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The History of Child Labor During the American Industrial Revolution

by Jennifer Wagner
October 2002

Child labor, the practice of employing young children in factories and in other industries, was a widespread means of providing mass labor at little expense to employers during the American Industrial Revolution. The employers forced young workers into dangerous labor-intensive jobs that caused "severe and permanent physical, psychological, intellectual, and social damage" (Greene 10). The United States experienced a boom in child labor during the Industrial Revolution. The American Industrial Revolution, which was at its peak between the late 19th century and early 20th century, fostered the employment of children. By 1900 over two million children, mostly immigrant children under the age of sixteen, were employed. Many young immigrants to the United States lived in abject poverty in tenement houses located in urban areas. The immigrant children worked in inhumane conditions in textile mills, coalmines, flourmills, machine shops, garment factories, tobacco factories, shoe factories, and carpet plants, in order to provide a source of income for their families. In numerous industries children labored around unsafe machinery. Children labored for many hours, but received wages that were much lower than those received by adult laborers for comparable work. Each and every industry that emerged during the Industrial Revolution contributed to the impairment of the health and social well being of its young workers.

Coalmining was a prominent industry throughout eastern Pennsylvania, northern Maryland, and Wyoming. In 1885, legislation was passed in order to restrict the working age of miners. Breaker boys, who worked aboveground to sort slate, rocks, and other debris from the coal, were required to be at least twelve years of age. Underground miners were required to be at least fourteen years of age. Boys' parents often presented a fake birth certificate with an altered date of birth in order to have their children, who were often as young as five or six years of age, work in the mines. Breaker boys, the youngest of the miners, were subjected to large quantities of coal dust while they sat on the edges of trough-like chutes in order to handpick debris from the coal. Employers did not allow the breaker boys to wear gloves for fear that they would inhibit the agility of the boys' hands. If a boy were caught wearing gloves, the boss would beat him. A skin condition that miners termed "red tips" was brought about by prolonged contact with sulfur from the coal. Breaker boys' fingers often became cracked, bloody, and swollen from sorting. Breaker boys also suffered from chronic throat trouble and respiratory illnesses that were caused by inhaling coal dust. Aboveground machinery, particularly coal crushers, was dangerously loud. If a breaker boy worked long hours around the coal crusher he often suffered from hearing loss. After working for very long hours, as long as twelve hours a day, a breaker boy would become exhausted and careless around the machinery. Exhausted boys ran the risk of serious injury from the machinery. Fingers were often caught in coal conveyers, causing either severe maiming of the hand or the loss of fingers. Occasionally a boy fell into the coal crusher and was ground to pieces. Working conditions were significantly more dangerous in the underground mining operations. The daily chances of severe injury or death were much greater than aboveground. Poisonous gases, especially methane, which was released naturally by the process of coalmining, were always present underground. A buildup of methane and carbon monoxide usually led to an explosion that killed many of the miners. Mining tunnels often collapsed, either paralyzing or crushing the workers to death. Sometimes a young miner would be crushed to the ground so severely that his body would have to be scraped from the floor of the mine with a shovel. Underground fires, a precursor or aftermath of an explosion, would trap workers underground with no means of escape. Miners defecated in the mines due to lack of proper sanitation facilities. Rat infestation was a common problem that led to the spread of disease. Nippers, boys who opened doors for incoming mining cars filled with up to four tons of coal, were often run over and killed when they carelessly forgot to open the passageway in order to allow the car to continue through. Spraggers were boys who kept the mining cars in motion by using long sticks in order to keep the wheels turning. Many spraggers got an arm or a leg entangled in and cut off by the spokes of one of the wheels. Both aboveground or underground child miners attempted strikes in order to protest against the merciless working conditions. However, the strikes usually failed; employers would beat and whip the young workers until they reluctantly returned to work.

The machinery in textile mills was just as dangerous as the machinery in the mines. Spinner girls watched numerous rows of bobbins spin at a rapid pace. Their job was to tie threads together that had snapped on the bobbins. Spinners did this monotonous, menial task for as long as seventy hours each week. A spinner, who worked the night shift at a textile mill in North Carolina in the early 20th century, commented on her job; "My eyes hurt always from watching the threads at night. Sometimes the threads seem to be cutting into my eyes" (Saller 14). Doffer boys had the simple, mundane task of replacing empty bobbins. Both spinners and doffers ran the risk of loosing fingers or a hand in the machinery that rapidly spun the bobbins. Nerve strain and eyestrain were very common among young textile workers. Textile mills were located in close quarters with poor ventilation. The humid lint-filled air promoted the spread of bronchitis and tuberculosis among the workers.

Sweatshops were in-house garment factories that were located in tenement houses. They were poorly ventilated and were infested with vermin. Parents kept children home from school in order to perform tedious and repetitive tasks. Children finished seams, sewed pieces of garments such as shirtsleeves, or sewed on buttons. They handled poisonous glues and numerous chemicals that were frequently used in the garment industry. The rooms in which the children labored were locked in order to ensure that each laborer worked for his or her full ten to twelve hours each day. If there were a fire in the house, there was no means of escape; the children were trapped behind the locked doors.

Children labored on the city streets. Telegraph messengers, shoeshine boys, and newspaper delivery boys worked in the outdoors during all seasons. During the winter, exposure to extreme cold caused illness and death. Messengers and newspaper boys were on their feet for hours. Some boys had a paper route at five o'clock in the morning and another route at midnight. Standing on the concrete pavement for hours on end caused orthopedic defects. Other child laborers worked in canneries, shucking oysters with sharp knives, peeling shrimp, and peeling vegetables.

Reform of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was not an immediate success. It took several years and numerous attempts by Congress to pass a national law designed to improve working conditions and to raise the legal working age. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed. Lewis Hines, photographer for the NCLC, traveled throughout the United States from 1907 until 1918, filming and photographing children at work. His photographs were publicized in several newspapers. The public now had access to images from within the walls of factories and from the underground mines. The photographs poignantly expressed the terrible conditions in which America's children labored. The majority of the public desired reform, whereas the business community refused to acknowledge that child labor was a serious issue. After a great deal of protest from the NCLC, the first federal child labor law was passed in 1916. According to the 1916 law, only businesses involved in interstate commerce or foreign commerce were subject to abide by the raise in working age and the decrease in the number of hours that a child could work. In 1918, the Supreme Court declared the 1916 law unconstitutional. Once again, the business community was one step ahead of the public reformers. Finally after a long and frustrating legal struggle, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. "Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, children fourteen and fifteen years old were permitted to work, but only if their work did not interfere with their schooling or health. It prohibited anyone under eighteen from working in mining, manufacturing, logging, and other dangerous occupations. The law also had a minimum wage that applied equally to adults and children. The law limited the number of hours per day a child could work. Employers could no longer substitute a child worker for an adult" (Greene 68).

Child labor was a very serious social and economic issue in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. The concept of working children was so widespread that it became readily accepted by society. Intense and dangerous labor became a way of life for millions of children living in America. Lewis Hines used few words and extremely powerful images to educate the American public about the negative effects of child labor. Federal reform of child labor was brought about by the Fair Labor standards Act of 1938. It has proven to be the basis of other labor reforms throughout the past sixty-four years.


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