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Child Labor Laws Throughout History

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Through the 1930s, child labor was common in the United States. The Progressive Movement and the Fair Labor Standards Act brought new regulations. Today, child labor is strictly regulated. This lesson examines child labor laws throughout history.

The Industrial Revolution

When did you get your first job? You probably had your first summer job around the age of 16 or 18. However, in 1900, nearly one in every five full-time American workers was aged 16 or under.

Child labor used to be common in the United States. For many centuries, children were legally used as farm workers, servants and apprentices. The practice reached an all-time high during America's Industrial Revolution, which occurred between 1820 and 1870. During this time new technologies allowed improvements to industrial manufacturing and processing. New factories sprung up across the nation, and production of items such as cotton and clothing accelerated. More people moved into the cities to work in manufacturing plants, leaving fewer agricultural workers.

Child labor was common during the Industrial Revolution.
Child laborers

With no substantive child labor laws in place, factories regularly used workers as young as six years old. Children sometimes worked up to 18 hours a day and six days a week for little pay. Child laborers performed dangerous work, often crawling into tight machinery where only children's bodies or hands would fit. This general practice continued well into the twentieth century.

The Progressive Movement

By the late nineteenth century, some Americans began to protest the use of child labor. This was the beginning of the Progressive Movement when many people supported government reform. The 'Reformists' were mostly urban, middle-class citizens who wanted more regulation for big businesses and better protection for laborers. They felt child laborers, especially those of immigrant families, had been exploited. They fought for laws that would keep children in school and out of factories.

The National Child Labor Committee, a Reformist advocacy group, orchestrated a well-publicized campaign using pictures of children as young as eight working in factories. By 1910, several states had legislation setting minimum work ages. However, the new regulations were not uniform and were not strictly enforced.

It took a tragedy to bring national attention to the labor issue. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 145 New York sweatshop workers - mostly young immigrant women. Most died as a result of neglected safety measures. The disaster brought widespread attention to the deplorable conditions in many factories and led to new regulations. New York enacted new workplace safety laws, set a 54-hour workweek for women, and prohibited children under the age of 14 from working. Many states enacted similar measures, but most southern states did not. In the south, child labor was still an important component to many industries, such as cotton and tobacco processing.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led some states to enact child labor restrictions.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Congress responded by enacting federal child labor laws in 1916 and 1918, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional. Even a proposed constitutional amendment failed. The states were left to regulate themselves.

The Great Depression and the FLSA

Though America saw some progress, it took the Great Depression of the 1930s to truly turn things around. After the sudden Stock Market Crash of 1929, unemployment rates soared. Adults needed all available jobs. The public put pressure on factory owners to employ willing adults rather than children.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to his first term during the Great Depression. He enacted New Deal legislation designed to help the nation's economy. Initially, many of the programs concentrated on banks and businesses. This included the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, of 1935. The NLRA strengthened and better protected the rights of laborers and unions when negotiating with employers.

After winning re-election in 1936, Roosevelt immediately turned to protecting the health and safety of America's laborers. The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, was New Deal legislation passed in 1938. Though the FLSA has been amended many times, it continues to be the main law governing child labor in the U.S.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the NLRA and FLSA into law as part of the New Deal.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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