Child Labor During the Industrial Era
It may be shocking to learn that before the 1900s in the United States, there were virtually no laws protecting children from the cruelties of child labor. As more Americans moved to the big cities and away from farms during the Industrial Revolution, adults were not the only ones who sought jobs in the big factories and coal mines.
At the turn of the century, children were mainly put to work because their families needed the money. Since wages tended to be low, more family members working meant more money coming into the household. Employers also had reasons for hiring child laborers over adult workers: children were small and could easily fit between machines and into tighter spaces.
They also did not have to pay children as much, so it was in a business owner’s interest to save money by hiring the cheaper labor provided by minors. Consequently, these children often did not go to school.
The conditions under which the child laborers worked were very dangerous.
Not only did they have to work long, grueling hours, they also faced threats posed by the high powered machinery. It was common for a child to lose a limb or a finger, as they did not have the most extensive training on how to properly work the machinery in their factory. Children who worked in coal mines experienced similar conditions: miners toiled away in spaces with poor ventilation and would frequently develop lung diseases. Sometimes, they were made to work around dangerous chemicals, which caused them to become sick from the toxic fumes. It was normal for a child to log between 12 and 14 hours of work at minimum.
Other jobs that children could hold included selling newspapers on the street and sweeping chimneys. In all cases, dangerous or not, children were paid tremendously low wages at a very high cost to their health and their education.
As word of the danger spread in the early 1900s, a handful of groups began to organize around protecting children and banning the use of child labor. The National Child Labor Committee, for instance, was one of the earliest examples of such a group. It was due to their efforts and the work of other anti-child labor organizations that the first laws were proposed and passed in the United States. However, the Supreme Court ruled that some of these laws were unconstitutional since they did not want Congress to have the power to control or stop interstate trade. The biggest piece of legislation in addressing child labor would not come until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which restricted the use of child laborers and forbade hiring minors for dangerous positions.
Today, most children are not put to work, as school has become their priority. While teenagers can certainly have part-time jobs, this system is now heavily regulated by the states and laws protect the well-being of minors who are employed.