Children’s Bureau Is Founded

The establishment of the Children’s Bureau marked the first time the U.S. government accepted responsibility for the basic rights and welfare of the nation’s youngest citizens.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the sentimental portrait of carefree, rosy-cheeked children protected within the bosom of the loving family was a myth of the popular imagination. The reality of the lives of many American children was much harsher. One in twenty children died before the age of five; probably half of these deaths were preventable. At least two million children were working long hours in mines and factories, often under appalling conditions. Arrangements for the care of orphaned, neglected, and delinquent children were inadequate or nonexistent. The death or desertion of the family wage earner, usually the male head of household, spelled tragedy for mothers without insurance, widows’ benefits, or government support. They often had to work outside the home, leaving children as young as eight or nine to care for their even younger siblings. Children’s Bureau[Childrens Bureau]
Child labor
Workplace safety;children
[kw]Children’s Bureau Is Founded (Apr. 9, 1912)[Childrens Bureau Is Founded (Apr. 9, 1912)]
Children’s Bureau[Childrens Bureau]
Child labor
Workplace safety;children
[g]United States;Apr. 9, 1912: Children’s Bureau Is Founded[03070]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 9, 1912: Children’s Bureau Is Founded[03070]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 9, 1912: Children’s Bureau Is Founded[03070]
Addams, Jane
Kelley, Florence
Lathrop, Julia C.
Lindsey, Ben B.
Murphy, Edgar Gardner
Spargo, John
Wald, Lillian D.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the political movement called Progressivism Progressive movement was gaining followers among middle-class Americans. This optimistic movement, with its faith in the power of democracy, demanded reforms of the abuses of unrestrained industrialism and urban political corruption. The traditional American belief in rugged individualism tended to lead to the related belief that the plight of the poor was the result of their own shiftlessness. Social activists working in settlement houses in Boston, New York, and Chicago, however, recognized poverty as a widespread social problem that could not be solved through private charity. These reformers began to work for legislation for better housing, fair labor policies, and the rights of women.

These issues were closely tied to the problem of child labor. Some states had laws protecting the rights of children, but they were seldom enforced. Americans had strong feelings about the sacredness of family life and a fear of government interference in private matters. The reformers appealed to the rising spirit of Progressivism, arguing that social problems could be better solved through legislation than through charity. Focusing on the inhumane conditions in which poor children lived, the reformers argued that strong, healthy children are the hope of a democratic society and that improving children’s lives is an investment in the future.

American children had always worked on family farms and as apprentices learning trades, and these kinds of work were considered beneficial as training for responsible adulthood. Clearly, however, children who worked under dangerous conditions without adequate food or rest were exhausted and debilitated—not benefited—by their labor. While industrialists continued to argue for the benefits of work for children, reformers accused them of exploiting children as a cheap source of labor and an alternative to investing in machinery.

Julia C. Lathrop.

(Library of Congress)

In 1906, muckraking author John Spargo published The Bitter Cry of the Children, Bitter Cry of the Children, The (Spargo) which aroused national indignation with its graphic descriptions of the horrors of the lives of poor children. Boys as young as nine or ten worked in coal mines, crouched for ten-hour shifts picking slate from coal chutes, breathing clouds of coal dust. Accidents resulting in crushed hands and cut fingers were common. All too often, boys were pulled into machinery and mangled to death. Others worked underground in mud on fourteen-hour shifts as mule drivers. Conditions in other industries were equally terrible. Working children were often exposed to toxic substances. Some were poisoned when their bodies absorbed dyes in textile mills or the phosphorus used in making matches. Others inhaled varnish used in furniture manufacturing or naphtha fumes from rubber making. Some children were shipped from state to state to follow seasonal work in agriculture or canning and so were denied the opportunity for education.

Even before Spargo’s book raised public consciousness about the lives of poor children, some communities had begun to institute health measures to save young lives from the ravages of rickets, pneumonia, measles, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. Boston began a program of preventive medicine in 1894, providing prenatal care for mothers and medical exams for schoolchildren. In 1897, the city of Rochester, New York, cut the death rate of infants and children in half by pasteurizing the milk supply. In 1908, New York City recognized the need for special attention to the health of children and created the Division of Child Hygiene.

Public attitudes toward the treatment of delinquent children were changing, too, largely because of the work of Judge Ben B. Lindsey, one of the first American jurists to treat young offenders as victims of their environment. Lindsey was horrified by the abuse that children involved in crimes received at the hands of police. He believed that such children could not be saved by a criminal law based on fear and vengeance; rather, they needed kindness and patient understanding. Lindsey’s work in the early years of the twentieth century revolutionized the field of juvenile law.

This growing public attention to the needs of children, combined with the efforts of social workers to regulate child labor, led to the federal government’s establishment of the Children’s Bureau. The earliest organized attempt to pass a child labor law was initiated by Edgar Gardner Murphy, an Episcopalian minister who was appalled by the treatment of children in southern textile mills. Murphy founded the Alabama Child Labor Committee in 1901. Although the group successfully pressured the state legislature to pass a law for a minimum working age, the mill owners were powerful enough to keep the law from being enforced. In 1904, Murphy founded the National Child Labor Committee National Child Labor Committee to work for local and state legislation.

Other social activists, however, such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian D. Wald, were convinced that only a federal government agency devoted to the protection of children could overcome industry’s organized opposition to anti-child labor legislation. In 1893, Kelley and Addams, both associated with Hull House in Chicago, had been instrumental in the passage of the Illinois Factory Act, which established minimum age rules and regulated working hours for children. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, declared the law unconstitutional, and Illinois did not pass an effective child labor law until 1903.

In 1906, the National Child Labor Committee introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that would establish a children’s agency in the federal government. This action, and the continued efforts of social activists, resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt’s calling the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909. This conference, attended by representatives from charitable organizations in all the states and from the juvenile courts, passed a resolution for the establishment of the Children’s Bureau.

Congress finally passed the law establishing the Children’s Bureau as an agency in the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1912. President William Howard Taft signed the bill into law on April 9, 1912. The bureau had no power to enact or enforce legislation; its duties were to “investigate and report . . . upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and . . . especially [to] investigate the questions of infant mortality, the birth rate, orphanages, juvenile courts, desertion, dangerous occupations, accidents and diseases of children, employment, and legislation affecting children.” Named as the first head of the bureau was Julia C. Lathrop of the Illinois State Board of Charities, an associate of Jane Addams with a long record of activism in the field of mental health and the juvenile courts. Lathrop was the first woman appointed as chief of a federal agency and the highest-paid woman in government service at that time.


Even with responsibility for the interests of children consolidated in one federal agency, legislative progress in this area was slow and painstaking. The states feared federal intrusion into their traditional rights, and families and churches felt threatened by the idea that the government would try to take over their duties.

From 1912 to 1921, the Children’s Bureau investigated and reported on infant and child mortality rates, community care for neglected and delinquent children, aid to families, and child labor. Lathrop sent a plan for public health services for mothers and children to Congress in 1917. The plan included maternity care, preventive medical care, and health services for rural children. As a result of Lathrop’s efforts, in 1921 Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, Sheppard-Towner Act (1921)[Sheppard Towner Act] the first federal grant to states funding maternal and infant care. Lathrop also asked American women to write to her about their families and to ask for advice, and in return she sent them free booklets, often with personal notes of encouragement. Two Children’s Bureau pamphlets, Prenatal Care and Infant Care, became the most frequently requested government documents of all time.

Attempts to regulate child labor were less successful at first. In 1916, Congress adopted the recommendation of the National Child Labor Committee and prohibited interstate shipment of products made in factories by children under the age of fourteen (sixteen in mines) and limitation of the workday to eight hours. In 1918, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, citing states’ rights, declared the law unconstitutional. The next attempt to regulate child labor was a proposed constitutional amendment giving Congress the right to regulate workers under the age of eighteen. Organized interests of agriculture and industry succeeded in defeating this amendment with a scare campaign, threatening that this legislation would allow government to take control of family life. Not until 1938 did Congress pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) which set a minimum wage for all workers, allowed a maximum workweek of forty-four hours, and prohibited interstate shipment of goods produced by children under the age of sixteen.

One of the most important results of the Children’s Bureau’s advocacy for children was passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. Social Security Act (1935) Families benefited from the act’s provisions for old-age insurance, employment compensation, and public health. More directly, this legislation gave the bureau administrative responsibility for three programs: maternal and child health services, medical care for disabled children, and child welfare services.

In the years after the passage of the federal legislation against child labor, the bureau turned its attention to urgent problems as they arose. Among the issues it addressed were child abuse, racism, foster care and adoption, and mental retardation. In the 1980’s, the Children’s Bureau became an agency within the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services. In keeping with its original purpose, the bureau successfully convinced the American public that the basic rights and welfare of children are indeed the business of government. Children’s Bureau[Childrens Bureau]
Child labor
Workplace safety;children

Further Reading

  • Bradbury, Dorothy E. The Children’s Bureau and Juvenile Delinquency. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960. An overview of specific actions of the bureau in the field of juvenile delinquency throughout its history, as well as a list of government publications on this subject.
  • Bremner, Robert H. From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 1956. Traces the development of American social reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and shows how social reform movements led to legislation regarding housing, child labor, women’s issues, and workplace safety.
  • Davis, Allen F. Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914. 1967. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Detailed history of the contributions to social reform made by activists in the settlement house movement in Chicago, Boston, and New York. Provides biographical information about major figures such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, documented by private correspondence and contemporary newspaper articles.
  • Faulkner, Harold U. The Quest for Social Justice, 1898-1914. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Reprint. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971. Useful historical overview of the Progressive Era describes the development of new public awareness of the injustices resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Details the growth of social consciousness and the rise of organized labor, economic and political demands by women, and advocacy for the rights of children.
  • Green, Frederick C. “Six Decades of Action for Children.” Children Today 6 (March/April, 1972): 2-6. Brief history of the evolution of the original Children’s Bureau from its beginnings as a service of the Department of Labor and Commerce. Describes the bureau’s changing concerns and influence on legislation to improve the lives of children.
  • Lindenmeyer, Kriste.“A Right to Childhood”: The U.S. Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-46. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Discusses the work of the Children’s Bureau from its establishment through World War II and analyzes where the bureau succeeded in its aims and where it failed. Includes notes, select bibliography, and index.
  • Reece, Carolyn. “The Children’s Bureau 75th Anniversary: The Commitment Continues.” Children Today 16 (September/October, 1987): 4-9. Notable for poignant quotations from letters written by mothers to Julia Lathrop asking for medical help in childbirth and advice on the care of infants. Includes a chart of organizational changes and legislation passed as a result of action by the Children’s Bureau.
  • Spargo, John. The Bitter Cry of the Children. 1906. Reprint. New York: Irvington, 1972. One of the most influential books of its time, widely read by the general public. A passionate and factual account of the lives of neglected, starved, exhausted, and abused children.
  • Tanenhaus, David S. Juvenile Justice in the Making. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. History of the first juvenile court in the United States examines the social and political context in which advocates fought to protect children in the early twentieth century. Includes bibliographic essay and index.
  • Tobey, James A. The Children’s Bureau: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1925. One of a series of government monographs detailing the history, functions, activities, and organization of the Children’s Bureau. Presents facts and statistics regarding the activities of the agency in its early years.

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