Why was there child labor in America?
The stories in the news recently on child labor in gold mines in Mali remind us that, although it has been outlawed in many countries, child labor is not a thing of the past. We are shocked here in the U.S. to read about six year-olds being forced to work in factories, or in gold mines, using mercury and other poisons, and wonder how anyone could do that to children. We are shocked and dismayed to read about child labor in our own country—not just the child labor that continues today, under the radar, but more particularly the fully sanctioned, completely legal exploitation of young children that fueled our Industrial Revolution in the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.
Photos of child labor in American factories like this one are typical, yet still powerfully able to stir one’s revulsion:
We’re all pretty familiar with the dangers children like these faced, from the machines they basically stood inside of to run to their overseers, who exercised brutality without qualm. What’s less clear, and not very often explored, is how and why the parents of these children let them work in these terrible conditions, and how any child survived the experience physically or emotionally.
If we look at child workers in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., we see that they were predominately urban, and that the majority of urban child workers were immigrants or children of immigrants. There was child labor in textile mills in rural towns, of course, and black children were forced to work as sharecroppers, putting in 12-hour days with their parents. In all of these cases, children worked for one simple reason: they had to. For their families to survive financially, everyone who was able had to work. Women went back to work one or two days after giving birth. Men worked when they were fatally ill or injured. And children worked when they should have been in school, or playing. They all did this because, whether they were immigrants who had spent their last dime (as it were) getting to America and paying rent on a tenement apartment, or whether they were the children of former slaves who had their freedom but nothing else (no land, no money, no education or opportunity for any of these), or whether they were poor rural whites in much the same position as black sharecroppers, these people were on the brink of annihilation. They were in debt, one step away from deportation, the poorhouse, the orphanage, or worse. Everyone had to work to give the family the smallest scrap of security, the flimsiest safety net.
The way to the 12-hour factory day for 7 year-olds was paved with precedent. Children (except for wealthy children) had always worked. Most Americans were farmers, and so children worked on the family farm. This was hard work with long hours, but it was overseen by caring parents who had every incentive of love and practicality to keep their children safe, and not force them to do jobs that were too hard for them. The whole family worked long hours together, and shared in the wealth they created. This was true of most immigrant families in their homelands, too.
As the Industrial Revolution developed, the ratio of urban to rural families shifted very significantly very quickly, but what did not change was the tradition of children working. Now children in large numbers worked in shops or on the streets as bootblacks, cart vendors, newsboys, gutter cleaners, etc. They worked in the first sweatshops—family apartments where everyone sewed, made shoes, or did laundry, etc., for 10 hours a day, six days a week. And, eventually, they worked in factories, sometimes the same factories as their parents.
Labor unrest helped this process along, as factory owners looked for workers who could not organize labor unions and strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. Immigrants who didn’t speak English and/or had no experience with democracy were a good choice, but these men were quickly educated in both once in America. Children, on the other hand, were ideal: they had no legal rights, they didn’t have to be paid even half what an adult earned, and their wages could be given directly to their parents, thus preventing children from understanding what their labor was worth. Children could also be horribly abused without any legal repercussions (see children having no legal rights), and they were small enough to reach into (running) machinery to fix small pieces. In short, children were ideal factory workers, and the tradition of children working eased the transition from family farm work to factory labor.