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Child Labor

Child labor presents an economic problem that is intertwined with the other problems of our communities. It is caused by sheer poverty, by the poverty of parents, by the ambition of parents and by the ignorance of parents as well as by the law of market which demands that a product be turned out a the least possible cost to sell at the highest possible price." -- Jane Addams, "Who is to Blame for Child Labor?," July 23, 1914

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, the 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. This was largely because children were able to fit in tight spaces and operate small machinery. Employers could pay children lower wages than an adult, which saved them money. Young children, many below the age of seven, worked twelve-hour shifts for only a dollar or less a day. Young workers were injured while working and some were killed. Many had visible injuries such as missing fingers or limbs, while others developed tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases from the conditions. The working class accepted these dangerous industrial jobs for their children because they needed the extra income to survive. Most child workers were from poor families, and many were immigrants. Some families even argued that child labor was ‘good’ for their kids, as it would teach them responsibility. But when children worked, they did so at the expense of education, limiting their chances to a better life.

Improving working conditions was one of Jane Addams' focuses at Hull-House. In those times there were few checks on what employers could do, and some employers made no effort to protect the safety of their workers. Addams wanted better workplace conditions, better compensation for labor, and protection for women and children workers. Living at Hull-House, Addams and the other residents got to know their immigrant neighbors, and once they understood that hard lives the poor lived, they worked to improve them in the workplace, the city streets, and in the home.Addams believed that child labor laws had to be changed on municipal, county, state, and federal levels. Laws, where they existed, were weak and full of loopholes or were not enforced. This is why Addams believed that the protection of child welfare should be directed at the federal level.

One example of the ways that child labor laws worked was the situation faced by child actors. Despite Illinois' 1903 Child Labor Law, efforts were made in 1911 to enact a bill to exempt child actors from the 1903 law. Addams and others fought these efforts, arguing that the late nights, lack of education and temptation towards dangerous behavior for stage children was not outweighed by the minimal stage experience they received. Addams was helped form the National Child Labor Committee, a national organization of activists who exposed the problem of child labor. One of the ways they brought more attention to the topic was by hiring photographer Lewis Hine to bring the horrific working conditions American boys and girls were subjected to to light. His photos sparked national outrage. In 1912, the National Child Labor Committee suceeded in lobbying for the establishment of the United States Children Bureau. Its mission was to improve the lives of children through research and reform. 

Although many strides were made to combat child labor, there were some pitfalls along the way. For instance, in 1916 Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act, which prohibited sales of goods from factories or companies that had children under the age of fourteen through sixteen (dependant on nature of work) working for them, or had anyone under the age of fourteen working during the hours of 7:00 PM to 6:00 AM. 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 was passed in 1938. The act prohibited the employment of minors, established a minimum wage, and introduced the 40-hour workweek presently used in the United States. 

Recommended primary sources:

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

Addams, Jane and Federation of Chicago Settlements, “Chicago Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Houses, "Newsboy Conditions in Chicago," 1903, Jane Addams Digital Edition, 1.

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 credits:

Top: Lewis Hine, "Breaker boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pa. Coal Co." Records of the National Child Labor Committee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. 

Bottom: Lewis Hine, "Group of newsies selling on capitol steps. Tony, 8 years old, Dan, 9 years old, Joseph, 10 years old, John, 11 years old. Washington, D.C." Records of the Children's Bureau, National Archives.