The History of Child Labor

Updated: May 12, 2024
When children supported their families and were a part of the workplace economy.

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.
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