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child labor




The inhumane prevalence and persistence of child labor during the nineteenth-century

As child labor expanded through the end of the 19th century, these practices diminished. The 1870 census found that 1 out of every 8 children was employed. This rate increased to more than 1 in 5 children by 1900. Between 1890 and 1910, no less than 18 percent of all children ages 10‒15 worked.

Children were omnipresent in urban labor during that period, fulfilling various roles, notably in street-based occupations. They distributed newspapers, polished footwear, and served as messengers—a crucial role for communication within the city, facilitating daily transactions for businesses. Their services extended into the night, often in less reputable environments. Additionally, within department stores, children acted as intermediaries, transporting financial transactions and goods between customers and store inspectors.

Street Trades


Many child laborers were not as visible as street workers like newsboys. Those in the mining industry toiled away from the public eye, their experiences largely unnoticed at the time, despite now being recognized through historical imagery. Children in mines had various roles: 'trappers' sat all day to operate doors for coal car passage, integral to the mine's ventilation, while 'breaker boys' and 'helpers' had other tasks within the mine's operations.


When not operating the ventilation doors, 'trappers' endured long periods of darkness and inactivity. 'Breaker boys', often as young as 14, faced greater risks, sorting impurities from coal on precarious benches above conveyor belts, sometimes in near blindness due to coal dust. 'Helpers', often hired by miners or their parents, were paid directly from the miners' wages rather than by the mine owners.

cotton mills

The cotton mill industry was a major employer of child labor, especially in the South. In 1900, children under 16 comprised a quarter of the textile workforce. By 1904, child labor had doubled, with a significant number of those workers being under 12. Families, especially women and children, were integral to mill operations, and images of young girls working in mills have become emblematic of child labor in America.

Child labor extended beyond cotton mills to light manufacturing, like glass bottle production, where boys' small hands were valued for tasks like cleaning bottles. In the Midwest, particularly around East St. Louis, a shortage of boys led factories to employ "boy getters" to recruit child labor, often from orphanages, under the guise of providing a better life in rural settings. This practice was ironically supported by organizations like the CAS, which aimed to shield children from urban labor exploitation.


Many children worked at home, not just in mills or factories. Home-based production of items like flowers and clothing, particularly around New York's garment industry, offered manufacturers a cheaper labor option. Middlemen coordinated this labor, where workers, often women and children, earned significantly less than factory workers. This setup allowed children to contribute to family income without leaving the house.

Home Workshop


Farm labor, unlike mill and factory work, has a long history as a home-based activity. During the Gilded Age, about two-thirds of child labor occurred on farms. Children played a crucial role in supporting farming, although machinery was not as prevalent as in factories. They provided valuable manual labor, even as young as 3 years old. Some worked on family farms, while others found employment as hired hands. Children's contributions were significant, such as picking berries or harvesting crops like cranberries. In coastal areas, they also participated in tasks like shucking oysters and picking shrimp.


The shift in perception of children beyond their economic value, alongside awareness of exploitation, drove efforts to end child labor in the U.S. Reformers had to overcome significant resistance from employers, parents, and legal obstacles, especially the Constitution's limited federal powers. Initially, child labor regulation was a state matter with little oversight. It took decades of struggle before reforms effectively reduced child labor