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Child Labor

To paraphrase an illustration used by the Webbs, the factories say to the community; you have educated the children in the public schools, now please give them to me for my factory. I will use them until they begin to demand an adult's wages and then I will turn them out again. If I have broken them down, the community will take care of them in the poorhouse and hospitals. The community which allows this allows itself to be most unfairly treated. Child Labor And Pauperism, May 9, 1903

The advent of industrialization in the early to mid 1800's introduced brand new conflicts in regards to the labor force. When industrialization began in the United States, labor conditions were dangerous and low-paying. Child labor became so commonplace that in 1900, 18% of all American workers were under the age of 16. Part of this was because children were able to fit in tight spaces and operate small machinery. Employers also were keen to pay the lowest wages possible, and they could pay a child less than an adult. Young children, many below the age of seven, would work twelve hour shifts for usually a dollar or less a day. These children were often injured or maimed in the factories. Many suffered from permanent injuries, losing fingers or limbs. Working class men, women and children had little choice but to accept these dangerous industrial jobs. In some cases, adults were unable to find work, and poor and immigrant families needed the income from child workers to survive. Some adults argued that child labor was 'good' for their kids, because they thought it would teach them responsibility, but in reality, children who worked did so at the expense of an education that might lift them out of factory work.

The rise of labor activism in the Progressive Era was a reaction to the worsening working conditions. In creating Hull-House, Addams and the other residents lived and worked among the poor and gained a better understanding of the challenges they faced. Addams fought for better labor conditions for all adults, and protection for women and children in the factories or doing piecework. Addams recognized that though children had always worked, the nature of the work had changed from agricultural work, which while physically hard, was usually in a healthful environment and had natural rhythms and pace, to factory work, which was dangerous, speeded up, and in unsanitary and unhealthful conditions. She believed that child labor laws had to be changed. The laws that did exist had exploitable loopholes, were not enforced, or were too lenient. One example, was in 1911 when theater managers sought an exemption from the law for child actors. They argued that stage work was artistic and creative and served as an apprenticeship, but Addams demonstrated that child actors were uneducated, worked late hours in immoral conditions, and that they were not taught the trade, just replaced by a smaller child when they grew too old. She argued that this lack of education and opportunity was exploitative and no different than the exploitation of the factory.

Addams wanted to establish a federal bureau to protect the needs of children. She woprked with the National Child Labor Committee, a group of activists, judges, and city officials who exposed the problem of child labor to a national audience. One of the ways they brought more attention to the topic was by hiring photographer Lewis Hine to really capture the horrific working conditions in which boys and girls toiled. In 1912, President Taft established the United States Children Bureau, an agency that gathered information, and advocated for the rights of children, including limiting child labor.  In 1916 Congress passed the tough Keating-Owens Act, which prohibited the sale of goods from factories or companies that employed children under the age of fourteen. Although this was a win for child labor reformists, it was deemed unconstitutional just a year later. Despite years of setbacks, the Fair Labor Standards Act finally passed in 1938, a law that prohibited the employment of minors, established a minimum wage, and introduced the 40-hour work week structure that is still in place.

Recommended primary sources:

Addams, Jane, "Child Labor and Pauperism, May 9, 1903," Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane, "Child Labor Legislation: A Requisite for Industrial Efficiency, May 1905," Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane, "Testimony Before State Judicial Committee on Child Labor," April 13, 1905 (excerpts), Jane Addams Digital Edition.>

Additional resources:

National Child Labor Committee Collection

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

National Child Labor Committee - Social Welfare History Project

Bureau of Labor Statistics- History of child labor in the United States—part 1: little children working

Suggested subjects:

Addams, Jane, and child labor

Addams, Jane, and the labor movement

Addams, Jane, views on labor

child labor

child protection laws

child welfare

labor movement

People associated with the issue of child labor

Organizations associated with the issue of child labor

Events associated with the issue of child labor

Photo credit

Lewis Hine, 9 p.m. in an Indiana Glass Works, 1912, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress.