National Child Labor Committee

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National Child Labor Committee

United States 1904


To combat labor practices that trapped children in a cycle of poverty by interfering with their schooling and physical development, progressive reformers established the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904. Under the leadership of Felix Adler and Alexander McKelway, the nonpartisan organization focused its energies on the businesses that employed large numbers of children under the age of 15 in hazardous tasks, including midwestern coal mines, New England glass factories, Gulf Coast canneries, and southern textile mills. The committee also objected to the large numbers of children in the street trades, holding jobs such as selling newspapers and providing messenger services. The NCLC successfully used photographs of children, most taken by Lewis Hine, to stimulate public debate about the issue of child labor, but the committee failed to muster enough support for nationwide laws banning labor practices harmful to children.


  • 1884: At the Berlin Conference on African Affairs, 14 nations (including the United States) discuss colonial expansion in Africa and call for an end to slavery and the slave trade.
  • 1890: Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1894: War breaks out between Japan and China. It will end with China's defeat the next year, marking yet another milestone in China's decline and Japan's rise.
  • 1897: Zionist movement is established under the leadership of Theodor Herzl.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1904: The 10-hour workday is established in France.
  • 1904: Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a resounding Japanese victory, begins. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-Western power of modern times.
  • 1908: Ford Motor Company introduces the Model T.
  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.

Event and Its Context

The Problem

The industrialization of the United States brought a number of changes that adversely affected workers. Jobs required more machines and fewer skills, thereby enabling managers to replace expensive skilled labor with workers who could be paid comparatively little and trained in a few hours. With few adult industrial workers able to earn enough to support and educate a family, children were compelled by necessity to enter the work force. By 1900 about 1.7 million children labored in American industries, more than double the number in 1870. In the 10 to 15 year old age group, 18.2 percent were employed, with just under half working in nonagricultural trades such as mining and manufacturing.

Cheap to employ and with small, nimble fingers, children were well suited to performing the repetitious, small tasks that American industry now demanded, but their labor came at a high price. Breaker boys in coal mines sorted coal from slate and developed hunched-over backs along with a pallor. Snapping-up boys in glass factories suffered eye damage from bright, glaring light as they handled molten glass and lung damage from inhaling glass dust. Children of both genders cracked open sharp oyster shells and shelled shrimp in canneries, then soaked their bleeding hands in a strong alum solution to toughen the skin and help heal the wounds. Mill children lost fingers or limbs to machinery, and boys and girls who peeled apples or shelled peas often slipped with the knife and injured themselves.

At the same time, as more children entered the workforce, new ideas about child development also emerged. Americans began to see childhood as a series of stages, each with specific physical and psychological demands that had to be satisfied for the child to progress into a healthy adult able to fulfill his or her potential. Children who spent crucial years at labor would progress into "human junk," as one poster proclaimed, adults doomed to become burdens upon society because of weakened bodies and uncultivated minds. Halting child labor would help to end the cycle of poverty, reduce crime, and ensure the preservation of democracy. On this rising tide of sentiment for child labor reform, the NCLC emerged.

Formation of the NCLC

The first call for an organized anti-child labor movement came from Edgar Gardner Murphy, a progressive Episcopal clergyman from Montgomery, Alabama, who lived close to a textile mill. After listening to the factory whistles call children to work at 4:45 A.M., Murphy saw ill-clad, pallid, often maimed boys and girls tramp home long after dusk. Horrified by the poor state of the children, he subsequently likened child labor to slavery in a series of articles designed to drum up support for the abolition of child labor. Murphy made several appearances before the Alabama state legislature to press for the adoption of a 12-year minimum age for factory work, but opponents successfully neutralized his efforts by painting the native southerner as a tool of New England industrialists determined to destroy the South's prosperity by closing its textile mills. In 1901 Murphy created the Alabama Child Labor Committee, the first such organization in the United States, and soon tasted success. In 1903 Alabama set the highest child labor standards of any southern industrial state by specifying a 12-year age limit and a 66-hour week. In 1902-1903, 15 other states placed child labor statutes on the books, but Murphy believed that the general movement would be more successful with central organization. He had become acquainted with leading reformers as the executive secretary of the New York City-based Southern Education Board, and he used his connections to found the NCLC at a meeting of National Conference of Charities and Correction in Atlanta in 1903.

While Murphy mobilized in Alabama, other progressives were attacking the child labor problem in New York. In 1902Florence Kelley and Lillian D. Wald founded the New York Child Labor Committee, the second such body in the country. Both Kelley and Wald were long-time social reformers. A former labor bureau statistician, Kelley sought to make government more responsive to the needs of the working class. Wald had abandoned an affluent life to combat poverty and suffering as a public health nurse. Founder of the famed Henry Street Settlement, Wald recognized that she could accomplish little to better the lives of immigrants without legislation and spent much of her time lobbying elected officials for labor and health reforms. At the suggestion of Felix Adler, a Columbia University professor, the New York Child Labor Committee joined with Murphy and a few other reformers to set up a national committee based in New York City to take aggressive measures to protect children from premature employment. The drafting committee invited all interested people to a meeting convened at Carnegie Hall on 15 April 1904.

At this first meeting of the NCLC, Adler stated the need for an organization to serve as a moral force against greed and warned of barbaric conditions that placed children in danger. He would serve as the first president of the organization, with Murphy holding the post of the NCLC's general secretary for only one month before resigning. The first permanent general secretary would be Samuel McCune Lindsey, an industrial relations expert and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Lindsey handled day-to-day activities, and an executive committee determined policy and legislative goals. By 1912 the NCLC had a membership of over 6,400 and an annual budget of $13,500.

First NCLC Activities

Most Americans, firm in the belief that children learned valuable skills and discipline by laboring next to their parents, did not realize that the majority of child workers were no longer engaged in the invigorating farm work of years past. The NCLC did not oppose children occasionally working for wages outside the home or doing chores on the family farm or around the house. It objected to the employment of children at monotonous tasks under unhealthful conditions for 10 or 12 hours a day, week in and week out. This work made it next to impossible for children to attend school regularly. To put laws into place that would protect children, the NCLC had to convince Americans that a problem existed.

The first step of the NCLC involved gathering data about child labor, as very few studies of the practice had been conducted. This proved to be a challenge, as NCLC investigators were run out of hotels and forbidden to enter factories. If factory owners did allow entrance, the children were hidden, as many youths later gleefully reported to the NCLC men. Some mill towns even posted signs at the outer limits requiring visitors to get permission before entering.

After managing to collect information despite these obstacles, the NCLC embarked on a public relations crusade to educate Americans about the causes of the problem and possible solutions to it. In its first year of operation, the NCLC distributed more than two million pages of printed matter, much of which went to the nation's newspapers and little of which had any significant impact.

Deciding to capitalize on the emotional power of pictures, the NCLC became the first organization to sponsor documentary photography and the first to use images to influence public opinion. Factory owners had often claimed that the NCLC statistics were lies, but the same charge of fraud could not be lodged against photographs. The NCLC hired photographer Lewis Hine in 1906 to document the realities and consequences of child labor. Hine, who became one of the best-known Progressive Era photographers because of his work for the NCLC, gathered a major portion of the information. He talked to the child laborers, learned their ages and work histories, and presented his findings in the captions, lectures, and poster displays that accompanied the photos on tours throughout the United States. He discovered that employers, parents, and government officials persistently disregarded the few existing child labor laws, especially in regard to the age of children. Hine would continue to work for the NCLC until 1918, traveling over 50,000 miles to study child workers in New York tenements, Colorado beet farms, Connecticut cranberry fields, Pennsylvania coal mines, and Gulf Coast canneries, as well as glass, tobacco, and textile manufacturers scattered throughout the country. Despite harassment from factory owners and a lack of cooperation from many parents who were dependent on the labor of their offspring, Hine managed to capture ill-fed, ill-clad children in dangerous, dead-end jobs. His photographs made it impossible to deny that children were being misused in what anti-child labor advocates commonly characterized as "child slavery," and his photographs played a crucial role in rousing public opinion against child labor.

Along with bombarding Americans with the facts about child labor, the NCLC decided to attempt a state-by-state promotion of child labor laws. Southerners in the organization had advised such a solution in the belief that states' rights proponents would react to a federal statute with a great deal of resentment and opposition. Accordingly, the NCLC encouraged the formation of state and local child labor committees and helped to coordinate their activities. By 1910, 25 of these committees had formed.

First Successes

After scouting several states, the committee elected to focus on the industries with the most outrageous labor practices: the anthracite coal mines in Pennsylvania, widely scattered glass factories, and southern cotton mills. The street trades and coastal canneries would be subsequent targets. The first state target of the NCLC would be Pennsylvania.

A heavily industrialized state, Pennsylvania had developed industries that heavily employed children, including coal, glass, cotton, and silk, with coal in particular utilizing more children than any other branch of mining or quarrying. After heavy pressure by the NCLC, particularly by chief lobbyist and publicist Alexander McKelway, Pennsylvania enacted laws to afford children some protection. In 1909 the state began to require documentary proof of age. By mandating the presentation of a birth certificate or similar proof of age, the state could thwart parents who often lied about the ages of their children to secure jobs for them. Pennsylvania also prescribed educational standards, and in 1911 the state extended a 16-year age limit to mine workers.

In 1910 the NCLC drew up a Uniform Child Labor Law based on the best features of the Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois child labor statutes and sought to get it passed in the various states. The bill prescribed a minimum working age of 14 in manufacturing and 16 in mining, quarrying, and other dangerous trades; a maximum working day of eight hours; no night work (covering the hours of 7 P.M. to 6 A.) for children under 16; and documentary proof of age. The organization also wanted effective enforcement of the existing child labor laws. Although the NCLC also desired compulsory school attendance, it never devoted much energy to this issue. By 1914, 35 states prohibited the employment of children aged less than 14 years and mandated a maximum eight-hour day for workers less than 16 years old. Thirty-six states employed factory inspectors and established more potent mechanisms for enforcing child labor laws.

Southern Problems

These successes came chiefly in the North and West, with the NCLC unable to gain much of a foothold in the South despite McKelway's best efforts. In response to the charge that he was an agent of New England textile manufacturers seeking to destroy southern industry, he demonstrated that northern manufacturers owned many southern mills and actually opposed child labor laws in the South. Despite this successful defense, the NCLC had enormous troubles with the South. To help dispose of the charge that it was sectional in aim and support, the NCLC incorporated in 1907 but never made much headway against southern child labor. As McKelway recognized, structural problems in the South forced families to send children to work. Under the auspices of the NCLC, he would consistently push southern legislatures for reforms that would influence the supply of child labor such as unemployment insurance, public schools, and workers' compensation.

Federal Child Labor Law

Southerners like McKelway believed that the solution to the child labor problems lay with state legislatures, and at first, most other members of the NCLC went along with them. Lindsay, Kelley, and Jane Addams, a founding member and the most famous female social reformer of the era, continued to staunchly advocate federal legislation. By 1912 the slow progress of state legislation led most of the NCLC executive committee, including McKelway and Adler, to conclude that federal assistance was necessary. The bill drafted by the committee in 1913 punished the employers of child labor for violating its provisions. The Keating-Owen law, the bill eventually passed by Congress in 1916 after three years of battles, targeted interstate carriers of child-made goods instead of employers but included the principal standards of the Uniform Child Labor Law. The executive committee characterized Keating-Owen as the NCLC's greatest single accomplishment, but their delight was short-lived as the Supreme Court overturned it in a 5-4 decision in 1918 for interfering with commerce. The law had only been in effect for nine months.

The rise in child labor occasioned by World War I and the close Supreme Court decision led the NCLC to try again for a federal child labor law. After failing to get support for its own draft, the NCLC supported an amendment by Ohio senator Atlee Pomerene to the Revenue Act that taxed the employment of children. The provision passed in 1919, but the Supreme Court also threw out this second federal law in 1922 for violating states' rights by regulating local labor conditions. The NCLC would spend the next several decades working to raise state legislative standards.

End of the Problem

Child labor disappeared for the same reasons that it had appeared: changes in the structure of the economy. In the 1930s and 1940s jobs required more skills, the numbers of working women grew, organized labor grew in strength, minimum-wage legislation became law, and the real income of the working class rose. All of these factors combined to reduce the need for families to send children to work and to lessen the demand for unskilled workers. The NCLC, greatly weakened from its heyday, remains in existence to educate children about the world of work and to prevent their exploitation.

Key Players

Adler, Felix (1851-1933): The German-born Adler held a professorship in political and social ethics at Columbia University from 1902 until his death. His interest in social reform led to many honorific positions including chair of the NCLC (1904-1921).

Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940): A Wisconsin native, Hine taught nature study at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. His position put him in touch with prominent social reformers, and he joined the NCLC in 1906 to photograph child laborers. As its staff photographer, he spent 12 years touring the United States investigating, documenting, and publicizing the issues that surrounded child labor.

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): A socialist from Philadelphia, Kelley authored the 1889 pamphlet Our Toiling Children as well as a number of anti-child labor articles in popular magazines. During a decade-long stay at Chicago's Hull House, she earned a law degree from Northwestern University and collected data on the garment industry as a special agent for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. She served as chief factory inspector for Illinois (1893-1896), then headed the New York-based National Consumers' League (1899-1932).

McKelway, Alexander Jeffrey (1866-1918): A North Carolina Presbyterian minister, McKelway helped found the NCLC and, beginning in 1905, served as a full-time lobbyist and publicist for the organization. He succumbed to a heart attack just before the federal child labor law for which he had fought was ruled unconstitutional.

Murphy, Edgar Gardner (1869-1913): Born in Arkansas, Murphy served as an Episcopal minister in several southern states before ending his career in Montgomery, Alabama. He headed the Southern Education Board from 1903 to 1908. His interests included race relations, the education of African Americans, and the availability of public schools for all children. Murphy authored several pamphlets about child labor, including two in opposition to a federal child labor bill.

Wald, Lillian (1867-1940): A public health nurse who founded the Henry Street Settlement on New York City's Lower East Side, Wald provided medical care to her neighbors in their homes. Unable to improve significantly the lives of the working class, she lobbied for government legislation to clean the streets, improve housing, and reform labor conditions.

See also: Keating-Owen Act.



Curtis, Verna Posever, and Stanley Mallach. Photography and Reform: Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1984.

National Child Labor Committee. Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Child Labor Committee, 1904-1929. New York: National Child Labor Committee, 1929.

——. The Work of the National Child Labor Committee,1904-1929. New York: National Child Labor Committee, 1929.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work:The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.


Doherty, Robert J., Jr. "Alexander J. McKelway: Preacher to Progressive." Journal of Southern History 24 (May 1958): 177-190.


National Child Labor Committee [cited 7 October 2002].<>.

Additional Resources


Bailey, Hugh C. Edgar Gardner Murphy: Gentle Progressive. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1968.

Davidson, Elizabeth H. Child Labor Legislation in the Southern Textile States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Felt, Jeremy. Hostages of Fortune: Child Labor Reform in New York State. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1965.

Murphy, Edgar Gardner. The Federal Child Labor Bill: ACriticism. Montgomery, AL: Paragon Press, 1907.

—Caryn E. Neumann

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