America's Child Laborers

Kids who spent their childhood working at factories, post offices, textile mills and other places in the beginning of the 20th century.

From the beginning of industrialization in the United States, factory owners often hired young workers. They were working with their parents at textile mills, helping fix machinery at factories and reaching areas too small for an adult to work. For many families child labor was a way to keep hand to mouth.

In 1904, the first organization dedicated to the regulation of a child labor appeared. The National Child Labor Committee published tons of information about working conditions and contributed to a legislature of state-level laws on child labor. These laws described limitations for the age of children and imposed the system of compulsory education so that government could keep children at schools far away from the paid labor market until 12, 14 or 16 years.

The collection includes photographs from the Library of Congress that were made in the period from 1906 to 1942.

As the United States industrialized, factory owners hired young workers for a variety of tasks. Especially in textile mills, children were often hired together with their parents. Children had a special disposition to working in factories as their small statures were useful to fixing machinery and navigating the small areas that fully grown adults could not. Many families in mill towns depended on the children's labor to make enough money for necessities.

The National Child Labor Committee, an organization dedicated to the abolition of all child labor, was formed in 1904. By publishing information on the lives and working conditions of young workers, it helped to mobilize popular support for state-level child labor laws. These laws were often paired with compulsory education laws which were designed to keep children in school and out of the paid labor market until a specified age (usually 12, 14, or 16 years.)

In 1916, the NCLC and the National Consumers League successfully pressured the US Congress to pass the Keating–Owen Act, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. It was the first federal child labor law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law two years later in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), declaring that the law violated the Commerce Clause by regulating intrastate commerce. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that would authorize a national child labor law. This measure was blocked, and the bill was eventually dropped.

It took the Great Depression to end child labor nationwide; adults had become so desperate for jobs that they would work for the same wage as children. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, placed limits on many forms of child labor. However, The 1938 labor law giving protections to working children excludes agriculture. As a result, approximately 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of the food currently produced in the United States.