Child Labor in the United States has a long history and still exists in many places around the globe. Child labor existed throughout the country. It’s certainly hard to picture today, but if we were to travel back in time and suddenly find ourselves in a New England Mill in the mid-1800s or on a family owned farm, it would be commonplace to see young children doing work that most adults would find difficult today. Conditions were such that once a child was physically able to work, they were expected to contribute to the success of the family farm, were hired out to another family who had more work or labored in factory with machines that were deemed simple to use. They were newspaper boys, messengers, shined shoes of the wealthy, worked in shops, took care of younger children while both parents were at work. For enslaved children, they were working alongside their parents at a very young age, for no pay. In northern factories, shops, in homes where goods produced we see child labor, but child labor was more prevalent in Southern cotton mills and the state of Pennsylvania had one of the highest numbers of child laborers in the country. To understand how prevalent, it was, one only has to look at US Census records. In the 1870 census 1 out of every 8 children was employed. By 1900, that number rose to 1 in 5 children. Conditions were such that children had to work in order to make ends meet. You have stories of children as young as 5 dying in factory fires. The stories would make headlines but not in the way you would think. The reaction was more let’s try to make things safer, not why are 5 year olds working in factory? That factory needs to be shut down and those children should be in school. That didn’t happen, at least not right away.
By the late 1800s, some states passed minimum age laws, others passed maximum working hours which in some states was 10 hours a day. Stories of children being beaten by their boss for not working fast enough or coming late to work were common.
Edgar Gardner Murphy was the founder of the National Child Labor Committee. It was created in 1904. They hoped to get states to pass minimum age laws, 14 for some industries and 16 for the more dangerous ones like mining; and an 8-hour work day. The National Child Labor Committee hired a former teacher and sociologist named Lewis Hine. He traveled throughout the country and at times even undercover, took photographs of children working in different industries and settings. Investigators from the NCLC worked to gather evidence of children working in harsh conditions and then organized exhibitions with photographs and statistics to paint an accurate picture of child labor in the United States.
Mary Harris Jones who was known as Mother Jones worked tirelessly to end child labor. A woman who suffered unimaginable loss in today’s standards but sadly for her time, it was common. Her husband and all 4 of her children died from Yellow Fever. That’s the kind of loss that one really can’t wrap their mind around. She led a march of child workers who had been injured in all sorts of ways. Missing hands, fingers you name it and they marched from Pennsylvania to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, NY. He refused to them. It gave the cause the publicity it needed. President Roosevelt didn’t think that a Federal Law restricting child labor was constitutional. Instead, he felt that power belonged to individual states.
During the next administration, The Children’s Bureau was signed into law by President Taft in 1912. The Bureau still exists today. When it was first created, the bureau of course dealt with issues like child labor, but also high infant mortality rates, improvement of condition of orphans with the creation of child welfare agencies and the creation of juvenile courts. Orphans living in overcrowded cities were often transported by trains to various locations in the Midwest to either work or to be adopted by families. Today, the Children’s Bureau is responsible for ensuring the safety and welfare of children in the United States.
The Keating-Owen Bill was passed in 1916, the law prohibited the sale in interstate commerce of goods produced by factories that employed children under fourteen, mines that employed children younger than sixteen, and any facility where children under fourteen worked after 7:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m. or more than eight hours daily. but was found unconstitutional 9 months after its passage because the court felt Congress didn’t have the power to regulate working conditions.
It will not be until 1938, when the first Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. It set a minimum wage, maximum working hours, a minimum age of 16 except hazardous jobs where the age was 18.
Labor Unions also worked to improve conditions for workers. Factories were dirty and dark, workers sometimes got hurt on the job and their wages were low. Labor Unions supported child labor laws because the drew down wages. They also tended to be anti-immigrant for the same reasons. The idea was to have an 8-hour work day. 8 hours for work, 8 for leisure and 8 for sleep.
The Knights of Labor started in 1869 and started off as a group of tailors. Over time, the union grew to include skilled workers in a number of different industries. Think of it as a union of Unions. There were only a few groups that weren’t allowed to join. Terrence Powderly took over in 1881 and allowed women to join the union. The Knights of Labor supported an 8-hour work day and hoped to improve conditions in the workplace. They organized a number of successful strikes within the railroad industry.
The American Federation of Labor was created in 1886 and was led by Samuel Gompers a member of the cigar makers’ union and served as its president until his death. They hoped to obtain shorter hours, higher wages and better working conditions. The AFL still exists today. It is known as the AFL-CIO and still champions the rights of workers.
IWW Industrial Workers of the World was created out of the need and want for better working conditions. Many workers, especially in the west, began to gravitate towards Socialism. In 1905, leaders of the Western Federation of Miners or the WFM, members of the Socialist Party and other groups met in Chicago and founded the IWW. They believed that workers of the world needed to unite, grab hold of the means of production and abolish the wage system. They believed that groups like the AFL were too conservative. They supported the use of strikes or even sabotage if it would further their cause Known for its many famous labor anthems, probably the most famous is solidarity forever which is sung the same tune as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Their motto was “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Members of the IWW were known as Wobblies. During WWI and the first Red Scare in the US during the 1920s, the US government went after the IWW. The group experienced a bit of a resurgence during the Civil Rights Era and still exists today.
During the Progressive Era, not only are we looking at the ills of child labor and trying to improve the conditions of workers, we are also looking to improve education. Progressive Education Movement (1896-1916) In 1919 the Progressive Education Association was established.
"progressive education" aimed to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society. Now, what do I mean by that? It was the idea that schools needed to be able to help shape individuals to be active participants in all facets of life. Schools can’t just be teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. That individuals needed to be given the tools to make decisions in regards to social, political and economic aspects of their lives.
If you think back to what was taught in Ancient Greece, specifically in the city-state of Athens. Education and Democracy went hand in hand.
After 1910, you see even smaller cities throughout the country begin building high schools. By 1940, 50% of young adults had earned a high school diploma. Fewer Progressive reformers were as important as John Dewey. Dewey taught at both the University of Chicago and Teacher’s College at Columbia University. He believed schools had a dual purpose. A place for people to not just simply acquire necessary knowledge but to hone in on each person’s strengths and interests so that they could then go and use their talents to help build up society. Schools should also be a place that taught people how to be good citizens, how to live.
In some of John Dewey’s works such as The School and Society, The Child and the Curriculum, Schools of Tomorrow, and Democracy and Education, and through numerous lectures and articles he discussed how schools could be improved. In 1919, the Progressive Education Association was founded, aiming at "reforming the entire school system of America."
Another important Progressive Era reformer in regards to education that we should discuss is Colonel Francis W. Parker. He was a Civil War veteran who with the help of benefactors, established a school in Chicago. When the Civil War ended he resumed his teaching career and he also had the opportunity to travel to Germany and learn new philosophies and teaching styles that were being taught there. He brought those new ideas back with him. John Dewey called him “the father of Progressive Education”. He believed it was important to provide students with opportunities to learn through real experiences with the world rather than only by rote memorization. He spoke out against harsh punishments from teachers. This is a time where students could and would be hit by their teachers for a variety of infractions. The idea that children learn best when they are given hands on opportunities to learn. The idea that children learn best when they are encouraged to study and read about topics they enjoy. The information being taught should be engaging and interesting. These were all very radical ideas at the start of the 20th Century. He started the school in 1901 and it started out with 144 students. The Francis W. Parker School still exists today and if you go to their website, their mission is rooted in Parker’s beliefs. “Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.”
During the Progressive Era, education was becoming something that only a small, privileged number in society had access to. Vocational training was preferred for the masses. If you think about it, if you are coming from a lower socio-economic status, you don’t have the means to go to school, to be privately tutored, to go to college? You’re going into the work force, maybe you are lucky enough to be an apprentice of sorts and to learn a trade. You need to start working and make money as soon as possible. Our Grandfather was born in 1909. He was one of 18 children, 11 survived to adulthood. When his father died, he and his older brother had to go to work. He was lucky in that he got to finish high school, his older brother wasn’t that lucky. Most people in the early 1900s, had as much schooling as was necessary for them to be productive in society. If you are of the poor or lower middle class, the opportunities for schooling and how long you could remain in school were far less than your middle class, upper middle class or wealthier families.
Education is one of those fields where it is not a typical business. You are dealing with people. Every child that is in a teacher’s classroom is different and unique. There are different learning styles, there are different levels of ability. There are different emotional needs. You have a child who lives in poverty, maybe a child who is homeless. They have different needs. There are things that are more important to them like where are they going to sleep, will they have a meal tonight, over the weekend will they eat? You think they can focus on whatever math or science topic is being discussed? You have a child who is abused at home, physically, emotionally, sexually) You have a child where a parent has lost a job and they are working after school or have to pick up or take care of younger siblings. You have a child who comes home and no one is there until late at night. What people who have never taught don’t understand is that there are children in classrooms that are dealing with things every day that would make most full grown adults crumble. The last two years, children across the globe have not had a normal school experience with the pandemic. I was speaking to a friend of mine whose daughter is the same age as my youngest. They don’t know school without having to wear a mask. On the first day her daughter didn’t have to wear a mask, she said “Mom, you mean my teacher will be able to see my smile today and I can see hers?” This is a child who never voiced opposition to wearing a mask but look at what was she was thinking about. Teachers are teaching content, but they are also caregivers. Every once in a while you will see a story of the teacher who does a child’s hair in the morning. The story of a coach who pays for prom tickets. The stories of teachers who have snacks in their classroom and have a policy of take what you need or want. Those stories are far more common than most realize. Teachers are providing emotional support, they are providing guidance, they are people with whom children are building connections with. I still get letters from former students of mine telling me that I or my class was some of their favorite high school memories. There is no better compliment. Teaching is one of those fields where you have the opportunity to make a difference every single day. Education is also a field where people who have no experience in teaching, have a lot to say or who want to dictate how the teaching is done. Things are constantly changing and the demands placed on most educators are unrealistic. Look at some of the bills that are being proposed in some states. Some states are looking to ban books; some states are looking to mandate that educators post all of the lesson plans they will use in the next school year online. In no other industry would this EVER happen.
Education is also not properly funded. Go to gofundme or Donors choose and take a look at what teachers across the country are hoping to raise money for to buy supplies for their classrooms or for their students to make them more successful. Imagine for a minute a Doctor having to do the same to fund the hospital’s operating rooms. The needs of schools and the children they educate are constantly changing. The work that John Dewey and other Progressive reformers started over 100 years ago is still of the utmost importance. The changes that Progressive reformers hoped to make started to scratch the surface of the social problems within society. We are still in need of muckrakers. We are still in need of people rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work.