Child Labor in the Gilded Age

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  • 0:03 A Gilded Age Childhood
  • 1:01 Labor in the Gilded Age
  • 2:01 Why Did Children Work?
  • 3:15 The End of the Gilded Age
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nowadays, child labor isn't something Americans support. However, we didn't always feel that way. In this lesson, we'll look at child labor during its peak in American society and see how that situation came to be.

A Gilded Age Childhood

You've probably heard of human rights - those things to which all human beings are inherently entitled. Well, did you know that one of those things is actually a right to a childhood? It's true - the right to a proper childhood is considered a human right, but it wasn't always this way.

Turn back the clock to the late 19th century, and we find ourselves in a very different world. America seemed to be doing really well. Industry was booming, there were millionaires rebuilding society, and the nation was growing. America seemed literally gilded, or covered in gold.

However, that gold coating was actually covering up some pretty serious economic, political, and social problems. Mark Twain called this period the Gilded Age because American prosperity was built on something much darker. In an era before we believed in a universal right to a childhood, children were just another part of the machine that was American industry.

Labor in the Gilded Age

Okay, let's back up just a little and talk about this time period. The term 'Gilded Age' refers to a cultural era in history, so it doesn't have firm start or end dates, but historians consider it to have lasted from roughly the 1870s to about 1900. After the end of the Civil War, America started rebuilding with a major focus on mechanized industrialization.

With new factories and technologies galore, money flowed into America, but it really only benefited those on the top. The workers became part of a machine, a tool used to generate product. Also, with the federal government taking a strict, hands-off policy towards the economy, called laissez-faire economics, big businesses were essentially left with no regulation.

In this era, monopolies were legal, bribing senators was an accepted practice, and competition was the morality of society. Laborers had no minimum wage, no federal insurance, and no guaranteed right to unionize. It was a tough time.

Why Did Children Work?

So, where do children come into this? Most working class men were paid very little, so they didn't have the option of a single-income home. In 1880, around 2 million women worked. By 1900, that number was over 8 million. These women worked basic, secretarial jobs with no chance for promotion and very little pay. So even with that income, the average family still couldn't afford to live.

This meant that little Susie and Timmy had to get jobs as well. The majority of working-class families relied on the income of their children nearly as much as that of the parents, and that income was not gained easily. Children as young as five and six were employed in dangerous factories making glass, steel, or processed chemicals, and worked up to 18 hour shifts.

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