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The History of Child Labor

When children supported their families and were a part of the workplace economy. Read more >>

Throughout history, children have been a source of labor for societies - mainly as servants, helping out on the family farm, or as apprentices. But the Industrial Revolution changed the situation of children dramatically - their apprenticeships became jobs: dirty, low paying and often hazardous jobs. By the year 1900, more than 18% of the labor force in the United States was comprised of children.

Until 1938, there were no child labor (or child education) laws in the United States. Previously in the 19th and early 20th century - especially in low income families - children worked to help out the family financially. But after the Great Depression, adults needed the jobs that children had been doing. Although the National Child Labor Committee was organized in 1904, it wasn't until 1938 and the effects of the Depression on the economy that actual changes were enacted. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibited the employment of children under age 16 in manufacturing and mining. And in 1949, the law was amended to also include commercial agriculture, transportation, communications, and public utilities.

Changes in industrial practices - and equipment - also led to the need for employees who had more education. And so states begin to set a minimum requirement age for children to attend school. Gradually, children spent their childhood in school, rather than in factories. But thanks to the invention of photography, we still have pictures of the poor children who endured the long hours and dirty conditions of childhood labor. << Read less
This photo was taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, a professional photographer, who did a series focused on child labor. Mr. Hine utilized his camera for social reform, and was particularly instrumental in changing child labor laws. This image shows two very young children working a textile mill in New England, 1873. Other Lewis Hine photography collections include steel-making machinery and workers, American Red Cross relief in Europe during WWI, the construction of the Empire State Building, and the Great Depression. Lewis W. Hine was born on September 27th 1874 in Oshkosh Wisconsin and died on November 3rd, 1940.
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Lewis Wickes Hine
Born: Sep 27, 1874
A photo of 3 "leaf-boys" 9, 9, and 11 years old on a tobacco farm.
A photo of the interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in the foreground are 8, 9, and 10 years old. The 10 yr. old makes 50 cents a day. 12 workers on this farm are 8 to 14 years old, and about 15 are over 15 yrs. Location: Hazardville, Connecticut. / L.W. Hine.
George Goodell, and butcher knife used by many children in fishing canneries. Location: Eastport, Maine.
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Breaker boys were coal-miners whose roles were to break the coal away from mined rock by hand, often utilizing coal breakers. Breaker boys were primarily children, (although some elderly miners who could no longer work in the mines would join the breaker boys) that ranged between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. Child laborers played a critical role in the early days of the mining industry in the United States. From approximately 1866 through the early 1900's breaker boys were responsible for manually removing the impurities from rocks to isolate coal - often utilizing sharp and extremely dangerous machinery that resulted in amputations, illnesses (such as black lung disease) and death. In 1885 Pennsylvania was one of the first states to forbid the employment of anyone under the age of 12 from working in a mine as a coal breaker. This decision and the public attention the new law received, would ultimately aid to the creation of the United States Child Labor Laws. This particular photo of breaker boy miners was taken in 1911 in Hughestown Borough Pennsylvania.
Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, with many children posed on sidewalk (Textile mill strike)
National Child Labor Committee. No. 191. Frank, a Miner Boy, going home. About 14 years old: has worked in the mine helping father pick and load for three years: was in hospital one year, when leg had been crushed by coal car.
A photo of a boy - Child labor - in the onion field, Delta County, Colorado
Patsy, eight year old newsboy, Newark, N.J. Says he makes fifty cents a day. - Aug. 1, 1924. Location: Newark, New Jersey.
Photo of Roland, an eleven year old boy, in Newark New Jersey - taken in 1924. Roland was a newsboy, sometimes called a "newsie".
This is a photo of I found a girl of 13 working at embroidery in a far... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of "Want any more MEN?" 7 year old Alec applying for job on... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of 10 yr. old picker on Gildersleeve Tobacco Farm. Location:... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Young girls of 11, 12, 13 yrs., string in shed of... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Young girls of 11, 12, 13 yrs. String in sheds of... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Field-workers, Goodrich Tobacco Farm, near Gildersleeve,... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Field-workers, Goodrich Tobacco Farm, near Gildersleeve,... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
A photo of Marie Vancanvenberg, 15 yr old worker. In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee was formed. But it wasn't until the Great Depression that serious limits were put on child labor.
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A photo of the King Philip Mule Spinning Room. Back boy - Roving. Charles Cavanagh, 863 Slade St.15 years.] Location: Fall River, Massachusetts. / [Lewis W. Hine]
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A photo of King Philip - Mule Spinning Room. Thomas Nicholls, 54 Kilburn St. Tube boy on the right - doffer on the left. Tube boy 14 years, doffer 16 years. Tube boy slips onto spindle holders. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts. / Lewis W. Hine.
Applying for work paper first time Gertrude Pereira, 99 Stowe St., 14 years old - to be a ring spinner in Borden City Mill. 6th Grade, Wiley School. Learned to spin in school vacations. Rather go to work.
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This is a photo of 5-year old Jack and 13-year old Bitsey are regular... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
This is a photo of Evelyn Casey, 129 Gaynore St., 14 years, 6 months -... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
A photo of Theresa Quinlan - 14 years old April 14th - Spooler. Hand cut in Iron Works Mill. Was taking loose band off a spooler. Two weeks learning. Is in picture of girls play at King Philip Settlement. (4324.) Ready to go back to work June 22nd.] Location: Fall River, Massachusetts. / Lewis W. Hine.
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This is a photo of Twelve year old messenger #7. Edison Green. Works on day... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
Newsboy asleep on stairs with papers. Location: [Jersey City, New Jersey].
Manuel Maderas . Poorly protected from zero weather. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts.
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This is a photo of [All in photos worked (even smallest girl and boys) and... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
"I cut my finger off, cutting sardines the other day." A child cannery worker describing injuries he receives working.
Group of boys working in #9 Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co., Hughestown Borough, Pittston, Pa. In this group were Sam Belloma, Pine Street, Angelo Ross, 142 Panama Street, and others (reported previously). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
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Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co. For some of their names see labels 1927 to 1930. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
A photo of an example of child labor in the 1910's. A view of Ewen Breaker of the Pa. [Pennsylvania] Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrates the utmost recesses of the boy's lungs. A kind of slave driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
These are all breaker-boys. (See photos taken at Ewen Breaker, later.) They were very suspicious of my motives. Sam Bellom (boy on left end of photo), 58 Pine Street. Been working in breaker #9 for two years, he says. He says, also, that he is 14 years old, but does not appear to be? Sam Topent (next to Bellom), 52 Pine Street. Been working at Ewen Breaker two years.
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This is a photo of Group of boys working in #9 Breaker Pennsylvania Coal... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
Holding the door open while a trip [?] goes through. Willie Bryden, a nipper, 164 Center St. A lonely job. Waiting all alone in the dark for a trip to come through. It was so damp that Willie said he had to be doctoring all the time for his cough. A short distance from here, the gas was pouring into the mine so rapidly that it made a great torch when the foreman lit it. Willie had been working here for four months, 500 feet down the shaft, and a quarter of a mile underground from there. (Shaft #6 Pennsylvania Coal Co.) Walls have been whitewashed to make it lighter. January 16th, I found Willie at home sick, His mother admitted that he is only 13 yrs old; will be 14 next July. Said that 4 mos. ago the mine boss told the father to take Willie to work, and that they obtained the certificate from Squire Barrett. (The only thing the Squire could do was to make Willie out to be 16 yrs old.) Willie's father and brother are miners and the home is that of a frugal German family. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
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Harley Bruce, a young coupling-boy at tipple of Indian Mountain Line of Proctor Coal Co., near Jellico, Tenn. He appears to be 12 or 14 years old, and says he has been working there about a year. It is hard work and dangerous. Not many young boys employed in or about the mines of this region. Location: Jellico vicinity, Tennessee.
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