Orphans Working in Carpentry Shop

views updated

Orphans Working in Carpentry Shop


By: Robert L. Blacklow

Date: c. 1900

Source: Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr./CORBIS.

About the Photographer: This photograph was supplied by a nondenominational Christian missionary organization, Mission Australia, that organizes volunteer patrols to pick up people intoxicated in public and take them to alternative accommodations.


Although the boys in this photograph are orphans, not criminals, and the institution housing them is an orphanage, not a prison, their status is linked to the history of crime. They are being trained in carpentry skills so that they will have a better chance of not being exploited as unskilled child labor or becoming criminals themselves when they leave the orphanage. In 1900, as throughout all of the preceding century, it was taken for granted that children could and would work in factories and other commercial enterprises from a very young age. Those who had special skills, like these boys, were less likely to end up in the most dirty and dangerous jobs.

The boys shown here are wards of the Five Points House of Industry, a charity orphanage founded in the notorious Five Points slum of New York City (since replaced by part of Chinatown) by Methodist minister Lewis M. Pease. Pease was originally the minister appointed to the Five Points area by the First Union Mission, a Protestant organization seeking to convert Catholics. Pease found that trying to talk Catholics out of their Catholicism was usually futile and decided that he should provide job training instead to help raise people out of poverty, crime, and prostitution. Although this picture shows only boys, the House of Industry housed and job-trained women, boys, and girls and offered occasional public meals which were attended by hundreds. The orphan children were eventually placed with adoptive parents, usually in the American West. The products of the carpentry shop shown here were almost certainly sold to provide income for the orphanage. Girls and women were employed in separate shops at tasks considered feminine, such as dressmaking.



See primary source image.


Despite its name, the Five Points House of Industry was not an industrial institution but a charity for destitute women and children. It was highly regarded during its period of operation, which lasted for well over half a century. However, the boys in this photograph are not practicing carpentry for the sake of general skill development, like most children in a modern "shop" class, but are preparing for actual skilled work, as opposed to the unskilled labor that would otherwise be their lot outside the orphanage. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, starting in the late 1700s, child labor was standard in both Britain and America. In the 1830s, about a third of the New England workforce consisted of children under the age of sixteen: the lower limit on age was set only by a child's ability to walk, talk, and work. Not only did full-time labor by a child preclude their further education, but the labor was often brutally difficult, children were exposed to exploitation and abuse by adult supervisors and others in the workplace, and injuries were common. In the culture of the time, the use of children even for dangerous labor was not necessarily seen as a bad thing; as late as the American Civil War (1860s), boys called "powdermonkeys" were employed on warships to fetch powder for the guns, their small size enabling them to access to the cramped powder storage areas. When a ship went down, these boys went down with it.

In 1842, Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws requiring that children not be made to labor more than ten hours a day. In 1848, Pennsylvania made twelve the minimum age for child laborers. Legal efforts to abolish child labor were not successful, however, until well into the twentieth century: In 1900, about the time this photograph was taken, a quarter of the workers in cotton mills in the American South were children under the age of fifteen. In 1916 and 1918, Federal laws were passed controlling child labor, but these were overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1918. A constitutional amendment to ban child labor was passed by Congress in 1924, but was never ratified. Not until 1938, with passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, was the employment of children under sixteen in mining and manufacturing prohibited. Today, child labor is relatively rare in the United States.

However, child labor remains a problem globally. About 250 million children between five and fourteen years of age are working in developing countries, according to the International Labor Organization, over 120 million of them full-time: sixty-one percent in Asia, thirty-two percent in Africa, seven percent in Latin America. Millions of children are forcibly recruited into soldiering and prostitution. Five percent of child workers are employed in export industries, that is, in the manufacture of goods for export to Europe, the U.S., and other wealthier countries.

Sometimes the use of in-house child labor is used to raise funds for an institution, as the labor of the boys and girls at the Five Points House of Industry probably was. For example, as of 1996 approximately 71,000 Chinese primary and high schools had set up cottage industries to raise money. Some of these children must work against their will, according to some news accounts. The fact that school businesses are exempt from taxation has probably encouraged the use of student labor.

Importation of products made using child labor is illegal in the United States. Further, article thirty-two of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), an international treaty signed by most of the world's nations, states that children shall be "protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." As of 2006, the United States had not ratified the Convention.


Web sites

Human Rights Watch. "Promises Broken: An Assessment of Children's Rights on the 10th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child." 〈http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/promises/labor.html〉 2000 (accessed March 5, 2006).