Child Labor in the New York City Tenements Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the United States, many poor urban children left school to work in factories and stores to help support their families. As new federal and state laws required school attendance for children of certain ages and restricted labor outside the home during the academic year, child labor shifted to home manufacturing–a practice where goods manufacturers provided finishing work on a piecemeal basis to anyone who could complete it. Since child-labor laws did not prohibit this practice, many children who left factory work were forced into long hours of after-school labor helping their parents finish goods at home. In conjunction with several reform organizations and government agencies, Mary Van Kleeck authored the report “Child Labor in New York City Tenements” to uncover the truths behind this practice, hoping to protect children from unfair labor practices and improve their chances of obtaining a proper education.

Summary Overview

As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in the United States, many poor urban children left school to work in factories and stores to help support their families. As new federal and state laws required school attendance for children of certain ages and restricted labor outside the home during the academic year, child labor shifted to home manufacturing–a practice where goods manufacturers provided finishing work on a piecemeal basis to anyone who could complete it. Since child-labor laws did not prohibit this practice, many children who left factory work were forced into long hours of after-school labor helping their parents finish goods at home. In conjunction with several reform organizations and government agencies, Mary Van Kleeck authored the report “Child Labor in New York City Tenements” to uncover the truths behind this practice, hoping to protect children from unfair labor practices and improve their chances of obtaining a proper education.

Defining Moment

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the United States. Across the country–although primarily in eastern cities–manufacturing replaced agriculture as the driving force behind economic growth. As large corporations sought ever-larger profits, workers found themselves in increasingly dire positions. Workers commonly engaged in ten- to fourteen-hour shifts surrounded by fast-moving heavy machinery, leading to extremely dangerous working conditions.

With stiff competition for unskilled labor employment in the crowded cities, wages were often so low that working families could not afford to house, feed, and clothe their children. Eventually, the children needed to leave school and work to help support the family. Unfortunately, this perpetuated the cycle of poverty, since these children lost the opportunity to obtain the education necessary to find employment outside of the factories.

After significant efforts, state and federal governments passed laws to restrict child labor in factories and stores, particularly during the school year. Combined with compulsory school attendance laws, children in cities such as New York left the factory floor and returned to the classroom. However, no laws prevented the use of child labor in “sweating system” work–a system whereby laborers of any age could perform manufacturing work at home. Although New York state law required homes to be both inspected for sanitation and safety and licensed before permitting such work, doing so proved difficult to regulate and enforce. Additionally, the sweating system provided immense financial benefits to companies, as it allowed them to skirt many labor rules. As such, corporate interests lobbied hard to ensure the practice could continue.

In 1908, child-labor activist Van Kleeck authored a report on child labor in New York City tenements. Van Kleeck worked with the National Consumers’ League and the Consumers’ League of New York City, the National and New York Child Labor Committees, and the College Settlements Association to prepare the report. Using both statistics and personal stories obtained by interviewing families and children engaged in home manufacturing, Van Kleeck’s report brought attention to the sweating system and the role children occupied within it. She acknowledged the difficulties in both passing and enforcing effective laws but strongly advocated for regulations that might help protect children from exploitative labor practices.

Author Biography

Mary Abby Van Kleeck was born in Glenham, New York, on June 26, 1883. After her father’s death in 1892, she moved with her family from their upstate home to the Flushing, Queens, neighborhood of New York. She received her AB from Smith College in 1904, then moved back to New York City to study sociology at Columbia University and work with employment-related organizations including the College Settlement Association and the Alliance Employment Bureau.

Van Kleeck’s primary academic and philanthropic interests included factory women and child labor. Her work led to sponsorship by the Russell Sage Foundation, as well as several teaching positions in social work and labor rights. During World War I, she helped establish legal standards for women’s employment in war industries and served on several boards, including the War Labor Policies Board and the US Department of Labor’s Women in Industry Service.

After officially retiring in 1948, Van Kleeck ran for the New York State senate as a member of the American Labor Party, but was not elected. In 1953, she was summoned before US senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee for investigation because of her affiliation with organizations declared “subversive” to the government. She remained mostly out of the public eye until her death in Kingston, New York, in 1972.

Document Analysis

Van Kleeck’s report opens by identifying a key gap in New York State child-labor laws–while children under the age of fourteen are prohibited from working outside the home in factories and stores, no regulations prevent them from finishing manufactured goods at home. She acknowledges the difficulty in regulating the practice referred to as the “sweating system,” and provides illustrations of the practical effects of this conflict: For example, a fourteen-year-old boy cannot work during school hours because of compulsory attendance laws, but his three-year-old sister can legally work all day and night because she is not of school age.

Van Kleeck notes that many circumstances under which children’s work at home does not violate labor laws. She describes scenarios in which children live in clean, well-lit tenements that are properly licensed for home labor, and they attend school as required during daytime hours. However, from the end of the school day until late at night, the children work at home making artificial flowers or finishing garments. As a result, their academic performance suffers, casting doubt on the usefulness of compulsory attendance laws in light of the seemingly ineffective child-labor laws.

The report also addresses the difficulty in assuring that licensed homes are free of contagious, infectious, and communicable diseases, as required by the Labor and Health Departments. While initial licensing requires an inspection of health and sanitation conditions inside the home, there is little ongoing protection against diseases that may be introduced into the environments later. For example, Van Kleeck recalls visiting a family that was finishing garments in the same room where their daughter was dying of tuberculosis, a highly communicable respiratory disease. The entire family lived in a single room, so there was no place else to complete the work.

Additionally, some families work in unlicensed homes, as the immediate need for food, shelter, and clothing takes precedence over any possible legal repercussions. Sometimes, a license can be obtained quickly if an investigation is imminent; more often, however, no one bothers to check. Furthermore, only certain articles are covered by the licensing requirement: Van Kleeck reports on several young children employed sewing gloves and carding buttons, neither of which requires a home license, so the homes are not subject to inspection.

Van Kleeck concludes by observing that New York City cannot accurately count the number of children employed in home manufacturing, whether licensed or not. Following an investigation of more than 1,000 home workers in New York City by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the New York Department of Labor published a report stating that 16,068 homes were licensed in 1901, with 27,019 individuals authorized to work in them. However, the statistics do not break down the number of children employed at home.

Essential Themes

Van Kleeck’s report highlights the unfortunate result of incomplete child-labor laws at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City. In this report, she explains how employers benefit from using the “sweating system” to circumvent child-labor laws. Because of the high concentration of poor, unskilled laborers in New York City, intense competition for low-skill jobs meant companies could pay workers extremely low wages. Under this system, companies save money by contracting labor and not needing to provide factory space, heating, and lighting. Van Kleeck notes that attempts at reform would be resisted by companies that profit under the system because of the financial benefits.

In an effort to maintain some order and safety to the practice, Health and Labor Departments established certain criteria for the approval of a home manufacturing license. However, some of these criteria–such as the requirement that homes be kept free of contagious, infectious, or communicable disease–presented complications. By government regulation, any home manufacturing location where disease was discovered had to be shut down immediately and its license revoked until the situation was resolved and conditions improved. Furthermore, any landlord who permitted work to be done in his building in violation of a Health Department order could have been prosecuted for illegal manufacturing, even if he was not doing the manufacturing himself. Since many tenements housed numerous families, and many of these families were involved in home manufacturing, landlords were highly motivated to quickly evict any family whose health conditions interfered with the building’s license.

The report uncovered a wide variety of family circumstances for children who worked at home. Some attended school regularly and only worked when school was not in session. Others attended school, but worked at home every night or cared for younger siblings while their parents were working. Still others were kept out of school altogether to work all hours of the day. Van Kleeck observes that compulsory school attendance only further burdened the already-exhausted children without providing much educational benefit. She identifies the need for further reform and better enforcement to ensure that child-labor laws cover a wider variety of realistic scenarios and actually provide the intended benefit to children they are meant to protect.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Childhood Lost: Child Labor during the Industrial Revolution.” Teaching with Primary Sources. Eastern Illinois University, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
  • “Mary van Kleeck Papers, 1849–1998: Biographical Note.” Sophia Smith Collection. Smith College, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
  • Nardinelli, Clark. Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.
  • Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.
Categories: History Content