The Widespread Issue Of Child Labor

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The September 1906 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine recounts a story of an old Indian chieftain. The chieftain was on a tour in New York. Throughout the day he observed breathtaking skyscrapers and majestic Brooklyn Bridge. He observed the comfortable masses huddled in amusement at the circus and the poor huddled depressingly in tenements. At the end of the day he was asked by his tour guide,“what is the most surprising thing you have seen?” The chieftain, a man likely viewed as a savage by his questioners, replied with three words, “little children working.”

While the widespread presence of laboring children may have been a surprise to the chieftain from India, this was a common sight to most Americans at the time. In the United States, the period of the Industrial Revolution through the 1930’s was a period in which children worked in a wide variety of occupations. Child labor impacted American economy visibly, harming both the child and the household.

Children had been servants and apprentices throughout most of human history. Walter Trattner ones noted that “children have always worked.” During early human history when tribes wandered the land, children participated in the hunting and fishing. When these groups separated into families, children continued to work by caring for livestock and crops. Moreover, the idea of children working was consistent with the Puritan belief that put work at the center of a moral life. In the 18th century, the arrival of a newborn to a rural family was viewed by the parents as a future beneficial laborer and an insurance when they get older. Kids at the age of 5 were already expected to help with farm work and other household chores. In larger families, where the help of that many kids wasn’t needed, parents would send their kids to another household. They would serve as a maids and servants. In many cases families simply could not afford the costs of raising a child from birth to adulthood without financial help. However, when time went on children started to work in factories, cotton mills, and mines. Factory owners preferred hiring children because they were cheaper, less likely to strike, and more manageable than adults. The new machinery enabled kids to work as effective as adults, or even better. Their size allowed them to move in small spaces in factories or mines where adults couldn’t fit. However, kids were helpless, and adults treated them sometimes even worse than animals.

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If the hours and the wages weren’t bad enough the overseers would be especially violent and cruel. Physical and verbal abuse was a method used on daily basis. When the children were late they had to walk up and down aisles in the factory for an hour with a heavy weight hanging on their neck. The punishment was an example for others, how not to behave. In the best cases this would end up with some neck and back injuries, however not always. Sarah Carpenter claimed that she saw children beaten to death: ‘There was a young woman, Sarah Goodling, who was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bed-fellow found her dead in bed. There was another called Mary. She knocked her food can down on the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her where he should not do, and it caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson. They beat her till she went out of her mind.’ Jonathan Downe described his experience as a seven years old worker at textile factory during Parliamentary Committee on 6th June, 1832. He pointed out other methods of punishment: working naked, being hit with a strap, and dipped into a cistern of water. “If a child was drowsy, the overlooker touches the child on the shoulder and says, ‘Come here’. In a corner of the room there is an iron cistern filled with water. He takes the boy by the legs and dips him in the cistern, and sends him back to work.”

The violent treatment and lack of supervision lead to many injuries and more serious health issues. One hospital in Pittsburgh claimed they had treated almost 1,000 children for wounds and mutilation from the big and dangerous machines they worked with, in just one year. When kids got injured, no one cared about them. Families usually abandoned their kids the moment they got to the hospital. However, in many cases, injured kids didn’t get to hospitals. Bones of teenagers are soft, but repairs quickly, unfortunately without medical care they heal in an unnatural way. William Dodd was one of those who became deformed because of his work as a child in a factory: ‘In the spring of 1840, I began to feel some painful symptoms in my right wrist, arising from the general weakness of my joints, brought on in the factories. The swelling and pain increased. The wrist eventually measured twelve inches round and I was worn down to a mere skeleton. I entered St. Thomas’s Hospital and on 18th July, I underwent the operation. The hand being taken off a little below the elbow. On dissection, the bones of the forearm presented a very curious appearance – something similar to an empty honeycomb, the marrow having totally disappeared.’ In addition to mechanical injuries, kids working in factories and mines struggled with lung infections, difficulties with breathing, and asthma. The lime and dust, intermixed with the wool and hair, covered all the machines. One of the main issues were the buildings children were forced to work in. Dr. Ward, who visited textile factories in Manchester in 1819 wrote: ‘I could not remain ten minutes in the factory without gasping for breath. How it is possible for those who are doomed to remain there twelve or fifteen hours to endure it? If we take into account the heated temperature of the air, and the contamination of the air, it is a matter of astonishment to my mind, how the work people can bear the confinement for so great a length of time.’

Hiring children has a negative impact on their health, development, and education, however, it is also harmful for adults. At certain point children were competing with adults for the same position, but with significantly lower expectations. Factory owners obviously started choosing the cheaper, which affected adult employment, wages, but moreover decreased average working age. Unemployed parents were forced to send their kids to work as soon as possible to be able to sustain daily needs. It is true that in the short-run, child labor increased households’ income and probability of survival, however, in the long run, child labor caused household poverty and slowed down social development through lower human capital.

Throughout 19th century breaking child labor cycle seemed impossible, because many people didn’t understand why it was wrong. Florence Kelly published a book “Our Toiling Children,” in which she described, in details, burning of five little children due to boiler explosion in Fall River. She wanted to raise awareness and urged consumers to take actions against poor working conditions. Moreover, in 1903 Mary Mother Jones organized a march, called “Children’s Crusade,” from Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt’s house in New York. Kids carried banners stating “we want time to play,” or “we want to go to school.” As a fierce opponent of child labor, Jones put children in animal cages to dramatize what she labeled bosses’ attitudes toward workers. The president refused to meet with the marchers, and kids returned to mills. Even though “Children’s Crusade” didn’t abolish child labor, it was a milestone in establishing National Child Labor Committee. Thirty-four years later Franklin Roosevelt signed Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA), which prohibited employment of minors (under age 16) and increased minimum wages. 

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