Labor Day: Children at Work

Today’s post comes from Megan Huang, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

The Federal holiday Labor Day honors the American worker. When considering the accomplishments and contributions of the our workers throughout history, one category—the child laborer—doesn’t always come to mind. However, child labor was a significant part of the American labor story. 

Photograph by Lewis Hine, “One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mill. She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides—48 [cents] a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, ‘I don’t remember,’ then confidentially, ‘I’m not old enough to work, but do just the same.’ Out of 50 employees, ten children about her size. Whitnel, N.C.” 12/22/1908. (National Archives Identifier 523145)
The United States was rapidly changing at the turn of the 20th century. Immigration and urbanization combined to create a massively stratified society, with the extremely wealthy living in opulence while the poorest city dwellers and immigrants lived in crowded and filthy tenements. To make ends meet in times of difficulty, many poor families had to rely the work of all members, including the children.

Boys making melon baskets in a basket factory, Evansville, Indiana, 10/1908. (National Archives Identifier 523098)

It was not uncommon for children as young as four or five to work in places other than the home, which often entailed difficult and dangerous work. Factories were crowded with both rapidly operating machinery and other workers, making it easy for loose clothing or hair to get caught and cause injury. Can cutters and oyster shuckers cut themselves easily and often.

Lewis Hine photograph of newsboys and a newsgirl getting afternoon papers in New York City, 7/1910. (National Archives Identifier 523329)

Employers exploited children who had no other choice other than to work, but child laborers sometimes fought back. The Newsboy Strike of 1899, for example, caused enough disturbance in New York City to make an article in the New York Times and succeeded in forcing newspaper distributors to buy back unsold papers. Similar strikes demonstrated a continuing spirit on the part of young workers to improve their circumstances.

Rediscovery number; 25085
Women demonstrating against child labor, New York City, ca. 1900. (National Archives Identifier 7452361)

Muckraking journalists and photographers were some of the most helpful in exposing the conditions in which children worked. Among the most famous was Lewis Hine, photographer for the National Child Labor Committee.

Photograph by Lewis Hine, “Johnnie Yellow, a young Polish berry picker on Bottomley Farm. Says he is 10 years old and has gone to Biloxi, Miss. for 9 years with family and has worked there in winter and here in summer for three years. He is stunted, being only 39 inches high. Many of these children are stunted. Rock Creek, Md.” 6/7/1909. (National Archives Identifier 523208)

Hine once observed that he had to photograph child workers in the absence of their supervisors, who refused permission to have photos taken so as to not stir up child labor agitation. In his photograph captions, Hine often mentioned the conditions of the children’s workplaces and pointed out the risks children had to take in their work where they were not obvious.

Photograph by Lewis Hine, “Young cigarmakers in Engelhardt & Co. Three boys looked under 14. Work was slack and youngsters were not being employed much. Labor leaders told me in busy times many small boys and girls were employed. Youngster all smoke. Tampa, Fla.” 1/27/1909. (National Archives Identifier 523163)

For decades, children gave away their childhoods and missed school to be doffers, sardine packers, cigar rollers, newsies, or work in whatever job that could bring in a few dollars or cents. While their conditions were not often acknowledged in their lifetimes, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and its prohibition of employment of children in oppressive work is part of their legacy.

To view more photos that document the American labor experience, visit the National Archives online exhibit “The Way We Worked.” Visit our online catalog to see more images from Lewis Hine.


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