Child Labor

by Josh Ishmael

In General.

The minimal role of child labor in the United States today is one of the more remarkable changes in the social and economic life of the nation over the last two centuries. In colonial America, child labor was not a subject of controversy. It was an integral part of the agricultural and handicraft economy. Children not only worked on the family farm but were often hired out to other farmers. Boys customarily began their apprenticeship in a trade between ages ten and fourteen. Both types of child labor declined in the early nineteenth century, but factory employment provided a new opportunity for children. Ultimately, young women and adult immigrants replaced these children in the textile industry, but child labor continued in other businesses. They could be paid lower wages, were more tractable and easily managed than adults, and were very difficult for unions to organize.


The educational reformers of the mid-nineteenth century convinced many among the native-born population that primary school education was a necessity for both personal fulfillment and the advancement of the nation. This led several states to establish a minimum wage for labor and minimal requirements for school attendance. These laws had many loopholes, however, and were in place in only some states where they were laxly enforced. In addition, the influx of immigrants, beginning with the Irish in the 1840s and continuing after 1880 with groups from southern and eastern Europe, provided a new pool of child workers. Many of these immigrants came from a rural background, and they had much the same attitude toward child labor as Americans had in the eighteenth century.


The new supply of child workers was matched by a tremendous expansion of American industry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that increased the jobs suitable for children. The two factors led to a rise in the percentage of children ten to fifteen years of age who were gainfully employed. Although the official figure of 1.75 million significantly understates the true number, it indicates that at least 18 percent of these children were employed in 1900. In southern cotton mills, 25 percent of the employees were below the age of fifteen, with half of these children below age twelve. In addition, the horrendous conditions of work for many child laborers brought the issue to public attention.