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Danger: Children at Work--A Bibliographic Time Capsule

Prepared by Henry P. Guzda,
Historian/Industrial Relations Specialist
U.S. Department of Labor
January 23, 1998


"Our little boys should not be forced into the mines so early in life; our little girls should not be compelled to work in the mills and factories at an age when they should be in school...."

Recent publicity on onerous child labor exploitation throughout the world might lead one to believe that this statement refers to the sweatshops of Indonesia, Pakistan, India, or Saipan. The Department of Labor, among other institutions, has focused on the unacceptable use of children to produce "sweated" clothes, sporting equipment, and even the toys we give our own children. Trade union publications have devoted considerable editorial space to enlighten readers about both domestic and international child-labor abuses. Industry giants such as Levi Strauss, manufacturer of the popular blue jeans wearing apparel, have pledged not to employ children for their production.

While the Department of Labor always had some oversight responsibilities for the protection of young workers, the past several years have seen even more intense activity in this area. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, his Wage and Hour Division Administrator, Maria Echeveste, and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs have engaged in high-profile projects to expose the worst violators. One departmentally sponsored conference revealed an almost Dickensian scenario where 7 and 8 year-old children in Pakistan hand-sewed soccer ball panels together - this sport has had an almost epidemic increase in popularity among American youth. At still another conference involving the apparel industry and the department, testimony focussed on young girls in Central America putting "Made in the USA" labels on locally made, sweated goods. An exhibit at the Department of Labor, sponsored by its International Labor Affairs Bureau, presented photos of child-produced oriental rugs. Considering this exposure, one might guess that our introductory quotation addressed such modern problems. Yet, it did not stem from protests against child labor in the jungles of Indonesia or the hovels of New Delhi, but from the Anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania at the turn of the 19th century. During the great 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers Union, agonized over the plight of child workers stating, "These boys in the hard coal region are men. As I saw those eager eyes peering at me from eager little faces, the fight had a new meaning for me; I felt I was fighting the battle for innocent childhood." [See: Proceedings of the Anthracite Coal Commission: 1902-1903 Nos. 1-56 (original stenographic copies); and John Mitchell, Organized Labor, Philadelphia, 1903.]

As the U.S. embarked on the age of industrial capitalism, beginning in the 1890s, an unwholesome byproduct was child labor. It was a serious stain on the fabric of American society: young boys worked 12 to 16 hours a day in the coal fields and glass factories of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio; young girls sweated similar hours in the textile factories of both New England and in the post-reconstruction new South; homeless newsboys -"newsies"- in many urban areas sold papers during the day and slept in alleys at night. Some of this tragedy violated rarely enforced state child labor laws. [See: Bulletins of the Bureau of Labor Statistics 1886-present and Child Labor Bulletin: of the National Child Labor Committee 1904-1920 (publications under various titles).]

The state reports of various bureaus of labor and industry contain Gothic horror stories of breaker boys mangled or killed in coal mine accidents or children disfigured by hot molten glass. The Department of Labor Library has one of the richest collections of these state reports, with special emphasis on industrial areas such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts, as well as those from agricultural regions such as Kansas.

Dating to 1869, the Reports of the Bureau of Labor, Massachusetts are the oldest of state reports. Another such report is from The New York State Factory Investigating Commission, which reported to the state Industrial Commissioner and future Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, it investigated the plight of legally employed children 14 and 15 years-old suffering from amputated fingers and lacerated flesh by the constantly moving machinery parts in their workplaces. Perkins convinced her fellow commissioners to tour basement bakery operations in the middle of the night, to see both children and adults working amid horrific conditions, where animal droppings fell into flour bins used in making bread. [See: Reports of the New York Factory Investigating Commission, 1911-1915.]

Private social reform organizations, such as the National Child Labor Committee and the National Consumer's League, also did extensive research and investigation into child labor, and many of those documents were sent to the Children's Bureau, later to be incorporated into the main Department of Labor Library. Of particular interest to these groups was the effect of work on the very young, and how state labor laws exempted them from coverage. For example, in one issue of the Child Labor Bulletin, the following event was exposed: "Eight year old Daisy "caps" cans...she placed small tin disk that is finally soldered to the cover on the cans of fruit and vegetables. She caps 40 cans a minute, trying with all her childish strength to keep pace with a never-exhausted machine. Her state (Delaware) considers fruits and vegetables of such great importance that all cannery work and even the manufacture of fruit and berry baskets are exempted from its child labor law."

The Department of Labor Library was the direct beneficiary of the movement to banish exploitative child labor in the U.S. In fact, the amalgamation of the Children's Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics libraries in 1917, formed the nucleus of the U.S. Department of Labor Library. As a result, the numerous investigative and research reports of the child labor reform organizations, the myriad of monographs and periodical articles on the subject, and the government publications on proposed legislative reforms in this area, comprised a great deal of the "book-shelf" space. The Child Labor Committee publications have an added bonus for the department's library, in that Lewis Hine, the patron saint of child labor photography, had his pictures published in those works. The Department of Labor Library shares the rights to those photos with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The many reports, pamphlets and monographs in this collection were written by a virtual Who's Who of social reformers. For example, a future Director of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau, Mary Van Kleeck, in the January 18, 1908, edition of the publication Charities and the Commons, described licensed tenement "sweating system" factories in New York as disease ridden and exploitive of children.

"The presence of a contagious, infectious, or communicable disease, or the existence of unclean or unsanitary conditions is sufficient ground for forbidding home work. But, if no such unhealthy or unsanitary conditions exist, the fact that three sickly children aged eleven, nine and six years, are at work, is the concern of no official department, a violation of no law."

That same publication reprinted a speech by Dr. Felix Adler, also of the Child Labor Committee, in a March, 1902, edition citing conditions among New York City child laborers. Addler said, "It is strange that we do nothing for our little newsboys. They are out at all hours of the night and day, exposed to the most inclement weather.... By the time they have reached their fourteenth year they are worn out."

It became fairly obvious that Federal, not state legislation, was needed to break the rigid chains of child labor bondage. The department's Children's Bureau published a considerable number of studies on reform efforts in this area. The Child, a monthly summary of news on child labor issues (1936-1950), exposed a broad range of reform ideas for eliminating the scourge of youth. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (1933-1945), who would be the guiding force behind the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set regulations for young workers on a national scale. She once stated, "All attempts to establish just labor standards... have included a basic minimum age below which children are not to compete with adults for industrial or commercial employment." [See: Jonathan Grossman, "The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage," Monthly Labor Review (June, 1978).]

The historical materials in the DOL facility are not exclusive to domestic problems. Child labor regulations were a major concern of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The first international conference held in Washington in 1919 adopted conventions (standards), setting the minimum age for industrial employment at 14 years of age. Similar conventions covering employment at sea and in agriculture (1920 and 1921 respectively) were also adopted. The U.S. officially became a member in 1934 and most of the ILO publications on child labor as well as other monographs and pamphlets are also among the DOL Library's holdings.

Domestic and international child labor problems intertwined in the American workplace of the early 20th century. In 1904, immigration through the receiving station at Ellis Island surpassed one million entries a year. Most of the newcomers entered the urban jungles of our large cities. Tenement factories sprouted up with abandon. Mary Van Kleeck [in Charities and the Commons, January 18, 1908] found that "No maker of artificial flowers can employ in his factory any child under 14 years-of-age. He may give out work to an Italian family, in whose tenement rooms flowers are made by six children, ages 2½, 5, 8, 10, 14 and 16." In the coal fields, recent Slavic and Italian immigrants like the Irish and German waves before them, sent their sons to work in the mines [Carroll Wright, Commissioner of Labor, "Report of the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902," Bureau of Labor Bulletin #43 (November, 1902); and Victor Greene, The Slavic Community on Strike: Immigrant Labor in Pennsylvania Anthracite University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.] While not recent immigrants by the 1900s, African-American children of tender years broiled in the hot sun picking cotton and other agricultural produce [Lewis Hine Photographs in Bulletins of the National Child Labor Committee].

When Congress created the Federal U.S. Department of Labor in 1913, one of its primary goals was the administration of legal child labor and the elimination of illegal practices. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson (1913-1921), was a breaker-boy in the Anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, his successor James Davis (1921-1930) was a "puddler" as a boy in a steel mill in Pittsburgh [See: Speeches and Addresses of the Secretaries of Labor, 1913-1965], and Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet officer in U.S. history, met immigrant girls on the docks of Philadelphia as a young social worker to prevent pimps from recruiting them as prostitutes [George Martin, Madame Secretary]. Perkins was a strong proponent of the National Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution, which would have established a 16-year minimum age for work in the U.S. While this effort fell short, she was able to get some restrictions on the employment of young men and women in the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1934 [See: Proceedings and Hearings Relating to the National Industrial Recovery Act and Legislative Histories of the Minimum Wage]. As mentioned, she was a key figure in the child labor regulations included in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Cries for legislative redress to child labor abuse grew louder as the "second industrial revolution" in the U.S. (1890-1920) plunged the workforce into the dark and satanic abyss of the factory system. In fact, child labor was considered beneficial by many of America's founding figures. The diary of George Washington describes a Massachusetts cloth factory where each spinning wheel "has a small girl to turn [it]." [See: U.S. Congress, Report on the Conditions of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States, Vol. VI (a BLS study), 61st Congress, 2d session, 1910.] Prior to the Civil War, many states looked to legislation to reduce the hours of excessive work for children and adults. By 1853, seven states enacted laws limiting the hours children could work. [See Reports of Bureaus of Labor -- Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island.] The Knights of Labor, one of the first national trade union organizations, advocated legal prohibition of child labor by the 1870s. [See Journal of the Knights of Labor.]

The power to prohibit child labor, by judicial interpretation of the courts, was considered a matter left to the states. A federal law, the Keating-Owen Law of 1916, which set a 14 year-old minimum age for employment, was challenged by Southern textile manufacturers and ruled unconstitutional in 1918, in the famous Hammer v. Dagenhart case. A similar law passed in 1919 met the same fate in 1922. In 1924, Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution that would have covered child labor, but it was never ratified by a sufficient number of states . Much of the literature spawned by these debates -- Congressional testimony, government reports, periodical articles, and public speeches -- has been catalogued and is available in the Department of Labor Library.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as we have noted, established regulations for employment of young workers. It continues to monitor activities. Yet the scourge of child labor still exists. In 1960, a documentary produced by journalist Edward R. Murrow, Harvest of Shame, in which Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell participated, illustrated how "beans were in competition with school among migrant workers, and beans were [sic] winning." The influx of both political and economic immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s has been well documented, and arguments over free trade agreements often involve the issue of child labor. As one labor leader stated,

"American capitalists are investing in China with the idea of crushing out the unions of America, and it is time for us to wake up from our slumbers... across our borders in Mexico you will find [steel plants and smelters]. They do not go there to establish schools to make good mechanics. Modern ingenuity has made it possible for a child to run some of the machines, and the child will get the job while the men must tramp."

Just as in the opening paragraph of this essay, one could imagine that John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, had made this statement. It is, however, a quote from the radical labor leader Mother-Mary Harris-Jones, who said it in 1910.

All the citations in this essay were taken from publications in the U.S. Department of Labor's Wirtz Labor Library.