“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”
–Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907
Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.
Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.
Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.
Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading