Child Labor
Activity 1
The Campaign to End Child Labor

In 1900 approximately two million children were working in mills, mines, fields, factories, stores, and on city streets across the Untied States. The 1900 census, which counted workers aged 10 to 15 found that 18.2 percent of the country’s children between those ages were working. This census report helped to spark a national movement to end child labor in the United States. The National Child Labor Committee was founded in 1904.

This movement argued that it was morally wrong to subject children to this kind of abuse. In addition, they argued that children were losing their childhood. They compared child labor to slavery and said that this was as great a problem as slavery. The movement also said the industrial revolution was bringing progress in wealth, education, and increased leisure time. However, it was noted that poverty was increasing right along with this progress. It turned out that progress was creating huge fortunes for a few while the rest of society only received the crumbs from the table. The extent of child labor documented by the 1900 census was chilling evidence of the failure of technological progress to produce the American Dream of a better life for all.

The National Child Labor Committee began to take action. The members of this committee began to see that child labor was not only damaging to the child but hurt the nation as a whole. Child labor itself was an obstacle to the progress of the nation and to civilization in general. They said that if it was necessary to have child labor in America, the n American society was not worth saving. More importantly they began to take some very important steps to change the situation.

First, they began to document how bad the situation of child labor had become. In 1908, they hired Lewis Hine, a photographer, to take pictures of children working in many different occupations in all kinds of conditions. These pictures were a powerful tool in convincing people of the evils of child labor. No longer could people deny that such conditions existed in America. The movement used these pictures in their efforts to lobby both state and national law-making bodies to enact legislation to address the problem of child labor. In addition, to arguing for an end to child labor, the movement also argued for improved working conditions for all workers and for compulsory education for children.

The first federal legislation concerning child labor was passed in 1916. Although, effective federal child labor laws would not really be in place until the late 1930’s, this early legislation convinced Americans of the evils of child labor and ended much of the opposition to the prohibiting of child labor. It would take more time to convince the courts that legislating against child labor was not interfering with personal freedoms and was constitutional. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was based and this effectively ended the practice of child labor by not allowing a company to sell its products across state boundaries if they used child labor to produce it. This time the courts agreed with the law and said it was constitutional.

However, the National Child Labor Committee did not die. It is still active today. Although countless children and their children were saved from exploitation in mines, mills, and factories, new challenges have arisen both in the United States and abroad. There is still much work to be done and the young people today will have to be part of the solution.