National Child Labor Committee (NCLC): Founded April 25, 1904

Background: Forms of child labor, including indentured servitude and child slavery, have existed throughout American history. As industrialization moved workers from farms and home workshops into urban areas and factory work, children were often preferred, because factory owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike. Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South. By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement. By then, American children worked in large numbers in mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers.  The United States Census of 1890 showed that more than l.5 million children between the ages of ten and fifteen were employed, nearly 20 percent of all children in that age range.  Children were used extensively in the textile mills of the South as cheap labor.  These were virtually all white children.  In North Carolina, 75 percent of the spinners were under fourteen years of age.  By 1900 the Census showed that over 1.75 million children between the ages of ten and fifteen were working in gainful occupations.  As the nation grew, the evils of child labor increased.

Boy sweeper, wearing knickers, standing alongside carding machine in Lincoln Cotton Mills, Evansville, Indiana. Lewis Hine, photographer. Photographic print. 1908 Oct.. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-91451 (b&w film copy neg.)

Interior of Magnolia (Miss.) Cotton Mills and Spinning Room Photo by Lewis Hine

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of child laborers in the U.S. peaked. Child labor began to decline as the labor and reform movements grew and labor standards in general began improving, increasing the political power of working people and other social reformers to demand legislation regulating child labor. Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle class consumers, such as state Consumers’ Leagues and Working Women’s Societies. These organizations generated the National Consumers’ League in 1899 and the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, which shared goals of challenging child labor, including through anti-sweatshop campaigns and labeling programs. The National Child Labor Committee’s work to end child labor was combined with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children, and culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set federal standards for child labor.

Origin of the National Child Labor Committee: The first organizational efforts to establish a national child labor reform organization began in the South.  In Alabama, a clergyman, Edgar G. Murphy, began to denounce child labor in the late 1890s.  Advocating legislation to improve children’s working conditions, Murphy and his supporters faced great opposition, especially from the Southern Textile Association.  In 1901, they created the Alabama Child Labor Committee, the first of its kind in the United States.  In 1902, in New York, Florence Kelley, the head of the National Consumers League and a former resident of Hull-House, joined with Lillian Wald, the founder of Henry Street Settlement, to influence the Association of Neighborhood Workers to appoint a child labor committee to investigate the problem of child labor in New York. Others on this committee were Robert Hunter and Mary Simkhovitch.  In November 1902, this committee was organized as the New York Child Labor Committee.

At the 1903 meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections an entire section was devoted to: Destitute Children.  The presentations included:

Child Labor and Pauperism by JANE ADDAMS; Use and Abuse of Factory Inspection, by MRS. FLORENCE KELLEY; The Social and Medical Aspects of Child Labor, by FREDERICK L. HOFFMAN; The Sociological Work of the Cotton Mill Owners, by D. A. TOMPKINS; Humanity and Economics, With Special Reference to Child Labor, by REV. C. B. WILMER; and Child Labor as a National Problem with Especial Reference to the Southern States, by EDGAR GARDNER MURPHY, Chairman of the Alabama Committee on Child Welfare. In opening his presentation, Reverend Murphy said: “I must begin what I shall try to say to you this evening, with a disclaimer and an explanation. As my disclaimer I would say that I use the word “national” in no political or federal sense. The conditions of industry vary so greatly and so decisively from state to state and from locality to locality that the enactment of a federal child labor law, applicable to all conditions and under all circumstances, would be inadequate if not unfortunate. As my explanation, I would say that I use the word “national” in that geographical sense in which we must all declare, and with all emphasis, that the problem of child labor is a national problem….”

Later in the presentation Rev. Murphy set out some of the sources of business opposition to reforming child labor:

“….The movement for the prohibition of the labor, in factories, of our children under twelve, has also been opposed by what I have regarded as a mistaken commercial prejudice. A few representatives of our “business interests,” under the leadership of some of the narrower trade journals of the south, have disputed the wisdom of protective legislation. Such opposition was inevitable. It has made plausible appeals to familiar forces. “Business” is everywhere a word of mighty omen. It is altogether natural that it should be so. At the south, especially, we have come to look with peculiar appreciation upon those practical and material forces which have wrought the rehabilitation of the land. After the desolation of war, and after the more bitter desolation of the period which followed war, it is inevitable that the question of bread-winning should have become with many of our people a question of absorbing and paramount importance. “Prosperity,” commercial and industrial “prosperity” has been a name of mystic and constraining force. To invite “prosperity” has been a form of patriotism. To alienate “prosperity” has seemed almost like apostasy. When, therefore, we offered the proposals of protective legislation for the children we were met with protests. We were greeted with indignant questions. “Do you not see that this legislation will touch the cotton factories?” “Do you not know that the cotton factories are the agents of prosperity?” “Do you want to compromise or to arrest the prosperity of the south?” “Do you not know that this child-labor law is an attack upon business?…”

Reverent Murphy’s presentation about the problems of child labor was focused almost entirely on cotton and cotton mills and their importance to the South.  He concluded with this thought:

“….If the cotton, the crude material of our textile industries, is peculiarly the south’s, so the human factors of our industry are also ours. The children of the northern mills — as Miss (Jane) Addams could inform you — are largely the children of the foreigner. If the northern states can legislate to protect the children of the foreigner, surely we can legislate to protect the children of the south. I speak not in jealousy of the foreigner — God forbid — but I dare not speak in forgetfulness of our own, of the children of’ these humbler people of our southern soil — a people native to our section and our interests, of our own race and blood, slowly preparing for their share in the advancing largeness of our life, and worthy, through their children of today, to constitute an ever increasing factor in the broader and happier citizenship of our future years. They are called a “poor” white people; but, from that knowledge of them which has come through a long experience of affectionate and familiar contact, I can say that their poverty is not the essential poverty of inward resources but rather the temporary and incidental poverty of unfortunate conditions….”

Following the 1903 meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy made contact with the leadership of the New York Child Labor Committee and together they began to plan the formation of a “national” organization on child labor reform. Invitations were extended to child labor reform advocates and interested people around the nation inviting them to a meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 15, 1904.

On April 25, 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formally organized. The leaders of the NCLC included major figures in social welfare: Among the fifteen members of the board of directors were: Felix Adler, Paul Warburg, Jacob Schiff, Florence Kelley, Robert de Forest, Edward Devine, Homer Folks, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Graham Taylor and Benjamin Lindsey. The leaders of the NCLC  represented the major figures in social welfare at the time.  The NCLC evolved not only as the largest and most important national child welfare societies, but also as one of the major twentieth-century social welfare organizations.

From the very beginning the NCLC carried out systematic investigations in order to learn and document the extent and characteristics of child labor in the different industries and states. At the same time, they studied the existing laws and statutes and identified a “Uniform” child labor law. Needless to say, none of the existing statutes achieved the standards of regulation and enforcement the NCLC considered minimum. It was then that the NCLC activities turned into a fight for more and better state legislation.

In 1907 the NCLC was chartered by an Act of Congress, and immediately began to garner support and move towards action and advocacy. One of the first steps took place in early 1908 with the hiring of Lewis Wickes Hine, a tailor’s son from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Hine was at the time a budding anthropologist and photographer who left his teaching profession to work full-time as an investigator for the NCLC. In his work for the NCLC, Hine prepared a number of the reports and took some of the most powerful images in the history of documentary photography. His photographs would significantly help awaken the consciousness of the nation, and change the reality of life for millions of impoverished, undereducated children.  In 1909, the NCLC claimed twenty-seven state and local committees and more than five thousand members.

When the Supreme Court ruled that federal legislation banning child labor was unconstitutional the NCLC turned its focus to the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and to continued strengthening of state laws from coast to coast in the 1920s.

Note (1): The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) continues to operate from an office in New York City. More information can be obtained at: http://www.nationalchildlabor.org/

Note (2): For more of the presentations by Jane Addams and Edgar Murphy, go to: Child Labor Reform — Views of Jane Addams and Rev. Edgar Murphy 1903.

Sources: The complete presentations by Miss Jane Addams and Rev. Edgar Murphy can be found in the “National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line” for the year 1903. The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The website for this resource is: http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/ncosw/

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America. Edited by Walter I. Trattner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Child Labor Public Education Project: www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html

 

 

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