1900

Sometimes, we take for granted the benefits of modern Western society. For example, children today have it so much better than children did a hundred years ago. Children today have ample time to play. They go to parks with their parents; they play in their rooms with toys; they ride their bikes with friends and siblings; they attend school and learn all kinds of cool things. Sure, school can be challenging sometimes, and sure, they may have to clean their rooms and do a few chores here and there, but overall, children have it pretty good.

This was not the case during the Industrial Revolution and even afterwards. In the early 1900s, children frequently worked in factories. Some children as young as 5 or 6 worked. Many children worked long shifts, sometimes up to 12 hours. They worked under horrible conditions: dangerous fumes, poisonous gases and chemicals, and deadly mechanized equipment. It was not uncommon in the early 20th century to see children with missing limbs: their limbs had been lost working with factory machines. The bottom line here is that child labor was not pretty. Let's dig deeper and learn more about child labor in the early 1900s.

A young girl at work in a cotton mill, circa 1912.

Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution

Let's explore some context very quickly. Child labor was the direct product of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain around the 1750s and took place throughout the next 100 years or so. It spread to the United States where it peaked over the first half of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was characterized by rapid advances in steam power, iron production, machine tooling, and other industrial technologies. This revolution led to the rise of large factories. Factories were eager to employ women and children because they were willing to work for cheap wages. This was true on both sides of the Atlantic. As time went by, a culture of child labor developed and characterized much of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the 20th century, child labor peaked (particularly in the United States).

Child Labor in Early 20th Century America

Great Britain took a more progressive approach to cracking down on child labor. As a result, it was dealt with earlier. The United States was a different story. By 1900, child labor was more predominant in the American South than in the North. It is believed some 1.7 million children under the age were employed as laborers. The North was more progressive, and had passed stricter laws regulating child labor. Because of this, many factories moved to the South. Children were commonly employed in textile factories, coal mines, glass factories, canneries, and many other types of work environments. Small children were particularly valued because they could fit into small spaces that adults could not. For example, children were used to crawl into tight spaces in coal minces and to get in between large machines in factories. Again, it goes without saying that is was very dangerous.

Child coal-miners in 1912.

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