Child Labor and Other Dangers of Childhood, November 14, 1906

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Extemporaneous remarks made at the convention of the American Humane Association.

We who are engaged in the work of caring for children, and in the work of the Humane Society generally, are accustomed to see the dangers which menace child life -- a side which is concealed from the ordinary observer, and the study of the problem requires close attention and care which renders it a peculiarly difficult one to discuss briefly from any platform. It is very easy to see where the danger lies when it is back of us, and the farther back it is the easier it is to talk about it. Those who have looked into the history of a few generations back can see the dangers which beset our country at those times from religious differences and also from interstate wars, and now that those dangers have passed away they feel surprised that we are not ready to look at things as they do and accept their ideas. It is always difficult to see the moral dangers which threaten our generation, and to awaken the public interest in them sufficiently to accomplish their removal.

The great characteristics of this city at this moment are the industrial and commercial enterprise which has extended not alone in every part of our city but throughout the country, and to see capitalists and business men on every hand pushing forward great commercial enterprises and interests which benefit the community at large to a great extent, and yet to the careful observer it is quite likely that those very evils which threaten the future welfare of our country are attached to and largely brought about by those great commercial successes. That to my mind is one of the subjects which demands at our hands the most serious consideration, and calls for remedial measures, and the danger to which I refer is indicated by the subject on which I shall briefly address you: "Child Labor and other dangers of Childhood."

The whole problem of life is involved in that subject. It may be said that if a child is starving or neglected, society takes care of it and under the law it is the duty of the inspectors to investigate every case of that kind and relieve it, and in addition to that it is their duty to search around and find out such cases, and when such cases are discovered, it only needs to be brought to public notice to be remedied. But that is not the only or chief evil which threatens childhood in our city, and indeed in every city throughout this country. To my mind, much of the evil which threatens and surrounds childhood is due to the vast enterprises which are now being pushed forward with such vigor and are connected intimately with the industrial situation. I refer to the employment of children in industrial centers, in short, to child labor which we know exists to an alarming extent, and which it is the duty of every thinking man and woman to limit as far as possible, if it cannot be abolished. I think we all agree that the child is entitled to all the advantages of education in the public schools, and is entitled to the advantages which result from an opportunity to play and develop, and the doctors put more stress on the child's advantages to play, as being the very basis of a health development of the mind and body; and if we assume, as we must, that the child is entitled to those advantages, then we must admit that putting him or her to work prematurely deprives the child of those advantages which by right it is entitled to. [page 2] There is no need to discuss that proposition, for it is too self-evident to need discussion. If we want to go into child labor as England goes into it, then it is easy to say that children should be put to work at 12 years of age, at which age child labor is legal in England; that is, the child may work half a day and attend school half a day, if the parents consent to it, but with such a law it has been proven that the child has been deprived of the advantages to which it is entitled, and that its development, both mentally and physically, is impaired and undermined thereby. It has been found by repeated examinations and tests, that if a child who has been put to work thus early is measured and weighed and the result compared with that of children who go to school all day and are afforded the opportunities for play and development which is natural, the first child was an inch and a half shorter, weighed considerably less, and was stunted in other directions. Those are facts, and cannot be controverted.

I quite agree with what was said by a probation officer in this room that an examination of the children brought in by their officers in every instance disclosed that they were abnormal, due solely to their being deprived of the advantages which as children they are entitled to. In cases where they have had children who were brought in there, most of them were found to be abnormal from a medical standpoint, and it has been stated that sixty-three [percent] of the boys brought there are poorly nourished, and suffering from [malnutrition] and want of sleep. That is my experience, and the experience of every one who is engaged in this work. That applies to children who are compelled to go to work. They do not have their meals properly and do not have sufficient food to stand the physical strain, and the result is their minds and nerves become overstrained, and the next result is, many of them become at any early age mental and physical wrecks. 

We know one thing, too, that the requirements of the working man are that he shall be at his post early in the morning, and apply all his energies to his work during the day, and walk home soberly at night. All his working hours are required for his maintenance and that of his family, and his physical development enables him to do that. But that does not apply to a boy. There is one thing he will not do unless compelled to, and that is, work for his maintenance; but the very thing that is not demanded of him he will do the next moment, if opportunity is afforded him, and that is play, because that is his prerogative. Now, if we insist that the boy shall throw over all the natural tendencies of play, and the needs of his moral nature and his opportunity to go to school and receive mental and moral training, and yet expect him to walk along in moral paths, we are demanding of him that which he will not perform, and if he does it will be at the expense of his mental and physical development.

I remember in early years one of the mistakes we made in Hull House was in not having sufficient rooms at command to meet the wants of roomers, and particularly of those who were the victims of that pernicious system of child labor. I remember we had one little fellow there who had tried to support his mother and grandmother, and he got along very well and brought home to his mother his wages regularly and was the man of the house at twelve; and that continued for some years; but when he got to be eighteen he fell in with other boys, and exhibited a strange moral perversion, and finally became a tramp and threw the whole burden which he had carried for years on society. Why? Because we had put on him a man's burden when he was but twelve years of age. He was not old enough, had not the development physically, mentally and morally to assume the burden of life at that age and became a wreck at nineteen, whereas, if he had been kept at school and had had the advantages of natural development until the time he would naturally have quit school he would have taken to a man's duties the same as any one else.

Over and over again we take children and put them into a position where they have no opportunity for development, compel them to work and leave them to acquire an education as best they may, and the inevitable result is, we break them down mentally and physically; they lose [page 3] the mental vigor they would have acquired by play and education, and it is easy to understand that their mental standard is lowered at the same time.

Now it seems to me that this body, this society, deeply interested as it is in all humane measures, should take every possible step to remedy this evil and to remove the cause of it, and to look at it from every standpoint and see that humane laws are enacted where they are so much needed, for to my mind it is the most important question of the day.

I have told a story of a little child I once saw in a cotton mill who worked all night, although only five years old, and I spoke to the foreman of the mill about her. He said it was perfectly wonderful the way that child worked night after night, and spent her nights with other children in the same factory. This little child would walk around and join the threads on the cotton mill with little knots, and entered into the work fully with others who were there. When she was tired she would lie down in a corner on some rags and rest a little while, and her place would be temporarily filled by one of the other children. The foreman did not enter into the situation at first, but when we called his attention to it, he became very much alarmed when the matter was shown to him in its proper light; but we did not dare to express ourselves very emphatically, because we were there only by courtesy. He did not see what he had to do with it, but permitted her to lie down at night in a corner when she became tired. Of course he said he would not make a rule of doing that with the others, but it was what we said to him went home.

Now that same thing is occurring all about us, and people do not see it, and if they can only be made to do so, their human instincts will at once be brought into play to put a stop to those things. Philanthropists do not stop to consider that this child labor causes the child to grow into an old young man, and there is no excuse for it, and it is up to this society to make clear that the demands for child labor in those large commercial industries, and in this commercial generation shall cease, and it should apply itself to securing the enactment of laws which will abolish this child suffering.

Take the sister states in the United States, and we have here the worst possible child legislation, a very great deal worse than it is in England, because there the child cannot commence work until it is twelve years old; and, as a whole, the laws relating to child labor in the United States are worse than can be found anywhere in Europe. Why is it we are willing to shirk our duty to the children? It is largely because we have directed our philanthropy in another direction, but I repeat it is the duty of this humane society to actively work along the line of saving children from brutal treatment, notwithstanding it means a long and bitter fight; and in this connection I urge upon you the necessity of having careful examinations made of children who are put out of work, and note the results. I know there are many who think it is all right to put boys to work, because they have made themselves obnoxious to society by getting into mischief; but I unhesitatingly assert that if an examination were made into the cases of the worn-out men we see so often around us, it would be found that in the large number of instances their condition was the result of being put to work too young. We once made an examination of men who came to us in Chicago, who were completely worn out and prematurely old, most of whom were Americans, and it was surprising to find how many of them were under thirty-five years of age, and their condition was brought about by their having been put to work too young. They have become disgusted with the whole business, and we know that in our own cases if we liked certain dishes of food but were compelled to eat them all the time we would revolt at them, so these young-old men have revolted at those burdens which were prematurely placed upon them, and finally developed into tramps.

I would submit to this society the proposition that it will be doing the most valuable work it can engage in by addressing itself to this question of the premature labor of children which prevails in every large city, and it is one of the things which sooner or later must be taken up with vigor. At times, when I see things around me, I am so ashamed that I sometimes wonder if we are civilized. It is one of those things that will be laid up against us, and a hundred years hence people will ask if we could possibly have been civilized, and yet have permitted these things to continue. I do not favor idleness for children, but every child ought to have the advantage of industrial training, and it ought to have a chance for mental training, and to adjust its strength and development to the burdens it will have to bear.

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