Jane Addams: “Child Labor and Other Dangers of Childhood” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1906, social activist and feminist Jane Addams addressed a convention of the American Humane Association on the issue of child labor. She argued that putting children to work in the growing American industrial complex denied them the ability to develop in a healthy manner. Child labor, she said, contributed to crime and societal ills. She called for new laws that kept children of a certain age from working. She also urged Americans to take notice of this issue and to take action to halt child-labor practices.

Summary Overview

In 1906, social activist and feminist Jane Addams addressed a convention of the American Humane Association on the issue of child labor. She argued that putting children to work in the growing American industrial complex denied them the ability to develop in a healthy manner. Child labor, she said, contributed to crime and societal ills. She called for new laws that kept children of a certain age from working. She also urged Americans to take notice of this issue and to take action to halt child-labor practices.

Defining Moment

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution took hold in the United States. Across the spectrum of industries, the country saw unparalleled growth and prosperity. However, while this success strengthened the upper and middle classes, the American Industrial Revolution hinged upon the hard work of the country’s poorest citizens. The manufacturing industry, for example, offered jobs, but those jobs commonly required extremely long hours, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, and low wages.

As a result of these employment options, families who moved to US cities (including a high volume of immigrants) in search of opportunities had little choice–parents and children alike needed to work in order to support themselves. While the parents were physically able to endure the harsh conditions prevalent at manufacturing “sweatshops,” children were far less physically and mentally fit for this type of work, according child-labor opposition groups. Even if children could handle the work, there remained a question about the effects of labor on children’s long-term development and health.

In light of these concerns, the call for reform of the nation’s child endangerment and labor laws increased steadily among child advocates and social reformers. One such reformer was Addams, who, with her friend Ellen Starr, founded the social settlement known as Hull House in Chicago in 1889. Hull House was dedicated to combating society’s ills through better understanding and volunteerism. In light of her work with Chicago’s neediest children, Addams was particularly well-suited to see and appreciate the gravity of the child-labor issue.

Addams was not alone in her observations of the impacts of child labor. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formed at a conference of Americans concerned about this issue. In 1911, Addams joined the NCLC’s board of directors. In 1906, Lewis Hine, working for the NCLC, started taking photographs of children at work. He captured haunting images of children working arduously for little pay in cotton mills, mines, and other industrial complexes. These images further fueled public pressure for the reform of child-labor laws. To be sure, most states had passed laws regarding child labor, but, with lax enforcement, those laws were only effective if businesses chose to adhere to them. Activists, such as Addams, and members of the NCLC therefore advocated for stricter laws, passed at the federal level and enforced uniformly in each state.

Author Biography

One of nine children, Laura Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois. Her father, John, was a prominent Illinois state legislator and friend to President Abraham Lincoln. Her mother, Sarah, died while giving birth to a stillborn child. Addams attended Rockford Female Seminary (later Rockford College, and as of 2013, Rockford University). She started medical school in Philadelphia in 1881, but health problems forced her to stop; she instead traveled throughout Europe. She became a prominent Chicago city leader and an internationally renowned feminist, labor leader, and activist. A founder of the ACLU and a member of the executive board of the NCLC, Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, but was admitted to a Baltimore hospital with heart problems on the day she was to receive it. She died on May 21, 1935, from cancer.

Document Analysis

Addams reminds the conference participants of her primary concern: child welfare. In a society, Addams says, people are driven to action whenever a child is hungry, neglected, or otherwise mistreated. However, she identifies a particular danger to children looming at the turn of the century: that of industrial enterprises consistently using–and endangering–children in their pursuit of productivity.

For a child to work in a sweatshop instead of attending school or playing with other children, Addams argues, is to jeopardize that child’s physical and mental development. She cites studies performed in England (which resulted in legal limitations on work hours and conditions for children there) showing that children who worked on assembly lines instead of attending school were shorter and otherwise physically stunted in comparison with their schoolyard counterparts. Americans need to take heed of such studies, the results of which she argues are undeniable fact, and implement similar child-labor laws.

Addams further comments on the social implications of child labor. Here, she cites her own personal experience at Hull House as well as her encounters with fellow child-protection advocates. Hull House has had a large number of clients who were working children, she says. These boys and girls were subjected to high levels of stress when they worked to support their families. In addition to the physical impacts of such stress–weight loss and chronic illness among them–many of the working children she encountered also suffered socially, demonstrating antisocial and criminal behavior. Addams adds that law-enforcement officers with whom she has interacted (including a probation officer she met at the conference where she spoke) revealed that children who worked at sweatshops and other industrial sites were more likely to commit crime.

Addams continues by underscoring the fact that adults who worked in such conditions could barely handle the stress of their work. In comparison, children are especially ill-equipped to take on such roles when they should instead be in the classroom, Addams argues. If they continue to be forced into the workforce at a young age, Addams says, child laborers will be so stunted and “worn out” that even when they reach an adult age, they would likely know and be able to handle menial tasks only.

Americans have long been blind to the issue of child labor and its impacts on young workers (as well as society as whole), Addams says. Congress and the rest of the federal government should enact the strictest child-labor laws, she argues, adding that government was acting far too slowly on the issue, allowing for working children to grow into maladjusted adult laborers with behavioral issues. Addams emphasizes that this trend was not based on speculation: she saw the effects of child labor on the adults with whom she worked daily at Hull House. It is time, she argues, for the federal government to act quickly and pass laws strictly regulating child labor in the United States. If no such laws are enacted, she states, American society can hardly consider itself “civilized” in the future.

Essential Themes

When Addams addressed the American Humane Association in 1906, she offered two perspectives to support her claims with regard to the nation’s child-labor issue. First, she cited statistics and other trend information that revealed the short- and long-term ill effects of child labor on the Americans. Second, she offered her own experience with both child workers and adult former child laborers. The information revealed from both sources, she said, made enacting strict child-labor laws at the federal level not just a necessary legal step but a moral imperative that had implications on future American society.

Children were working long hours in sweatshops and other industrial complexes, Addams said, instead of going to school and learning a wide range of social skills. This trend meant that American laborers were increasingly maladjusted and unable to perform work beyond the menial tasks to which they were exposed as children. The education children received at school far exceeded the lessons learned on an assembly line. After all, she said, normal child development was the product of school and childhood social interaction: children who were denied these experiences were highly likely to have psychological problems (and even criminal tendencies) that would keep them from contributing meaningfully to society.

Addams also relied on her own experiences at Hull House to support her position. Far too many children, she said, were coming to Hull House with social and behavioral issues resulting from having to work. Some came back to Hull House as adults, suffering from a “moral perversion” that would ultimately cause harm to society.

Addams concluded that it was time for Congress to enact strict regulations on child labor. When children were old enough to handle the stress of the workplace, she said, they should be allowed to do so. However, she argued, in the meantime, children should be sent to school to prepare them for the adult world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. London: Penguin, 1910. Print.
  • “Childhood Lost: Child Labor during the Industrial Revolution.” Eastern Illinois University. Eastern Illinois University, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
  • Hindman, Hugh D. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk: Sharpe, 2002. Print.
  • Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1935. Print.
  • Rosenberg, Chaim M. Child Labor in America: A History. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013. Print.
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