Child labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Children were a cheap, submissive source of labor for textile, mining, glass, and other industries in the United States until the early twentieth century, when social reform began to produce legislation that protected children from unfair or unsafe working conditions and from other forms of exploitation by employers.

Child Employment;childrenlabor, in one or another form, has been part of the American economy since the founding of the United States, when labor shortages encouraged the use of children in agriculture, domestic service, home-based businesses, and industries. During the earliest years, children primarily worked on their families’ farms or served as indentured servants and apprentices. Children’s rights issues usually did not extend to agricultural labor, because children usually worked without wages for their parents on family farms, where activists thought of them as safe from harm.Children;laborLabor;children

Early Employers

During the nineteenth century, children could often be found working at menial tasks, such as oyster shucking.

(Library of Congress)

Outside the home, the textile industry was one of the largest employers of children, preferring girls over boys because they were often more submissive. Textile work began at home in the form of carding and spinning wool and moved to factories as the industry became mechanized. Industrialization increased the number of working children. In 1820, half of the textile workers in one Massachusetts city were children. As late as 1832, more than 40 percent of mill workers were boys younger than twelve. Other early industries that regularly used child labor included glass, tobacco, and coal. Regardless of the industry, child labor was a problem, because children were overworked (often putting in ten- to fourteen-hour days), underpaid or unpaid, and regularly exposed to corporal punishment.

Child labor was generally accepted in the United States during the country’s formative years. It was not seen as a problem, in part because it was more widespread than people realized. The government did not keep records of the use of children as workers. In addition, because American children were not as egregiously abused as were English children, U.S. employers of children benefited from comparisons with their counterparts in England.

Economic factors also contributed to the acceptance of child labor. Child workers helped support their families. Their income increased their families’ economic success, helped keep their families off public charity, and aided in providing savings for their parents’ old age. Some industries even paid one wage to a parent for an entire family’s labor. Because men with spouses and larger families were paid better than were single men or men with small families, parents often had more children. Some people also believed that work kept children morally on track. A busy child would learn positive lessons, including responsibility. In an effort to limit idleness among children, one state law even encouraged county commissioners to choose young children from poor families for work in public flax houses. Meanwhile, businesses reduced their costs by employing children or families more cheaply than they could employ an entirely adult workforce.

Child labor abuses started to be more widely recognized during the mid- to late nineteenth century. States began to pass laws mandating minimum levels of education and minimum ages of employment. Those laws often went unenforced, however. By the early twentieth century, many children between ten and fifteen years old were working full-time factory jobs.

During the 1890’s, Illinois governor and children’s rights advocate John Peter Altgeld appointed reformer Florence Kelley, FlorenceKelley to oversee factories that used child labor and to monitor legislation concerning child labor. Kelley was later appointed director of the National Consumers League in New York, where she made additional advances toward reforming the use of child workers. Kelley also associated with Jane Addams, JaneAddams, whose work included child labor reform. Another activist, Lewis Hine, LewisHine, was connected with the National Child Labor Committee. Hine became known for his photographic documentation of working children. His photos clearly displayed the conditions under which American children worked.

Despite reform movements, the Great Depression found many children working in substandard conditions. The newspaper industry hired large numbers of boys either to deliver newspapers to subscribers or to hawk them on the streets. Other young boys were trained as salesmen, going door to door to sell newspaper subscriptions. In addition to the health dangers these children faced, undue stress was placed on the boys as they attempted to take on challenges beyond the capabilities of people so young.


Concern over the lack of Educationeducation among the nation’s youth was one of the driving forces behind child labor legislation. Early laws either required the teaching of math, writing, and reading or specified minimum school attendance for children, usually requiring three months per year of formal education. Though laws were passed as early as 1813 in the eastern states, a lack of enforcement too often rendered them useless.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, only seven states had passed laws limiting hours for child workers, and Pennsylvania alone limited the type of work children could perform. By 1909, only six states did not have such laws.

There were three main problems with the legislative attempts to reform and regulate child labor. First, many manufacturers argued that businesses in states without regulations had an unfair advantage over those in states that had strong laws. Second, the laws were often difficult to implement, and businesses breaking the laws were seldom prosecuted. Finally, during the early twentieth century, a number of federal attempts to legislate child labor were overturned, partly because they infringed on states’ rights.

Despite some laws being overturned, the twentieth century brought more effective reform movements, starting with Alabama’s establishment of the first State Child Labor Committee (1901). The National Child Labor Committee was created in 1904. The oldest federal agency regulating child labor, the Children’s Bureau[Childrens Bureau]Children’s Bureau, was founded in 1912. Although it directed early reform on child labor issues, by the middle of the twentieth century the Children’s Bureau came to focus on children’s health rather than labor issues. Now a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the bureau concentrates on child development, protection, welfare, and adoption. The labor committees, the Children’s Bureau, and other groups successfully promoted a number of new laws that regulated child labor.

On September 1, 1916, the Child Labor Act of 1916Child Labor Act (also known as the Keating-Owen Act) was passed. This act regulated the transportation across state lines of products made by children under the age of sixteen. The Supreme Court overturned the act on June 3, 1918, primarily as a result of the language in the act. The original language regulated only the products themselves and the transportation of the products, rather than the age of those who made the products. The Court was also concerned that transportation of goods from a state with lenient child labor laws might negatively affect the level of regulation in states receiving those goods.

In 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), which (among many other provisions) outlawed child labor in industry, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1935. Newsboys were the only exception to the law, which was ironic given that publishers were among the first to condemn other industries for relying on child labor. Among the groups that opposed the NRA were the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the International Circulation Managers’ Association, the American Bar Association (which offered an alternative amendment), and a group called the National Committee for the Protection of Child, Family, School, and Church. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938Fair Labor Standards Act successfully reintroduced the labor regulation provisions of the NRA, enacting minimum wages, maximum hours and days, and a minimum age for workers. This law survived judicial scrutiny, although it would subsequently be revised and amended many times over the years.

During the early part of the twenty-first century, child labor issues have continued to pose quandaries. Hours and times that children sixteen and over can work are often poorly regulated. Furthermore, enforcement of guidelines is limited. Some activists argue that the laws have become too lenient.

Ongoing Issues

By the 1950’s, most unfair and unsafe U.S. child labor practices had been eliminated or lessened dramatically. The businesses that employed children changed after that decade as well. Whereas children during the early part of the twentieth century and before worked in factories, late twentieth and early twenty-first century working teens were employed by department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, and other retail companies.

Dangers vary for children in the twenty-first century. One problematic area is an increased level of decision-making responsibility given to teens who may not be developmentally capable of choosing the best options. This responsibility may result in the children taking unwise risks that can cause injury. Sexual harassment of young female workers is another danger.

Education remains a concern as well. Studies show that academic performance is negatively affected by long hours and stressful work situations. In addition, research suggests that children working at least twenty hours per week during their high school years are regularly involved in illegal or borderline activities, increasing their chances of school suspension. School attendance is also affected by teen employment.

As in the past, moreover, child agricultural workers are regularly ignored or excluded from legislative and regulatory measures. A significant percentage of laborers aged sixteen and younger are injured or killed in work-related accidents on farms owned by their parents. Changes in legislation and regulatory practices could theoretically prevent many of these accidents. Further, the many migrant children, primarily Latino, working on farms are still treated poorly in many areas of the country. Employers reportedly make these children work more than ten hours per day and expose them to dangerous chemicals, among other violations.

Further Reading
  • Greene, Laura Offenhartz. Child Labor: Then and Now. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992. This simple overview of American child labor from the beginnings of the country until the early 1990’s provides information on the history, reformation, and legislation of child labor.
  • Hindman, Hugh D. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. Provides excellent historical and theoretical commentary through both primary and secondary sources on the subject. Though the focus of the book is on child labor history, the author connects the history to twenty-first century problems in America and beyond.
  • Levine, Marvin J. Children for Hire: The Perils of Child Labor in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Levine challenges the idea that there are no longer major problems with child labor. He argues that child labor laws have become too lenient and that not enough has been done to keep American children safe in the workforce.
  • Manheimer, Ann, ed. Child Labor and Sweatshops. Detroit, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Addresses political, economic, and social aspects of child labor through a series of articles that are reprinted from a variety of sources. The simple format is easy to follow and provides a strong overview.
  • Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970. Overview of the relationship between the National Child Labor Committee and the child labor reform movement beginning during the early twentieth century. Focuses on child labor legislation and its progress in making changes in the lives of working children in the United States.
  • Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985. Provides a synopsis of the way adults have valued children over the last few centuries, including how children’s labor has varied between a moral and an economic issue.


Child product safety laws

Farm labor

Indentured labor

American Industrial Revolution

Supreme Court and labor law

United Farm Workers of America

Women in business

Categories: History