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READ: Child Labor

Industrial capitalism created great wealth for some, and low-paying, unpleasant jobs for many more. Child labor was a social  problem driven by this new economy.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did views about children change in this period in some places, according to the author?
  2. What limitations does the Matthew Crabtree source have?
  3. What economic factors made some child labor regulations effective?
  4. How did children’s work change over time in industrialized societies, as a result of these changes?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. According to the article, over a hundred million children still have to work, but child labor is less common than it once was. Based on evidence from this article and other material in this lesson, do you think labor conditions today are better for children—and adults—than they were a hundred years ago? For whom are they better? Explain your reasoning.
  2. How do the transformations described in this article affect you, today?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Child Labor and Reform Movements

A black and white photograph of children in protest. They are holding up signs that read sayings such as “We want to go to school” and “More school, less hospital”.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
Industrial capitalism created great wealth for some, and low-paying, unpleasant jobs for many more. Child labor was a social problem driven by this new economy.
In the early twentieth century, a young American scholar left his teaching position to devote his time to taking pictures. Not just any pictures, though. Lewis Hine, whose photography is now legendary, used to sneak into factories where young children worked—often resulting in him being chased out of the factories by policemen.
But Hine persisted, because he wanted to show the world the social injustice of a system that put kids in horrible industrial working conditions, robbing them of a childhood. He worked with a group of reformers in the National Child Labor Committee, founded in 1904, to spread awareness of the child laborer problem. Photography itself was still a young art form, and Hine's striking photos played an important role in bringing public attention to a problem that was getting worse.by policemen.
A young girl, wearing ragged clothing and without shoes, standing in front of a spinning machine at an industrial textile factory.
A photograph taken in 1910 by Lewis Hine. It shows Addie Card, a twelve-year-old spinner from Vermont, who said she started working during a school vacation and ended up staying in the factories. By Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Production and distribution, a reboot

Work was changing a lot after the Industrial Revolution. The "long nineteenth century" (1750-1914) saw a rise of industrialization and wage labor everywhere, especially in Western Europe and North America. Under industrial capitalism, the systems of production and distribution changed. Production increased dramatically. That meant fewer family farms and shops and more large ranches and factories. This shift had important consequences for how people earned a living, and industry required more and more labor to sustain production. This need for labor pulled in many child workers.
Many parents in need of a steady income went to work at low-wage jobs. Children, who otherwise would have helped out at home, increasingly took on semi-skilled jobs—for about one-tenth the wage adults were earning. They could handle simple tasks and were usually obedient workers, so they were in demand. In the textile industry, for example, they often cleaned machines and tied the ends of fibers together to make goods like clothing, sheets, and curtains. Typically, their work was repetitive and unhealthy.
A photo of an advertisement calling for child laborers to work in a textile mill.
An advertisement calls for boys and girls to work at Bates Mill in Lewiston, Maine. Published in the Portland Press Herald, 1861 Public Domain.

The need for reform

This system of cheap labor and large-scale production was rapidly growing in many industries. It made products available at a much lower cost and generated a great deal of wealth. Where was this wealth going? If you guessed "not to any laborers, young or old" you are correct. Still, for many people wage labor was the only way to stay alive.
A photograph of young boys working with large machinery in a glass factory. The boys’ faces are dirty and their clothing is ragged.
Photograph taken in 1908 by Lewis Hine showing boys working in a glass factory in Indiana. The image was taken at midnight, suggesting that children often worked long hours. By Library of Congress, Public Domain.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was enough dissatisfaction among workers—and socially conscious individuals like Lewis Hine—to bring about some reforms. This was most notable in the United States and Western Europe, where important liberal reforms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created standards for labor. These included work-free weekends, eight-hour work days, minimum wage, and compensation for workplace accidents. In most other parts of the world, industrial capitalism—and the child labor it encouraged—raged on. But politically liberal thinkers still pushed for reforms.

The moral objection to child labor

Labor movements grew in strength throughout the long nineteenth century, although not at the same rates everywhere. Though these labor movements had many different outcomes, one trend that emerged in many different places was the decline of child labor. Both moral ideas and economic forces played a part.
Two cartoons criticize child labor and the exploitation involved. In one, children pull a heavy wagon in which a large man rides; the wagon reads “child labor exploiter”. The other drawing shows a young girl working over a sewing machine while a large, older man looks on. A sign reads “sweat shop”.
Cartoons about the perils of child labor by Frederick Thompson Richards. Image from the Philadelphia North American and later published in Cartoons Magazine, volume 3, no. 4 (April 1913). By Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, Public Domain.
Child labor had important moral dimensions—something Hine's photographs capture powerfully. Earlier cultural movements had changed how people thought about children. Education, creativity, and playfulness had become more valued, especially among the middle and upper classes in the West. But even parents who accepted these views did not always have the choice to keep their children out of the workforce. Many families relied on child labor for financial survival. Children outside of stable families, including orphans, had little choice. The poorest children were often forced into apprenticeships or indentured labor.
To get a glimpse of what life was like for some child laborers, let's have a look at an interview from 1832 between a government official and a young English man named Matthew Crabtree. In the interview, Crabtree describes his experiences as a child laborer:
Mr. Matthew Crabtree, called in; and Examined.
What age are you? — Twenty-two.
Have you ever been employed in a factory? — Yes.
At what age did you first go to work in one? — Eight.
How long did you continue in that occupation? — Four years.
Will you state the hours of labour at the period when you first went to the factory, in ordinary times? — From 6 in the morning to 8 at night.
Fourteen hours? — Yes.
With what intervals for refreshment and rest? — An hour at noon.
When trade was brisk what were your hours? — From 5 in the morning to 9 in the evening.
Sixteen hours? — Yes.
With what intervals at dinner? — An hour.
Were you always on time? — No.
What was the consequence if you had been too late? — I was most commonly beaten.
Severely? — Very severely, I thought.
When you got home at night after this labour, did you feel much fatigued? — Very much so.
Had you any time to be with your parents, and to receive instruction from them? — No.
Like many children, Matthew Crabtree worked under terribly harsh conditions and was deprived of the kind of playful, educational childhood that most of us take for granted. From the age of 8, Crabtree was not protected, educated, or able to spend much time with his parents. Still, for him and many children, factory work was an economic opportunity he had to take.
Because child labor conflicted with emerging moral ideas, many critics began calling for change toward the end of the nineteenth century. One French doctor, Louis-René Villermé, emphasized the poor health of children working in textile factories.
"All pale, nervous, slow in their movements, quiet at their games, they present an outward appearance of misery, of suffering, of dejection [gloom] that contrasts with the rosy color, the plumpness, the petulance [childish temper] and all the signs of glowing health that one notices in children of the same."
These criticisms led to new laws in Europe and the United States that regulated but did not completely end child labor. These early laws were not very effective, but by the mid-nineteenth century, new legislation had better outcomes. In parts of Europe, new restrictions made it costlier to employ children, and that led to some declines in the child work force. Countries like Italy, Russia, the United States, and Belgium lagged behind, waiting much longer—until the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries—to regulate child labor. These reform movements are all examples of political liberalism in action. During this long wait, activists for child labor reforms kept at it. In the United States, unions managed to get regulations at the state level. Organizations like the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), who had sponsored Lewis Hine's photographs, launched public campaigns against child labor. They used posters, photographs, exhibitions, and other media to show the social injustice of child labor. One NCLC leader argued that child labor was a threat to human civilization, writing:
"The thinkers of the world, those who have given the greatest attention to the problems of human development, unite to impress upon us the truth that mankind has slowly grown out of the state of primitive barbarity, has slowly climbed to the level upon which we stand to-day, thanks to the leisure and respite [rest] granted to the young offspring of human beings. And yet, at this very moment we find that wherever mechanical industry is introduced the temptation proves almost irresistible for those who have in mind only immediate and quick material aggrandizement [increased importance/wealth], to rob the child of that leisure and respite so necessary for its own sake and for the sake of progress in general, and to employ the cheap labor of little children in order to multiply profits."
From "Child Labor a Menace to Civilization" by Felix Adler, an article from 1911.
A sign calling for people to join the National Child Labor Committee and advocate for the end of child labor.
A poster released by the National Child Labor Committee, founded in 1904. By JD Thomas, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Economic reasons to end child labor

As important as the moral arguments were, the economic factors were just as influential, if not more so. As we saw, the most effective reforms were those that raised the cost of child labor. Also, adult workers competed for jobs that children were doing for much lower wages, so they often lobbied against child labor just to protect the adult job market. At the same time, machines started to replace many child laborers, who tended to perform simpler tasks that could be automated. Governments, furthermore, were concerned that child laborers made poor soldiers later on, since, as Dr. Villermé noted, work took a toll on their health.
Moral and economic forces combined when new regulations made child labor too costly, and some employers stopped hiring kids simply to make better profits. But child labor was still the cost-effective option for many who were willing to ignore the law. The fact was that most of the regulations were very difficult to enforce. Inspections were inconsistent, and many children were employed in informal work. This included work on large estates, in family businesses, or in clothing manufacturing workshops, none of which were heavily monitored.

Education before employment

You might wonder why kids were working at all, when they should have been in school. While there were compulsory (required) education laws requiring children to be in school, they were uncommon. In Western countries, government-funded schooling expanded steadily throughout the long nineteenth century. Many countries required students to attend through a certain age. But it was hard to enforce, especially when families relied on income from children's work.
A sign protesting child labor for children under the age of 16. It reads “School is their full time job”.
A child labor standards poster from the 1940s encouraging schooling and reinforcing the rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Note that child labor was still permitted when children worked for their parents. Public Domain.
And the idea that kids belonged in school in the first place was pretty new and limited to the upper classes. In wealthy families, where neither kids nor some adults needed jobs, kids had often received an education through private instruction. But most others had worked from a young age, usually helping their families with whatever they did for work, like farming or working within a trade. So working in industrial settings was in some ways a continuation of this arrangement.
Even after reforms, school didn't immediately replace work. Instead, children often worked and went to school, particularly in rural and working-class families. A French peasant boy from the late nineteenth century described his typical day as follows:
“Every day on returning from school I had my work to do. At midday as in the evening, I cut up two or three buckets of beets for the livestock; I mucked [cleaned] out the stables; and I fetched one or two [wheel] barrow loads of fodder [food] for them from a barn we had on the other side of the village.”
Though this boy still likely had a difficult life, he was able to devote some of his time to developing and gaining an education—a departure from earlier times.

An uneven movement

Overall, in the West, there was a long-term decline of child labor as schooling increased. The kind of jobs children did also changed. They tended to do smaller tasks to support adult workers rather than doing the most difficult and dangerous work themselves. Instead of manufacturing, they did service work like selling newspapers, babysitting, and doing errands and deliveries. These are some of the same jobs many of you might do today.
However, this trend was not global. Industrialization was uneven across the globe, so the presence of child labor and wage labor in general was irregular. In many places, agricultural production was still the norm. That meant that child labor remained widespread. Even in industrialized nations like Britain, a significant number of children still worked on farms.
Another reason this trend was so sporadic (uneven) was because industrial production itself took many different forms. For example, in India, the vast majority of child laborers—as well as adults—worked informally. And as we noted, this made it hard to regulate it. Additionally, pressure from Western nations, including colonial pressure, often heightened exploitation of children in developing areas. For instance, cheap goods in Western nations relied on low-cost, unregulated labor elsewhere—and this continues to be the case today.
Additionally, indentured service across colonized parts of Asia and encomiendas (forced labor) in Latin America continued to rely on child labor. In parts of the world such as Latin America, working children, especially orphans, were "circulated." This usually meant they were sent to families that needed extra labor. These systems continued to enslave children even after slavery was formally abolished.
While child labor declined in the industrialized West, it stayed the same or even increased in agricultural or colonial societies. In separate societies around the world, the upper classes were able to invest in protecting and educating their children, just as Enlightenment thinkers had hoped. Despite this trend, child labor remained an economic necessity for many, and many children remained trapped in abusive systems of exploitation and slavery. And while the American National Child Labor Committee that sponsored Hine shut down in 2017, the international movement continues. As recently as 2019, groups like the International Labor Organization fight to protect workers of all ages and origins. A report in 2017 revealed that child labor continues, with about 152 million children around the world working.
Though that is certainly a bleak (depressing) reality that activists continue to confront, child labor is far less common than it once was. Around the world, education and literacy rates among children are rising, and protections for children are more regularly created and enforced, creating a safer, healthier childhood for many.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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