Before Child Labor Laws - When Every Boy And Girl Had A Job

Updated on Sep 04, 2020. Originally added on Sep 20, 2017 by Kathy Pinna
You may be surprised to know that until the Great Depression, children were an important part of the work economy in the United States. In textile mills (where their small size was an asset), in coal mines, in canneries, and on farms (not just family farms), children performed many vital tasks. We were shocked to discover photos of these young workers and how hard and long they worked.

History of the Child Labor Law: In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (dedicated to abolishing child labor) was formed. This organization was successful in getting a national law passed and signed by President Wilson in 1916, but it was overturned by the Supreme Court. All efforts to protect children were blocked until the Great Depression, when adults needed the jobs that children had. In 1938, a law was passed protecting children in most industries - except farm labor. There is still no law covering agriculture and it is estimated that 500,000 children still work on farms (and they're not just children of farmers).

Before Child Labor Laws - When Every Boy And Girl Had A Job

A photo of barefoot boys in a mill. So dangerous!

Child Labor - Lewis Wickes Hine

This is a photo of a textile mill in 1873 New England. All that big machinery, and they're barefoot!

Little coal miners

Breaker Boys from Hughestown Borough Pennsylvania

These are "breaker boys" - boys who broke the coal from rock, by hand. Their faces are full of coal dust. They were usually 8 to 12 yrs old.

Messenger boys, 1916

Messenger's Strike

These messenger boys were on strike - and they really were just boys!


12 hr days - 5 yrs old

Maine child worker

This 5 yr old worked at a sardine factory up to 12 hrs a day.

Big smile, hard work

Roland the Newsboy

This boy has a great smile although his days were long and the pay was small. 1924

Handle with care

George Goodell

BIG knife! This boy (1911) is showing how he processes fish at a cannery.

That’s coal dust!

Pennsylvania Coal Company 1911

This 1911 photo isn't degraded - that's coal dust in the air. These boys were breaking coal off of mined rock.


Lost limb

National Child Labor Committee

This boy went to work as a breaker boy in a coal mine at 9. Looks like he lost a leg and then went to work inside.

Veteran workers, 1908

Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C.

The girl on the left is 10 and has been working at this mill for over a year - the girl on the right is 12.

Hosiery mill workers, 1913

Cherokee Hosiery Mill

Children often began working at this mill (and others nearby) about the age of 8.

Small fingers, small fish

1911 Fishing industry

This little boy (1911) is showing how he cut off his finger cutting sardines in a cannery.

Barely fits the chair

Georgia Mill Worker

This little mill worker isn't even big enough for her legs to touch the floor.

Doll legs makers

Campbell Kids Dolls

These children helped their moms make Campbell Kids doll legs, often until 10p. At least they got to work at home?

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