Each age, has, of course, its own temptations and above all its own peculiar industrial temptations. When we ask why it is that child labor has been given to us to discuss and to rectify, rather than to the people who lived before us, we need only to remember that for the first time in industrial history the labor of the little child has, in many industries, become as valuable as that of a man or woman. The old-fashioned weaver was obliged to possess skill and enough strength to pull his beam back and forth. With the invention of machinery the need of skill has been eliminated from many processes and, with the application of steam and electricity, strength has also been largely eliminated, so that a little child may tend the thread in a textile mill almost as well as, and, in some respects, better than a strong adult. This is true of so many industries that it has come about that we are tempted as never before to use the labor of little children and the temptation to exploit premature labor is peculiar to this industrial epoch.
What, then, are we going to do about it? How deeply are we concerned that this labor shall not result to the detriment of the child, and what excuses are we making to ourselves for thus prematurely using up the strength which really belongs to the next generation?
Of course it is always difficult to see the wrong in a familiar thing; it is almost a test of moral insight to be able to see that an affair of familiar intercourse and daily living may also be wrong. I have taken a Chicago street car on a night in December at ten o'clock, when dozens of little girls who have worked in the department stores all day are also boarding the cars. I know as many others do, that these children will not get into their beds much before midnight and that they will have to be up again early in the morning to go to their daily work. And yet I take my car almost placidly-–I am happy to say not quite placidly-–because I have seen it many times. Almost every day at six o'clock I see certain factories pouring out a stream of men and women and boys and girls. The boys and girls have a peculiar hue, a color so distinctive that anyone meeting them on the street, even on Sunday in their best clothes and mixed up with other children who go to school and play out of doors, can distinguish in an instant the children working in factories. There is also on their faces a something indescribable, a premature anxiety and sense of responsibility, which we should declare pathetic if we were not used to it.
How far are we responsible when we allow custom to blind our eyes to the [page 2] things that are wrong? In spite of our charities and corrections are we really so lacking in moral enterprise and vigor that the people who come after us may say: "The real temptation which came to them they did not even perceive; they talked about applied morality, and seemed to have good ideas; but they fell down before the one situation with which they ought to have grappled."
Let us count over the excuses we make for ourselves. There are many, but the sentimental excuse is perhaps the one we use most frequently of them all. It is said that the labor of these little children is needed for the support of widowed mothers. Some of us are sure that the widowed mother has been seriously overworked. In every community there can be only a certain number of widowed mothers unless some plague has carried off the men in the prime of life. Out of that number of widows, only another certain number will be absolutely impecunious; for if the community is prosperous some of the workingmen, by benefit societies and insurance, will have made some little provision for their families. Out of that certain number of impecunious widows only a few will have children between the ages of ten and fourteen, in which short space of time the temptation to the premature use of children's labor always lies.
In a certain manufacturing town it was discovered that 3,600 souls on the school census rolls were not to be found in the schools. We have a much larger number than that in Chicago; according to our school census we lose 11,000 between the first and second grades. In this particular manufacturing town it was suggested that the children be investigated and the number of those who were supporting widowed mothers be verified. Out of the 3,600 children it was found that 1,100 were legitimately out of the public schools; that they had moved out of the district, that they were ill, that they were attending private institutions, or that they were legally at work. That left 2,500 to be accounted for, and out of those it was found that exactly sixty-six were the children of widows. Out of the sixty-six only twenty-three were in any real way contributing to the support of their mothers. The other mothers had older children or other means of support so that only twenty-three were dependent on the wages of the children, wages which could only be supplementary at best. It is certainly a great deal better for the community, for the widows and for the children, that grown up vigorous people should take care of those twenty-three mothers for a few years until the children were able to work for a decent wages with which to support the family, having been saved from the breakdown which premature labor so often implies. Not to take care of our dependent contemporaries means that we do not stand up to the obligations which belong to our own time, but feel ourselves at liberty to use up the energy which belongs to the future.
Another argument used so constantly that it has received a name, is called the "self-made man" argument. Its adherents insist that all the successful business men of the present day went to work when they were very young; that merchants and manufacturers must start to work when they are babies. No account is taken of the enormous changes in commercial and industrial life which have occurred during the last thirty years. I once asked a successful Chicago merchant to tell me exactly what he did when he was twelve years old, and I found that he went to the country store early in the morning to take down the shutters and sweep the floor, that during the day he waited on customers most of whom he knew personally, that part of each day he delivered packages and stopped a moment for a friendly [cookie] or ginger-snap; that later he kept the books and accounts; that his employer sometimes took him with him when he went to a larger city to buy goods. In short that he had an almost ideal opportunity for learning the business methods of a rising merchant in a small town. Just the sort of education the business schools are trying to reproduce. When I asked him how nearly that corresponded to the training boys were getting in his own store, he admitted that the boys who carried cash from early morning until late afternoon had little sense of relation to the business and no real identification with its wider interests, certainly [page 3] no social tie with the customers. The whole thing was as unlike his experience as two childish experiences could be; one varied and educational, the other monotonous and deadening. A certain manufacturer, who went to work when he was ten and is now a Chicago millionaire, kindly gave me the outline of his boyish experiences. He began as a miner and learned the various manufacturing processes from the handling of the crude oil to the finished product, in much the same order as the most advanced schools reproduce in miniature. This experience was incomparably more valuable than that of the boy who tends a machine in his big factory. Indeed, nothing is more fallacious than an argument based upon a personal experience of thirty years ago. Since then an industrial revolution had taken place.
Another argument is the "idleness" argument; the theory that in repressing child labor idleness is encouraged. Certainly no one who is in touch with the new education could for a moment advocate idleness; he would on the contrary advocate work, but at the same time, however, he would insist that the work must have some educational value. There is little of this value in the subdivided labor which children perform in the factories. A child who remains year after year in a spinning-room gets little instruction-–merely a dull distaste for work. In a soap factory in Chicago, little girls wrap a bar of soap in two covers at the minimum rate of 3,000 bars a week and I assure you that they find little education in it, beyond a promptness in beginning and quitting when the bell rings. Their only ambition is to wrap as fast as possible in order to make as much money as possible. Their work is done only well enough to pass the foreman's inspection. The girl whose earnings are the largest at the end of the week is filled with pride, praiseworthy enough, perhaps, but we should scarcely call it an adequate educational motive.
Certainly these three well-used arguments are not satisfactory.
What connection do we find between child labor and pauperism? In the little book on American charities written by Dr. A. G. Warner--its superior has never been issued-–he takes statistics from various cities and gives three or four leading causes of pauperism. The first cause is non-employment. In almost every case, the men who first lose their places and are most quickly thrown out in an industrial crisis, who are the last to be taken on in times of industrial prosperity, men who are inefficient and not very strong, men who do not stand well in the trades and whom the foreman is glad to get rid of in any way, are those who have never had sufficient training, and who curiously lack strength and vigor. How far is child labor responsible for this class of paupers? We have a municipal lodging-house in Chicago largely filled with tramps. In addition to housing them, an intelligent effort is made to get them into regular industry. A physician in attendance makes a careful examination of each man who comes to the lodging-house, and last winter we tried to see what connection could be genuinely established between premature labor and worn-out men. It is surprising to find how many of them are tired to death of monotonous labor and begin to tramp in order to get away from it, as a business man goes to the woods because he is worn out with the stress of business life. This inordinate desire to get away from work seems to be connected with the fact that the men have started to work very early, before they had the physique to stand up to it, or the mental vigor with which to overcome its difficulties, or the moral stamina which makes a man stick to his work whether he likes it or not. But we cannot demand any of these things from a growing boy. They are all traits of the adult. A boy is naturally restless, his determination easily breaks down and he runs away. At least this seems to be true of many of the men who come to the lodging-house. I recall a man who had begun to work in a textile mill quite below the present legal age in New England, and who had worked hard for sixteen years. He told his tale with all simplicity and as he made a motion with his hand, he said, "I done that for sixteen years." I give the words as he gave them. "At last I was sick in bed for two or three days with a fever, and when I crawled out I made up my mind that I [page 4] would rather go to hell than to go back to that mill." Whether he considered Chicago an equivalent for that I do not know, but he certainly tramped to Chicago and has been tramping for four years. He does not steal. He works in the summer and wanders about the rest of the year getting something to do when he can, but the suggestion of a factory throws him into a panic and quickly causes him to disappear from the lodging-house. The physician has made a diagnosis of general debility. The man is not fit for steady work. He has been whipped in the battle of life and is spent prematurely because he began prematurely.
What does this mean? That the young cannot stand up to the grind of factory life, that they break down under it, and that we have no right to increase the list of paupers-–of those who must be cared for by the municipal and by state agencies because when they are still immature and undeveloped, they are subjected to a tremendous pressure.
Let us take another of Mr. Warner's classifications--his classification of illness. We know, of course, that the hospitals are beginning to look into this matter, and that they are able to trace certain diseases to the breakdown of the organs which were subjected to abnormal use before they were ready to bear it. I recall a tailor for whom the residents of Hull House tried to get medical assistance. He died at the age of thirty-three. His death certificate bore the record of premature senility owing to the fact that he had run a sewing-machine since he was nine years old. That many diseases may be traced to premature labor is no figment of the imagination.
There is no doubt that child labor also tends to pauperize the parents. We have in Chicago a great many European immigrants, people who have come from country life in the south of Italy or Bohemia, hoping that their children will have a better chance here than at home. In the old country these immigrants worked on farms which gave a very normal activity for a young boy or girl. When they come to Chicago they see no reason why their children should not go to work because they see no difference between the normal activity of their own youth and the grinding life to which they subject their children. It is difficult for a man who has grown up in outdoor life to adapt himself to the factory. You have the same experience in the South with the men who come to the textile towns from the little farms. They resent monotonous petty work and get away from it. The immigrants will in preference take more poorly paid work, care of horses or janitor service, work which has some similarity to that to which they have been accustomed. So the parents drop out, and the children making the adaption, remain, and you get the curious result of the head of the household being more or less dependent upon the earnings of the child. You will hear a child say "My mother can't say nothing to me. I pay the rent," or "I can do what I please, because I bring home the biggest wages." All this tends to break down the normal relation between parents and children. The Italian men who work on the railroads in the summer [find] it a great temptation to settle down in the winter upon the wages of their children. A young man from the south of Italy was mourning the death of his little girl of twelve. In his grief he said quite simply, "She was my oldest kid." (That is the English many of our friends learn first.) "In two years she could have supported me, and now I shall have to work five or six years longer until the next one (who was three or four years younger) can do it." He expected to retire permanently at thirty-four. That breaking down of the normal relation of parent and child and the tendency to pauperize the parent, is something that we have no right to subject him to. We ought to hold the parent up to the obligation which he would have fulfilled, had he remained in his early environment.
The pauperization of society itself, however, is the most serious charge. To paraphrase an illustration used by the Webbs, the factory says to the community, "You have educated the children in the public schools; now please give them to me. 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 [page 5] and hospitals." The community that allows that, allows itself to be most unfairly treated. What happens when an industry depends upon the labor of boys and girls? It takes those boys and girls at the time when they ought to be at school, when if they were the children of business men they would be having their most expensive education. Wages which are paid to these children are not the wages which the adult requires-–for even the old political economists required enough for subsistence and reproduction of kind–-but wages of merest subsistence, so that the boy and girl take home barely what they eat and wear. The manufacturer gives them nothing beyond the habits of promptness and obedience. In almost all factories the work at which the children are employed tends to no trade. By the time they are old enough to receive adult wages they are often sick of the whole business.
Such an industry is parasitic on the future of the community.
You all recall that, when the recruiting officers went into the factory regions of the north of England, they found the bulk of the people below the standard of stature required in the English army, they were found especially dwarfed in that part of the country where the third generation had been subjected to child labor. It is another indication that children may be handed over to the future in an abnormal condition, not only deprived of education but depleted physically and forced to enter the life of the community handicapped.
The gravest charge I have to bring against Child labor is that it pauperizes the consumers, all of those who use the product into which this labor has entered. If I wear a garment which has been made in a sweatshop or a garment for which the maker has not been paid a living wage, or a wage so small that his earnings had to be supplemented by the earnings of his wife and children, then I am in debt to the man who made my cloak. I am a pauper if I permit myself to accept charity from the poorest people in the community. All that can be said against the parasitic character of sweated industries can, with equal weight, be said against the parasitic character of industries dependent upon child labor, with this difference, that the latter, for the sake of momentary advantage, robs the future resources of the community.
We may claim, I think, a connection between child labor and pauperism not only for the child and his own family-– bringing on a premature old age and laying aside able-bodied men and women in the meridian of their years-–but, also, the grievous charge is true that it pauperizes the community itself. I should also add that it debauches our moral sentiment, it confuses our sense of value, so that we come to think that a bolt of cheap cotton is more to be prized than a child properly nourished, educated, and prepared to take his place in life.
Let us stand up to the obligations of our own age. Let us see to it that we do not discount the future and cripple the next generation because we were too indolent, I was going to say because we were too dull to see all that it involves when we use the labor of little children.