The struggle for child labor laws

We’ve all read Dickens, and we know that with the Industrial Revolution came an appalling era of child labor.  It seemed, in the 19th century, that no child was too young to put to work, particularly in places where small size was an advantage.  It’s disturbing to realize, as I study the early 20th century, how many children were still working in jobs that were unsafe, exhausting, even abusive.  They worked in coal mines, in garment factories, as farm workers, as cleaners and servers and messengers.

It’s a stunning thing to discover that although Congress passed child labor laws beginning in the early ‘teens, the Supreme Court repeatedly ruled them unconstitutional, and there was nothing set legislatively until 1924–and nothing comprehensive until well into the 1930s, and even then, the motivation was hardly pure.  During the Great Depression, there was a strong feeling that jobs should be reserved for adults, because jobs were hard to find.  Before that time, many children worked hours and jobs that we would find unbelievable today (at least in the United States–child labor remains a shameful problem in all too many other places.)

A brief statement can be more powerful than a long-winded argument, however well thought out.  This is one, a rhyme by Sarah N. Cleghorn, poet and child labor activist, written about 1904:

“The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.”

Ms. Cleghorn said it so much better than I ever could.  She energized the movement against child labor, though it would be another twenty years before it was successful.



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