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Child Labor in the Early Twentieth Century

Child Labor in the Early Twentieth Century

The 1900 U.S. census (a count of the nation's population and related statistics taken every ten years) showed that 1.75 million children (about 18.2 percent) aged ten to fifteen years old were working. Not included in the census were children younger than ten who held jobs in mills, in factories, and on the streets. Had this group been included, the total number of child laborers would have exceeded two million (about 21 percent).

Children held many types of jobs. Kids as young as five often worked as newsies (children who sold newspapers on the streets), toiling

into the midnight hours. They often got sick because of the long hours and bad weather, and many died due to lack of nutrition and medicine.

Other young children worked in factories, running large machines. They worked twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts, eating only during break time. Children's jobs also included rolling cigars, weaving baskets, picking fruit, working with oysters and shrimp, and setting bowling pins. Many of these jobs required children to work many hours even before sunrise.

Many children also worked informally in fabric mills, tagging along with an older sibling. The average pay for children in fabric mills was 48 cents for a twelve-hour day. A Georgia widow and five of her nine children worked in a mill in 1909 and earned $9 per week (about $166.38 a week in modern currency). Children were paid less than adults, who were also underpaid during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, many believed that children should work because it helped them develop a strong work ethic. Many employers took advantage of children; parents found it difficult to keep their kids away from hard labor because the additional income was crucial to the family's survival.

Breaker boys

The most difficult child labor of the era involved children working in anthracite (hard) coal mines. (See Coal Mining .) Mining families were traditionally large, with many children. Eight- or nine-year-old boys would lie about their age in order to secure a job in a breaker (a large factory where coal is processed). These young boys came to be known as breaker boys.

A breaker boy typically began work at 7:00 AM and worked ten-hour days. He was paid 5 to 7 cents an hour. Sitting on a wooden bench across from a long chute, the breaker boy's job was to separate—by hand—slate rock from broken coal. Most boys could not afford gloves, so their unprotected fingers were usually bloody from the sharp slate. Boys who fell asleep or who did not work fast enough would be struck with a cane or a whip.

A common saying about coal miners was “Once a man, twice a boy.” Most miners began their careers as breaker boys. They moved onto mine work, then returned to the breakers when black lung (a medical condition caused by breathing coal dust) forced them out of the mines. The average life span of a miner was 32 years. Early death occurred due to black lung, explosions, or machine accidents. Because the job was considered too dangerous, insurance companies provided no coverage, meaning injured workers could not receive medical treatment and families received no financial compensation when a loved one died.

Finally, labor reform

Before the federal government passed legislation to regulate labor laws, many states enacted their own laws. For example, by 1914, most states set the minimum child labor age at twelve or fourteen; a maximum workday was ten hours. Even with the new laws, enforcement was difficult, and parents encouraged their children to lie about their ages in order to add money to a family's income.

Slowly, legislation continued to pass that helped children. In 1902, for example, Maryland became the first state to pass workman's compensation laws, which assured workers hurt on the job that they would receive some income while they were away from work recovering from their injury. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) formed. The NCLC fought hard for federal child labor law reform. The first federal child labor law passed in 1916 but was in effect only until 1918. The law prohibited employers from moving goods across state lines if they violated minimum age laws. But like many other laws of its kind, this legislation failed because it was nearly impossible to enforce. In 1916, the Keating-Owens Act passed, requiring children in industry to be at least fourteen years old and those in mining to be at least sixteen. Children under the age of sixteen were forbidden to work eight-hour days or to work nights.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act became law, regulating and enforcing for the first time minimum ages of employment and work hours for children. (See also Labor Movement .)

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