Child Labor Reform - Edison High School

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Child Labor Reform
Concern for the conditions of the poor gave way to a growing interest in the rights of the
working class. One of the most persistent causes of Progressive Era reformers was child
labor reform.
The 1890 census revealed that more than one million children, ten to fifteen years old,
worked in America. That number increased to two million by 1910. Industries employed
children as young as five or six to work as many as eighteen to twenty hours a day.
Physical ailments were common. Glassworks employees were
exposed to intense heat and heavy fumes. Young miners sat on
boards in cramped positions, breathing heavy dust, sifting
through coal. Seafood workers stood for hours shucking oysters
at five cents a pail. The sharp oyster shells sometimes cut their
Breaker Boys, Pennsylvania
Industrialization did not create child labor, but it did contribute
to the need for child labor reform. The replacement of skilled
artisans by machinery and the growth of factories and mills made child labor increasingly
profitable for businesses. Many employers preferred hiring children because they were
quick, easy to train, and were willing to work for lower wages.
Progressive Era reformers believed that child labor was detrimental to children and to
society. They believed that children should be protected from harmful environments so
that they would become healthy, productive adults. Their goals were to develop programs
that would eliminate children's participation in industry and increase their involvement in
education and extracurricular activities.
Child Labor Laws
While the reformers had an ally in President Theodore Roosevelt, politicians with ties to
industry voted against any long-term solutions to problems such as child labor.
The Keating-Owen Act passed in 1916 but was later declared unconstitutional on the
grounds that Congress could not regulate local labor conditions. The act, if passed, would
have freed children from child labor only in industries that engaged in interstate
In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson approved and signed into
law the "Tax on Employment of Child Labor." This placed a
ten percent tax on net profits of businesses that employed
children under age fourteen or made them work more than eight
hours a day, six days a week.
The Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional. Yet the
initial passage of the bills may have had some effect on
businesses, as the number of working children between ages ten
and fifteen declined by almost fifty percent between 1910 and
Boy Lost Arm Running
Saw in Box Factory
There was still a great deal of opposition to a national
amendment against child labor. Opponents labeled the proposed
amendment a communist idea that would control the nation's businesses.
The Smith-Hughes Act, passed in 1917, provided one million dollars to states that agreed
to improve their public schools by providing vocational education programs. The
National Child Labor Committee and other organizations believed that these programs
would offer children an alternative to work.
By 1929 every state had a provision banning children under fourteen from working.
Thirty-six states had laws that prohibited factory workers under sixteen from working at
night or for more than eight hours a day.
In February 1941 the Supreme Court overruled the 1918 decision against the KeatingOwen Act. As a result, businesses that shipped goods out of state had to abide by the
ruling that children could only work outside of school hours and that children under
eighteen were unable to work in jobs that were hazardous to their health.
Reading Questions
1. Why were children hired?
2. Why was employing children considered dangerous?
4. Why did parents allow their children to work?
5. How did progressives feel about child labor?