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).

Vaudeville Family

Capps family

In 1917 vaudeville, the whole family, even infants, worked. Those were long days on the stage, often on the road.

Age 13, 7 days a week

Edgar Kitchen, Child Labor 1916 Kentucky

This boy worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, and earned $3.25/wk at a dairy farm.

At least they had shoes!

Friedman Shelby Shoe Company

6:30am and they're at work. But they have shoes - they work at a shoe factory.


Just plain weird!

Composite photograph of child laborers

A 1913 composite photo of children who worked in a cotton mill. Photographic magic without Photoshop!

Family affair

Campbell Kid Doll's Clothes

Remember Campbell Kid dolls? This mother and sons made their clothes.

Cranberry bog!

New Jersey child labor

This boy (in 1938) wasn't helped by the Child Labor law - agriculture was (and is) exempt.

1909 protest

Protest against child labor

These two girls (one with a banner in English, one in Yiddish) are protesting child labor at a May Day parade.


Going to work in the dark

National Child Labor Committee

These children are going to work at 6p and will return home at 6a - working the night through.

Getting paid to go to school

Child Labor Scholarship

This young girl is receiving her weekly stipend to attend school - given by the New York Child Labor Committee.

1912 spinner

Cora Watts, Spinner in the Mill

This little girl looks well dressed - she's a spinner at the Aragon Mill.

15 yr old corset maker

Marie Vancanvenberg

This teen isn't in school or out with her friends, she's making corsets. 1917

Not playing stickball!

Joseph Adams & Richard Fitzgerald 1911 Massachusetts

These boys worked at the Eclipse Mills in 1911.

It is fundamentally wrong!

Exhibit panel  - National Child Labor Committee

This is a poster from the National Child Labor Committee stating that child labor is wrong.

Have photos that you'd like to see included? Share your photos or see more photos of children who worked - as "newsboys" - on the next page.
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