Child Labor Reform: An Introduction
In the late 1700′s and early 1800′s, power-driven machines began to replace hand labor for the making of most manufactured items. Factories began to spring up everywhere, first in England and then in the United States. The owners of these factories found a new source of labor to run their machines — children. Operating the power-driven machines did not require adult strength, and children could be hired more cheaply than adults. 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. American children worked in large numbers in mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers.
Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coalmines. By the mid-1800′s, child labor was a major problem. The widespread use of children in mines, manufacturing plants, street trades, and other occupations began to concern reformers. It was apparent child labor affected the health, education and morals of children. Church and labor groups, teachers, and many other people were outraged by such cruelty and they began to press for reforms.
Child Labor Reform: As early as the 1870s, reformers began efforts to enact legislation prohibiting certain types of child labor. For example, in 1876 the Working Men’s Party proposes banning the employment of children under the age of 14. In 1881 the first national convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) passes a resolution calling on states to ban children under 14 from all gainful employment. In 1883, Samuel Gompers led the New York labor movement to successfully sponsor legislation prohibiting cigar making in tenements, where thousands of young children worked in the trade.
The Census of 1890 showed that more than 1.5 million children between the ages of ten and fifteen years old were employed, nearly 20 percent of all children in that age group.
Given the overwhelming extent of child labor, it was only a matter of time until child labor became the top priority in the “progressive era” agenda. In 1901, Rev. Edgar Gardner Murphy founded the Child Labor Committee of Alabama, the first American organization of this kind. In New York City in 1902, Florence Kelley, a former resident of Hull House in Chicago, the chief factory inspector in Illinois, and the head of the National Consumers’ League joined with Lillian Wald the founder and head of Henry Street Settlement to influence the local Association of Neighborhood Workers to appoint a child labor committee to study the problem in New York. This resulted in the creation of an independent organization: New York Child Labor Committee. The membership included a distinguished roster of social reformers, among them: Mary Simkhovitch, Head of Greenwich House Settlement, Felix Adler, director of the Ethical Culture Society, Robert Hunter, Head Resident at University Settlement.
More information is available at The Child Labor Public Education Project of the University of Iowa Labor Center and Center for Human Rights: http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/