800px-Child_Labor_United_States_1908Child labor in the United States, 1908. Image Courtesy of the Preus Museum; Library of Congress; National Child Labor Committee Collection.


A Labor Day toast to the zealous women who led the fight to save children from textile mills, canneries, cigar factories, and coal mines.

This Labor Day, let’s salute the women who raised—and who continue to raise—their voices for change by crusading against child labor. For more than a century, the exploitation of children in factories was widespread. The 1900 census counted more than 1.7 million children under the age of 16 at work in the United States. Strikingly, over 18 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 were working (and this figure excludes those who worked less than half time).

These children worked in many settings: cigar factories, glass factories, textile mills, and canneries. Nine-and-ten-year old boys worked in mines as “breaker boys,” taking pieces of slate out of the coal for ten hours a day. Five- and six-year-olds worked in East Coast canneries processing seafood during high season. 

More than half of all child laborers worked in agriculture, many of them uncounted by the census. A 1935 study of families of sugar-beet workers found that 38 percent of their 12-year-olds and 22 percent of 11-year-olds were at work in the fields. Other children worked in home-based shops. Children as young as 4 years of age pulled basting threads from the cheap garments being sewed by their parents, or sorted beads, or pasted petals into artificial flowers. A reformer who visited the cigar factories observed hundreds of child workers between the ages of 10 and 12 and discovered that in the home tenement factories producing cheap cigars, the workday for children stretched to 14 or 16 hours.

And while Disney has celebrated the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York City with a fun musical, Newsies, the reality was much less entertaining—these were young, often homeless boys, living in shelters or the street and scraping by as they hawked papers from early morning until the late-night edition sold out.

The 20th century crusade to remove children from workplaces engaged many women and men. Among the leaders was Florence Kelley, who, with nurse Lillian Wald, founded the New York Child Labor Committee—the forerunner of a National Child Labor Committee, a group that led the fight against child labor across the nation. As reformers, muckraking journalists, and administrators of government agencies, they made the removal of children from the workplace a cornerstone of the Progressive movement.


The Eight-Hours-a-Day Law, Courtesy of Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley began her work in Chicago. Along with Alzina Stevens, she wrote an exposé of working conditions in Chicago sweatshops that led to the passage of an eight-hour law in Illinois in 1893.  Kelley became chief inspector of factories in Illinois from 1893 to 1897, with Stevens serving as an assistant factory inspector.  Reporting on child labor in a Chicago factory that, depending on the season, employed from 110 to 200 children, ages 4 to 12 years old, as well as 70 to100 adults, Kelley and Stevens wrote that “Previous to the passage of the factory law in 1893, it was the rule of this factory to work the children, for several weeks before the Christmas holidays, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m . . .” and since passage, “their working week has consisted of six days of eight hours each; a reduction of thirty-four hours a week.” As sensible as this limit seemed at the time, the Illinois Supreme Court struck it down in 1895 as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The courts would continue to hinder the efforts of reformers. In 1918, and again in 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal laws regulating goods produced by child workers.  Reformers responded by proposing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw child labor. It passed Congress, but did not meet the threshold of ratification by three-quarters of the states. Defeated again, activists were left to push for state laws, and for the enforcement of those laws. But these laws were not always effective. Poor parents desperate for income sometimes signed false statements attesting that their children were of school-leaving age so that the youngsters could get work. Employers eager for cheap labor looked the other way or actively encouraged lawbreaking. A woman who labored in Southern textile mills in the early 1930s recalled hiding from inspectors because she was under the legal work age of 12. She and other child wage earners endured the physical demands of work, the dangers from heavy machinery, exposure to hazardous substances, and a lifetime of limited opportunities due to a lack of education.

As Kelley, Stevens, and others learned, the fight for justice for children would be long and hard, with small victories and many setbacks.  Kelley proposed creating a federal agency for the welfare of children, and in 1912 her goal was realized with the creation of the United States Children’s Bureau. The bureau, the first federal government agency run by women, conducted investigations of child labor, and its leaders pushed for reforms including the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, the FLSA of 1938 established minimum wages, overtime pay, record-keeping, and youth employment standards. The Supreme Court reversed itself and upheld this law in the wake of President Roosevelt’s threat to pack the court with new justices. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the law of the land today—and has been amended many times. It is quite complex. Those under 14, for example, can deliver newspapers, babysit on a casual basis, act in film and television productions, and work in family businesses that are not on the list of hazardous occupations. There are special rules that apply to agricultural labor.  The law specifies what hours can be worked when school is and is not session, and it limits night work. There are other rules for 14- and 15- year olds. When the child reaches the age of 16, federal regulations no longer apply, with the exception of those concerning hazardous workplaces. There are also regulations regarding a special youth minimum wage.


Women Carrying On the Fight Today 

In the United States today, we worry about the unemployment of young adults who have completed their education. Around the globe, however, child labor remains a huge problem. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO)—a specialized agency within the United Nations—215 million children are at work today.  The ILO reports, “More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour, illicit activities including drug trafficking and prostitution, as well as involvement in armed conflict.”

Local, national, and international organizations of women and men are battling this abuse. The Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers Association, for example, is working to enforce laws against child trafficking and for child labor protections, with the ultimate goal of ending child labor.  The recent deadly factory fires exposed the fact that many working in the textile industry were underage. Women are also speaking out against cocoa produced by child slave laborers in the Ivory Coast and against cotton produced by child laborers in Uzbekistan. 

In 1899, Florence Kelley became the first General Secretary of the National Consumers League, located in New York City, and continued her fight against child labor.  The organization produced a “white list” of stores that followed fair labor practices. Today, national and international organizations produce similar lists, such as those for Valentine’s Day chocolates  made by internationally certified growers who do not employ or enslave child workers. The National Consumers League lives on, and Sally Greenberg, its executive director, serves as co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition.  Its mission includes urging the United States Congress to “act quickly to ratify and enforce all the International Labour Organization and United Nations Conventions that affect child labor.” Ending child labor remains both a local and a global fight engaging women raising their voices and working for change.  It is a crusade with a past and a future. 

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  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson September 10, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Excellent article on a topic I have not thought about in a long while, because child labor seemed only in 3rd world countries. Thanx for the brief history & kudos to Florence Kelly, a true pioneer!

  • Roz Warren September 2, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Thanks for this terrific and timely post. I hope I’m not the only reader who’ll be celebrating Labour Day but sharing it on Facebook.