Skip to main content

Child Labor

Let us realize before it is too late that in this age of iron, of machine-tending, and of sub-divided labor, that we need, as never before, the untrammeled and inspired activity of youth. To cut it out from our national life, as we constantly do in regard to thousands of working children, is a most perilous undertaking and endangers the very industry to which they have been sacrificed. -- Jane Addams, Child Labor Legislation: A Requisite for Industrial Efficiency," May 1905.

The advent of industrialization in the 19th century introduced new debates and conflicts over labor as conditions rapidly worsened for workers. By 1900 child labor in factories had become so commonplace that 18% of all American workers were under the age of 16. Employers preferred to hire children because they could fit in tight spaces and operate small machinery, but mostly because they could pay them lower wages. Children, many under seven years old, worked twelve-hour shifts for around a dollar a day. Factories were dangerous and children could easily be hurt, suffering permanent injuries, such as losing fingers or limbs, or disabling conditions such as tuberculosis. Poor families often had no choice but to send their children to work in order to make ends meet. Though some argued that child labor was good because it taught kids responsibility, in reality the children who worked did so at the expense of education and play.

Workers had little protection at the start of the 20th century. Advocates like Jane Addams and her Hull-House associates worked to provide them with the protection they needed. Living at Hull-House, among the immigrant poor, Addams saw first-hand the conditions under which women and children lived and worked, and worked to improve their lives through regulation. Working first from the neighborhood to improve conditions, Addams was soon operating on a national stage. Working with the National Child Labor Committee to draft state and federal laws, Addams and other reformers began creating a safety net for workers in America.

Addams believed that child labor laws had to be changed on municipal, county, state, and federal levels. When laws were passed, employers often found loopholes or bribed officials to look the other way. Addams' work to help establish the Children's Bureau provided research and resources that eventually shut down child labor. Addams battled with employers who fought efforts to restrict child labor. In Chicago in 1911, Addams debated those who wanted to exclude the theater from Illinois' child labor law. After a hard fought battle in the papers and in speaking halls, Addams succeeded in ensuring that actors were covered by the law.Theater owners were not the only supporter of child labor. Industrialists defended child labor by claiming that it made children into sturdier men. The National Association of Hosiery and Underwear argued that employers should be praised because they provided incomes for minors. Addams contested these and other issues, arguing that forcing children to work kept down family wages, stunted the chances for children to become successful adults, and weakened American society.

One of the ways that the National Child Labor Committee brought more attention to the horrors of child labor was by hiring photographer Lewis Hine to capture conditions. His powerful images of working American boys and girls in 1910-1912 brought outcry and helped to win over public opinion. In 1912, the National Child Labor Committee established the United States Children Bureau that researched child labor and worked to limit it. In 1916 Congress passed the short-lived Keating-Owens Act, which prohibited sale of goods from factories or companies that employed children under the age of fourteen through sixteen (dependant on nature of work) or if children under fourteen worked the night shift. Although it was deemed unconstitutional in 1917, work continued and in 1938 laws passed that prohibited the employment of minors, established a minimum wage, and introduced the 40-hour work week. Though the movement began with the goal of regulating children's working conditions, it helped better labor conditions for all workers.

Primary Sources:

  1. Jane Addams, Address to the Chicago Business Women's Club, April, 1902.
  2. Jane Addams, Child Labor and Pauperism, May 9, 1903.
  3. Chicago Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Houses, Newsboy Conditions in Chicago, 1903
  4. Jane Addams, Testimony Before the Sentate Judicial Committee on Child Labor (excerpt) April 13, 1905.
  5. Jane Addams, A National Children's Bureau and a National Investigation of the Labor of Women and Children, December 14, 1906
  6. Jane Addams, Testimony on Child Labor on the Stage, March 8, 1911 (excerpt)
  7. Jane Addams Chorus, The Song of the Child Slaves, ca. October 1912.
  8. Mike F. Matheny to Jane Addams, November 29, 1912.
  9. Paul Underwood Kellor to William Draper Lewis,April 9, 1913. 
  10. Tentative Recommenations Affecting Women in Industry, 1914.
  11. Employers are Defended, The Indianapolis News, May 14, 1914.
  12. Lauds Child Labor Employers, The Metal Polisher, Buffer, and Plater, June 1914, p. 55. 
  13. The Press and the Trade Union Bugaboo, American Industries, May 1913 pgs. 16-17. 

      Other Resources

      1. National Child Labor Committee Collection (photographs) (The Library of Congress)
      2. Child Labor (The Social Welfare History Project)

      Subject Searches

      People, organizations and events

      Photo credits

      (top) Lewis Hine, A raveler and a looper in Loudon Hosiery Mills, December 1910 (Library of Congress)