The History of Child Labor

When children supported their families and were a part of the workplace economy. See 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.

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.
People in this photo:
Bio
Sep 27, 1874 - Unknown 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.
People in this photo:
Bio
Unknown - Unknown ? - ?
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
Shown here is nine year old newsie Tommy De Lucco taken in Hartford Connecticut in March of 1909. Tommy began selling news papers at age seven in 1907. Photos like these were taken by photographer Lewis W. Hines. They were instrumental in changing public opinion and reforming child labor laws.
People in this photo:
Bio
1900 - Unknown 1900 - ?
Composite photograph of child laborers made from cotton mill children Lewis Wickes Hine, 1874-1940, photographer
Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Edgar Kitchen, age 13, worked on a dairy farm (Bingham Brothers Dairy) 10 hrs a day, seven days a week (but half a day on Saturday), for $3.25/wk (about $81.00 in 2020) In the mornings, he drove the dairy wagon. In the afternoons, he worked on the farm. He thought he would work all year and not go back to school. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Hine, Lewis Wickes, photographer
People in this photo:
Bio
1903 - Unknown 1903 - ?
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 Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in... added by Ancient Faces on January 11, 2012.
Added Jan 11, 2012 by: Ancient Faces
Ancient Faces
450 favorites
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 National Child Labor Committee, No. 69. Man with punching... added by Ancient Faces on January 1, 2012.
Photo of messenger boys' strike in New York in 1916. Evidently, this is when messenger boys were really boys. The caption says that 12 messengers and 2 men are shown (men in the back - the child labor laws were really loose then). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain News Service
Cora Watts, a young spinner in the Aragon Mill. She's dressed nicely but I bet it was hard work. In 1892, the Democratic Party adopted a platform plank based on union recommendations to ban factory employment for children under 15. But this was only a position, not a law. In 1904, an aggressive push began to reform national child labor laws. In 1916 (4 years after this photo was taken), the first federal child labor law prohibited the movement of goods across state lines if minimum age laws were violated (the law was in effect only until 1918). It wasn't until 1938 that for the first time, minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children were regulated by federal law. Do you think that this had something to do with the Great Depression and the need for jobs for adults? Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer
People in this photo:
Bio
Unknown - Unknown ? - ?
Added Sep 11, 2011 by: Kathy Pinna
Kathy Pinna
3.01k+ favorites
Joseph Adams & Richard Fitzgerald in 1911 at the Eclipse Mills. I guess the child labor laws in the early 20th century were pretty lax? This is a picture of children who worked in the Eclipse Mills in Massachusetts in 1911. On the right is Richard Fitzgerald, 53 Montgomery St. On the left is Joseph Adams 107 Front St. The boy in the center is not identified, nor are any of the women and the boy at the far right. Both boys who are identified worked in the "twisting room" where cotton thread was twisted to make cording. the Eclipse Mills were located in North Adams, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer
People in this photo:
Bio
Unknown - Unknown ? - ?
Added Sep 7, 2011 by: Kathy Pinna
Kathy Pinna
3.01k+ favorites
L. Seizwater, 333 Christian St., age 13, sold newspapers in the subway. He worked from 2p to 11p on weekdays , Saturdays and Sundays from 9a to 2a. For all of this, he earned 25 cents a day. Jacob Cross, 1404 S. 8th St., age 15, was also a newsboy. He sold papers from 3p to midnight daily. Saturdays, he worked all night. Sol Feltman, 2442 S. Marshall St., age 10 sold papers in the subway from 4p to 10p and Saturdays from 4p to midnight. Other boy unknown. The Juvenile Protective Association called these boys "the typical night newsie of Philadelphia, having all their vices and ways and a class degenerating to low criminality." Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, photographer Lewis Wickes Hine
People in this photo:
Bio
Unknown - Unknown ? - ?
Added Aug 15, 2011 by: Kathy Pinna
Kathy Pinna
28.8k+ favorites
Patsy, eight year old newsboy, Newark, N.J. Says he makes fifty cents a day. - Aug. 1, 1924. Location: Newark, New Jersey.
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.
A photo of the Capps family, a vaudeville act
Before Child Labor Laws - When Every Boy And Girl Had A Job
You may be surprised to know that until the Great Depression, children were an important part of the work economy in the U...
Real Life Newsies Were Very Different Than What We Saw In The Disney Film
These aren't the boys who delivered a newspaper to your home, these are the children (usually age 9 - 15, sometimes younge...
Back to Top