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Child Labor in Pennsylvania

Author: Terry Anne Wildman


Rudolph Blankenburg School

Year: 2007

Seminar: American Capitalism

Keywords: child labor, Gilead Age, Industrial Revolution, Pennsylvania, Progressive Era

School Subject(s): History

This curriculum unit treats child labor in Pennsylvania from the dawn of the industrial age through the Progressive and New Deal eras and the institution of the Child Labor Law of 1915. Students will find studying American History from 1800s through the 1930s more engaging when they consider the lives of children their own age and younger. They will be surprised to find what these children long ago were doing each day. Children were not spending six hours in a classroom; they were in factories, mines and on the streets working to contribute to their families’ income. Students will study photographs, read about working in the mills from child workers in their own words, and hear about often-heated public discussions that took place.

As a fourth grade teacher, I am aware of the time constraints of our social studies and history curriculum. Focusing on issues that would engage students and enhance their understanding of specific time periods can be accomplished by studying such issues as child labor. Bringing in primary documents, first hand interviews, and encouraging debate on how many hours a child should work or what they should be paid will encourage higher-level thinking skills in our students.

The target grade level is fifth grade, although many of the lessons can be modified for fourth grade (Pennsylvania curriculum) and eighth grade American history. The lessons will integrate reading, writing, and thinking skills.

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Full Unit Text

This curriculum unit treats child labor in Pennsylvania from the dawn of the industrial age through the Progressive and New Deal eras and the institution of the Child Labor Law of 1915. Students will find studying American History from 1800s through the 1930s more engaging when they consider the lives of children their own age and younger. They will be surprised to find what these children long ago were doing each day. Children were not spending six hours in a classroom; they were in factories, mines and on the streets working to contribute to their families’ income. Students will study photographs, read about working in the mills from child workers in their own words, and hear about often-heated public discussions that took place. As a fourth grade teacher, I am aware of the time constraints of our social studies and history curriculum. Focusing on issues that would engage students and enhance their understanding of specific time periods can be accomplished by studying such issues as child labor. Bringing in primary documents, first hand interviews, and encouraging debate on how many hours a child should work or what they should be paid will encourage higher-level thinking skills in our students. The target grade level is fifth grade, although many of the lessons can be modified for fourth grade (Pennsylvania curriculum) and eighth grade American history. The lessons will integrate reading, writing, and thinking skills.


This unit was created with the intention of engaging students in studying a period of time in America that is usually glossed over in our history books. If the textbooks cover the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era at all, they usually include information on one or two famous industrialists (Carnegie, Rockefeller) or inventors (Edison, Westinghouse). This unit will focus on the issue of child labor throughout this time period and will not only engage students but also by using different strategies, build background knowledge that they will use in future classes. Integrating reading, writing, listening and discussion allows teachers to complete the unit during parts of these literacy classes and will help to keep the interest level high. Historical Background We cannot look at the history of child labor in Pennsylvania without considering the broader issues of the economy and labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the dawn of mechanization, most people labored on the farm or in the home. Children played a great part in the family’s economy. Which tasks children were asked to do and how many hours they spent completing these tasks varied according to place and time. Families depended on their children to help out on the farms and in the homes. We see this tradition especially in New England in the 1600s when immigrants came over with their families to start new lives. Children worked side by side with their parents and siblings. For the religious, it was seen as a time to teach not only skills needed for farming and agriculture, but also to teach religious beliefs and discipline. The family became a stronger unit because of this common goal – survival. Families were independent and hard working. They typically produced for direct family consumption and independence, but they also bartered for goods with their neighbors.

Children as Laborers In Europe, it was not unusual to see children helping their families out on the land and in the home. In Colonial America, this tradition was carried over from Europe. Children labored in the fields, on the farm and in the home, wherever they were needed. In Children in Colonial America, Helena Wall writes about Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker’s life in Philadelphia (1735-1807). She was able to get this information from Elizabeth’s diary that Elizabeth kept almost daily from 1758 to her final illness in 1807. Elizabeth, a Quaker, orphaned along with a sister as a teenager, was taken in by another Quaker family and eventually she married a widower, Henry Drinker, a wealthy merchant. It is interesting to note her account of Philadelphia and her insight into the elite religious group, the Quakers. In the summers, Yellow Fever and other diseases swept through the city and the Drinkers would retire to their country home. Unfortunately, poorer families did not have such luxuries and often children were left homeless and orphaned. Elizabeth spoke about bringing some of these children into her homes as servants. In January 1807, she reported that a baby was found in an alley downtown and that a neighborhood woman (already with a suckling baby) offered to take the child if the “overseers of the poor will pay her for her trouble. Here was a child bound for indenture…” 1 Organizations although small were in place to try to help these families and children, but the reality was that children were seen as cheap labor, people who could work off what they owed for being taken in. It will be almost 100 years before children were seen as something priceless and needing protection. In the late 18th century, British mechanics developed machinery to manufacture cloth and many other products. Machines made these products faster and cheaper. In an effort to keep this technology in England, people leaving the country were not allowed to take information such as plans or blue prints of the machines. In 1789, Samuel Slater, a British immigrant, brought ideas for creating a cotton mill that would change the way Americans worked. These machines were exactly like those that he worked on in English factories. As England was very protective of this information, Slater had memorized these plans in order to reproduce them in America. Child labor in factories in England was common, and so, when Slater completed his first mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he hired nine children between the ages of seven and twelve. Children went from working at home with their families to going off to work each morning and working for more than ten hours a day, six days a week for $.80 to $1.40 a week. In 1789, after building his first factory Slater, who later became known as the “Father of the American Factory System,” paid nine children between the ages of seven and twelve to work in his factory. As more factories were built, owners looked for whole families to hire because the more children you had the better chance of your getting hired. Most parents and employers believed that working was good for the children as it “kept them from idleness and mischief.”2 There were people who believed though that children should be educated or that they should at least be able to read and write. At this time, there was no public education, only private schools and tutors that only the wealthy could afford. As time went on and people saw the number of hours children worked (children under 16 were working up to13 or 14 hours a day), many began to speak out for these children and their need to be in school. In the early industrial period, American labor took on a new shape and form. Not only were children affected, but so were the skilled workers who specialized in trades such as garments, iron, and furniture. Skilled laborers called master workers could make a good living and train apprentices in their trade. These master workers usually had a shop with living quarters on the second floor. Their families, apprentices, and sometimes other young skilled workers, lived and worked together. Once trained, these workers went on to open their own shops in other towns and if they were successful, went on to train their own apprentices. During the second half of the 19th century, millions of immigrants from Europe moved to America. Some moved to escape famine and extreme poverty. However, others moved because they sought religious freedom. When they arrived in America, willing to work hard, some found places to live and work with relatives and friends who had settled years before. Some found work but many did not. Often fathers could not find work or were only able to get menial, low paying jobs. These families needed everyone to pitch in, and so children worked in addition to their parents. Sweatshops cropped up in large cities such as New York and Philadelphia. Children carried garments from the factories to these worker homes, which were usually found in the poorer neighborhoods. These bundles of garments were partly finished and were brought to the worker homes to complete the detail work such as cutting, sewing and attaching buttons. Families usually moved in with or close to relatives and friends until they found work. Immigrants moved in with their extended families hoping that these relatives would be able to get them employment. Families were desirable to some employers, as children were cheap to employ and parents could watch over them. Several texts mention discipline especially in the textile mills. Separate rooms were kept to “discipline” young workers if they misbehaved, fell asleep or made mistakes. In time, owners began to organize their workers on an assembly-line basis. Before the advent of the assembly line, skilled craftsman made customized and specialty items, such as furniture. As time went on, owners discovered that apprentices could make legs of tables all day, which freed up the skilled worker to make more difficult parts such as the tabletop. Eventually displaced skilled workers and mechanization would play an important role in the “deskilling” of the American worker and the building of large factories. These large factories hired hundreds of workers, which resulted in both creating an impersonal workplace and bringing large numbers of employees together. The development of unions was one necessary outcome of the large factory environment. Although Philadelphia had a blend of small business owners, shops and large factories, its economy and labor force were also affected by big business as much as in large factory towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. Not only did the employment of large numbers of people create an impersonal atmosphere, but it also fostered the idea of using strength in numbers. Mill workers, miners, and factory workers formed unions and associations. These unions would be instrumental in starting discussions of child labor and the elimination of young children working in these dangerous worksites.

Children Textile Workers

“A Philadelphia paper contained (December, 1906) the story of a little girl who worked for three dollars a week in a woolen mill in that city. The floors of the woolen mills are always slippery with wool-grease. The child slipped, and thrusting out her arm she was caught in the cogs of an unguarded machine. Her right arm was broken in seven places from wrist to shoulder. No automobile was called, as would have been the case if little Edith Vere de Vere were to have slipped and hurt her poor head. Instead, the child walked nearly a mile to the nearest hospital. Her arm was so jaggedly chopped up that it didn’t mend straight, and she is a cripple for life.” 3

This begins poet Edwin Markham’s account of the fact that girls were three times more likely to be injured then adult women in the mills. Muckrakers, or people who spoke out against child labor, called it what it was. “(C)hild labor is synonymous with child slavery.” 4 Robert Hunter, one of the many angry voices who spoke out against child labor in mines, factories, and mills, was outspoken and passionate about the evils of child labor. He continued:

“For several reasons child labor has become an evil. From a national point of view it is a waste of the nation’s most valuable assetmanhood…Instead of being a way to develop a strong and powerful working class, capable and efficient in industry, it is the one most effective way of weakening and rendering impotent the work forces, of undermining their capacity, and of producing an inert, inefficient mass of laborers. To the child it is ruinous…” 5 Child labor did not start out this way. A family working together at home was seen as a way of raising and disciplining children. It was a good thing because it strengthened the family unit. What happened was the mechanization of the textile industry. What had been brought together, the family, was now ripped apart as families went their way to different parts of the mill, sometimes at different shifts, to support the family unit. Owners, putting their capital into machinery, looked for ways to save money and turned to child labor. More and more children took the place of adult workers even when the work was dangerous. Smaller fingers could un-jam machines or fix broken threads and, in time, they replaced many adult workers. Conditions were not easy. At five in the morning, mill children were awakened by the blast of the factory whistle. By six o’clock, the gates were shut; if you were late even by a minute, you were docked an hour’s pay. At 8 a.m., there was a 15-minute break for breakfast and at 12 noon, a half an hour for lunch. For twelve hours a day, six days a week, children worked tirelessly at the spinning machines either rolling bushels of bobbins from room to room, oiling machines, or moving supplies from place to place. Tired children were especially prone to accidents and it is no wonder after eight hours, children received serious injuries. The machines were fast and loud and it took just moments for the machine to pull the hair or piece of scalp from a child’s head. Children were too tired to eat when they got home and often slept in their clothes day after day. In time unions and trade associations formed and helped to change the face of child labor in America. It would take more than 100 years from the beginning of children in textile mills for state laws to restrict the age of children laborers. Pennsylvania would be one state to lead in the restriction of child labor, but it would take a federal act to finally end child labor in America.

The Breaker Boys – Children in the Coalmines

In Pennsylvania coalmines, miners of all ages were working the dangerous job of mining coal to fuel these factories, railroads, and eventually American homes. Adult workers went down into the mines and blasted through rock to excavate coal. It was a dangerous job, not only were miners seriously hurt, they also died from Black Lung, a respiratory disease that eventually took their lives. Physicians found upon inspecting child miners that they were malnourished, sleep deprived, had many minor injuries, and curved spines from bending over the breakers. Miners eventually created labor unions and associations and struck against mine owners. These strikes would stop the production of coal sometimes for weeks.

“In a little room in this big, black shed-a room not twenty feet square-forty boys are picking their lives away. The floor of the room is an inclined plan, and a stream of coal pours constantly in. They work here, in this little black hole, all day and every day, trying to keep cool in the summer, trying to keep warm in the winter, picking away among the black coals, bending over till their little spines are curved, never saying a word all the livelong day. These little fellows go to work in this cold dreary room at seven o’clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get one dollar to three dollars a week. Not three boys in this roomful could read or write.” 6

This description of the coalmines does not mention the loss of fingers, the many cuts and injuries that these boys endured. Ruth Holland, the author of Mill Child-The Story of Child Labor in America, continues that although boys under twelve were not legally allowed to work in the mines of West Virginia, the miners knew there were hundreds of boys of nine and ten years of age working in the coal mines. The same was true of the coalmines of Pennsylvania and for most industries. If families needed their children to work to survive, then they would lie about the child’s age. In The Face of Decline, authors Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht refer to a congressional study published in 1911 that showed that “a typical son or daughter of a miner who labored in a coal breaker or silk mill in the area contributed 12.5% of family income, with the combined contribution of children amounting on average to almost 38 percent of household earnings” (italics mine).7 Finally in 1905, Pennsylvania “banned the employment of children below the age of fourteen; fourteen- to sixteen-year old boys and girls could work only if they secured working papers signed by parents and employers”.8 Parents lying about their children’s ages so that they can work in the breakers became an issue. Eventually, schools became responsible for children getting work permits, which helped to solve this problem. In 1915, the Pennsylvania Child Labor Law set fourteen as the minimum working age and required working children to have completed sixth grade which helped to enforce the restrictions already in place. By 1920, child labor was not eliminated but statistics showed that “less than one in seven school-age children in families of mineworkers worked to supplement their father’s earnings.” 9

Child Labor in the 20th Century

In Pennsylvania, the number of children in non-mining areas working also increased dramatically during the last half of the 19th century. In Getting Work, Walter Licht writes that in 1860, 3 to 4 percent of all 13 year-olds worked; forty years later, “more than 20 percent of their numbers joined the work a day world”.10 The numbers for 14 year-olds went from 8 percent in 1860 to “more than 40 percent by the end of the century.”11 It was also noted that although the number of children working increased, the number of students at school did not decrease. “Most children by the turn of the century were either on the job or in the classroom, their options narrowed and defined.” 12 Socioeconomic factors played an important part on whether a child was in school or at work. Licht reported that:

“Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwards of 70 percent of the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old sons and daughters of Philadelphia proprietors and professionals attended school; 50 percent of the children of that age group of skilled workers in the city had the good fortune of attending school; and only 40 percent of the young people whose fathers occupied unskilled positions could be found in the classroom.” 13

Similar figures were cited for children of different ages and from different backgrounds. Class seemed to be the defining factor as to whether a child worked or went to school, not whether, for instance, your parents were native born or immigrants into the country. The author asked why child labor grew during this time period and why school attendance did not become a more universal phenomenon. He explains that the economy played an important part in answering this question including the expansion of industrial production and increase in jobs. When the area was depressed in the 1870s, 1890s, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was a drop in the numbers of children working. Another answer to this question was poverty and irregular work of the fathers. Children of poor families had a higher rate of participation in the workforce than children of wealthier families. Which types of work were these children engaged in? Children were employed to do menial or unskilled types of work. They were able to get work through “family connections, personal connections, personal initiative or formal agencies or institutions.”14 As we go into the 20th century, schools will play an increasingly important role for children getting their first jobs. The large decline of child labor in the 1930s is attributed not only to economic decline but also the institution of the federal codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which prohibited employment of children under sixteen years of age.

National Child Labor Committee The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was created by a group of social workers, teachers, writers, labor leaders, and businessmen who wanted to change child labor laws. The NCLC was formed in 1904 and was incorporated by an Act of Congress in 1907 for the purpose of “promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” 15 The NCLC used various methods to bring its message of the unhealthful condition in mines, factories, fields, homes and on city streets. The organization used a variety of pamphlets, newspapers and journal articles along with pictures to persuade the American public to join their mission of exposing child labor. The NCLC sought to sway public opinion by documenting the plight of children, by publishing photographs, and by conducting interviews. Lewis Hines, a high school teacher living in New York (he was born in Wisconsin) became interested in photography to use in his classroom. He bought an early camera (magnesium flash powder) and eventually was hired by the NCLC to work as an inspector in the factories and mines throughout the county. His pictures brought the horrors of child labor to the breakfast tables of citizens and legislators throughout the country. Through his pictures, Americans saw the dangerous, unhealthy places that employed children who were bedraggled, emaciated, dirty, poor, and in many instances missing limbs such as fingers and arms. He was eventually kept from entering factories, mines, and other businesses once owners realized what he was doing and the impact of these photographs. In 1907, he began his campaign to document the plight of working children and these images can still be seen today. From 1907-1918, he recorded five thousand photographs for the NCLC on behalf of the Progressive reform movement. He spent these years traveling around the United States from the southern farmlands to New

England textile mills. He also spent time in Pennsylvania photographing children working in the anthracite regions of the state. The NCLC used these photographs in its campaign to end child labor in dangerous places such as textile mills, coalmines, glass factories, garment factories, etc. Eventually, union workers, legislators and associations such as the NCLC helped to successfully end child labor in America for children under eighteen in places considered dangerous and for children under sixteen in all industries. However, enforcing Pennsylvania child labor laws and even federal acts becomes an issue that took years to rectify. Even today, children work in family businesses, small shops, and homes throughout the country.

Children Strike Back

Once unions were formed, it was not long before workers struck for shorter days and better pay. Young workers also joined these strikes and marched along with the adult workers. More children worked in industries in Pennsylvania than any other state.16 Although state laws prohibited children under twelve from working, everyone knew that there was poor enforcement and critics claimed that Pennsylvania had the weakest child labor legislation. In 1903, at the Kensington mill district outside Philadelphia, mill workers wanted their weekly hours reduced from 60 to 55. At the time 16,000 children worked in mills in this area. The Kensington workers sent a delegation to the mill owners requesting this reduction in the workweek. The mill owners’ refused and so on Monday morning, June 1, 1903, the mill workers struck and “nearly one hundred thousand workers, including sixteen thousand children, stayed home.”17 Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones,” heard of the strike and went to Philadelphia on June 14th. By the third week, workers were growing anxious but the majority of the mill owners would not budge. They knew that the workers would eventually run out of money and have to come back to work. The owners just had to wait. Mother Jones, then 73 years old, took up the plight of labor after witnessing the railroad strike of 1877 where strikers were shot down by the militia. She devoted the rest of her life to labor and worked toward this end until she was almost 100 years old. On arriving to Philadelphia, she went to the union headquarters and was horrified at the condition of the striking children. She went to local newspaper reporters to find out why they were not covering or commenting on the strike and was told that many of the mill owners also owned stock in the newspapers so the reporters did not dare publish anything for fear of their jobs. She went to New York City to see if newspapers there would send reporters to cover a mass meeting that was being arranged at Independence Park in Philadelphia. The New York reporters agreed to cover the story. On June 17th, Mother Jones joined more than six thousand children, some of whom were maimed or injured from their work, in a protest march. They marched past City Hall where city officials watched from their windows. “Mother Jones lifted two small boys onto a table and showed what machinery had done to their hands and fingers.”18 She also gave a speech in which she spoke out against the rich citizens of the city, who should be ashamed, telling the crowd, “Philadelphia’s mansions [are] built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts, and drooping heads of these children.”19 The mill owners still wouldn’t budge and after a time, news of the strike waned as other issues came to fore. Mother Jones then decided to march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay on

Long Island where President Theodore Roosevelt and his family were spending the summer. On July 7th, after getting permission from union officials and parents of young workers, approximately 300 men, women, and children joined the march to New York. Unfortunately, President Roosevelt would not meet with Mother Jones and a defeated group returned to Philadelphia after twenty-two days on the road. In August, the Kensington workers returned to work defeated, the owners having won because the hungry workers simply ran out of money. Six years later, Pennsylvania passed legislation raising the minimum working age to fourteen and setting the maximum work hours per week to fifty-eight.

What were African American children doing?

“In 1850, nearly 39 percent of all young black males in the labor force worked in skilled positions; by the end of the century upwards of 90 percent of young black men at work were engaged as unskilled laborers.”20

For black children and families, the story of labor in Philadelphia in the late 19th century and early 20th century was different. You can see it in Lewis Hine’s pictures. In the hundreds of photographs of children in textile mills and mines, there were not many, if any, any black children. Where were they, and what were they doing? In Philadelphia, Licht writes that black youngsters had the highest rates of school attendance in the early part of the twentieth century. It seems some black children were in school. We also know that blacks were not a part of the Philadelphia industrial system even though there were skilled workers who were trained in the South and migrated north. Because of prejudice and discrimination, factory owners in Philadelphia did not employ black families. It was as simple as that. Even as far back as the 1850s, skilled blacks could not find work in their trades. In fact, a Quaker census, taken in the 1850s, “indicated that 40 percent of those blacks trained in specific crafts could not find work in their chosen trades.”21 Where did blacks find work? In 1896, W.E.B. DuBois was asked by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of the conditions of Negro life in Philadelphia along with his duties as an assistant instructor. He found that most AfricanAmerican children were at school or at home “to a far greater extent than American-born and immigrant white counterparts.”22 The black families that worked were employed in domestic service. DuBois discovered that in his “survey of the seventh ward in Philadelphia in the 1890s…that 60 percent of all black working men and 90 percent of all black working women earned their livings as domestics.”23 This was also true for young black workers as their work experience was in domestic service, an industry that they would probably stay in all of their lives. Unions were partly to blame for this situation, as blacks were not accepted into union memberships. The rise of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century only made matters worse. Tensions mounted as both groups sought the unskilled positions in the city. The end result was increased prejudice, discrimination and racism. African American clergymen, social groups and eventually black businessmen helped black workers to find employment. As with most ethnic groups at the time, family and personal relationships were the best ways to get a job. Irish liked to hire Irish, Polish liked to hire Polish and blacks liked to hire blacks, especially if they knew the families or friends of the applicant. The one exception mentioned was the Midvale Steel Company, which employed 4,000 black workers. Owners had many excuses for not hiring blacks; the most often cited excuse was that their current workers were not willing to work along side black people. Since Philadelphia is recorded at the time as having the most African-Americans living in a city, it is a shame that citizens and leaders did not make the hiring of skilled and unskilled African-Americans a priority. After all, what was the point of educating a group of people that would never be able to find a job?

Labor Laws in Pennsylvania In 1903, Charities Magazine quoted arguments put forward to defeat a bill in the Georgia legislature to limit child labor to children over twelve years of age. The bill was defeated at the time but the arguments are worth repeating for further discussion.

“Child labor is rendered necessary by poverty through inheritance or misfortune, a cause which cannot be eradicated by law…Children are brought to the mills by their parents because the work is lighter, the pay is better, and they have better opportunities for improvement and enjoyment than on the farms. I appeal to the legislature and to the state on behalf of these people not to interfere with their privilege to work when and where they will. Georgia is suffering more from idleness than she is from ignorance. Instead of requiring that anyone who wants to work should bring a certificate that he had been to school, I would rather see a law requiring that any one who wished to be educated at public expense should bring a certificate showing that he had been at work.”24

The arguments put forth here can be echoed from state to state. At the same time child labor was discussed, educating children at the public’s expense was a hot issue in many state legislatures. Public opinion varied according to class, race and education. These and other pressing issues in the states held up laws that would change child labor. Industrialists wanted to continue the practice of child labor and families whose survival depended on their children’s wages agreed. In 1849, Pennsylvania began addressing the issue of child labor and restricted children to ten hours per day and sixty hours per week. The legislation also restricted children under twelve from working in textile factories, but children under sixteen were permitted to work as long as they attended school at least three months per year. When the economy improved and the coal industry took off, parents who needed the income “exaggerated the age of their children.” Since the laws were poorly enforced, children as young as seven or eight worked in the breakers for about ten to twelve hours a day. The 1870 census continued to show that children were indeed working in mines and factories. By 1870, 11,000 children were reported working and by 1880, the number had doubled. Finally, in 1887, the minimum age of twelve was mandated for any type of employment of children in coalmines, mills and factories. People were still not happy and felt that children under sixteen should be restricted from all types of dangerous work. Enforcement continued to be a problem and parents continued to lie about their children’s ages. One way of enforcing the restrictions was to enact a Compulsory Education Act, which mandated that children between the ages of eight and thirteen years old attend school for at least four months per year. This seemed to discourage child labor but did not eliminate it. In 1915, the Child Labor Law was enacted which restricted employment of children under certain ages and in certain industries to work by requiring employment certificates or work permits. The term minor was defined as a person less than eighteen years of age. Minors were restricted to the type of work and hours of work that they were allowed each week during the school year. School was considered mandatory and attendance could not be interfered with. Summer hours were less restrictive for minors but they were prohibited from working after 10 o’clock in the evening (7 o’clock during the school year) and before seven in the morning. Minors were prohibited from working in any manufacturing or mechanical occupation or process, in any anthracite or bituminous coalmine or any other mine. Minors were also prohibited from working where alcoholic beverages were “distilled, rectified, compounded, brewed, manufactured, bottled, sold or dispensed; nor in a pool or billiard room…(Section 5 of the 1915 Pa. Child Labor Law).” With the Child Labor Law amendments of 1935, children fourteen and fifteen years old were permitted to work up to four hours per day and eighteen hours per week during the school year. They were allowed to work additional hours on the weekends. The restrictions to the type of labor such as mines, factories, and mills and working in establishments that produce or sell liquor, have not been relaxed for this age group. A copy of the Child Labor Law of 1915 is provided below. On the Federal level, child labor laws were passed and then declared unconstitutional. Amendments were proposed and not ratified. Presidents such as FDR created acts and they were declared unconstitutional (National Industrial Recovery Act, 1933). Finally, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed which prohibited the employment of any child under the age of fourteen and children under sixteen while school is in session. It also established eighteen as the minimum age to work at trades considered dangerous or hazardous. Child labor in America has a long history. Looking at the different sides of the argument, owners and parents versus the reformers, helps us to understand the issues that surrounded children working not only in dangerous work places but also to the detriment of their growth, health and well being. Today not only in America, but throughout the world, children continue to be exploited. Research can be suggested to students today to find places where laws are not being enforced and under aged children are working and not given the opportunity for an education.


This curriculum unit seeks to enlighten students about events and conditions in America in the mid to late 1800s through the early 1920s. The time period after the Civil War became known as the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. The evolution of the

labor force from independent family units to laborers in large factory and business settings is an important part of America’s history. Studying the changes in the labor force along with the economic conditions of immigrant families through pictures, literature, and debates will engage students and develop higher order thinking skills through discussion of primary sources.

Main objectives: 

  • To introduce the subject of child labor in America during the 1800s and early 1900s. 
  • To analyze historical primary documents. 
  • To analyze the political and social reforms in the early 1920s. 
  • To identify and explain conflict and cooperation among social groups and organization in American history. 
  • To identify and explain the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups in Pennsylvania history. 
  • To assess understanding of the impact of child labor in Pennsylvania and the passing of the Child Labor Law of 1915.


In fifth grade, students are exposed to American History chronologically for the first time. Standards for this year include explaining and analyzing historical sources. Students will study and respond to primary documents such as pictures, posters and advertisements. They will interpret and defend multiple points of view by debating the issue of age limits and work hours. Students will analyze political and social reforms of the early 1900s and identify and describe reform groups such as the NCLC whose purpose was to reform child labor. They will be able to compare and contrast how child labor was reformed before and after the PA Child Labor Law of 1915 was passed and again when it was amended in 1935. Students will also gain a perspective of the changes brought about in America by the Industrial Revolution and big business through notebook reflections and small and large group discussions.


Lesson 1


To introduce child labor in America during the 1800s and early 1900s.

Procedure: 
  1. Ask students what they believe children after the Civil War did each day. Did they work on the farms, go to school, or baby-sit while parents were working? How do they know what children were doing? Discuss the possibilities of what activities children spent most of their day doing.
  2. Explain that most children were working to help with the family’s income. Begin a K-W-L chart on child labor to assess what students already know. 
  3. Read excerpt from The Breaker Boys, page 134 to the top of page 138. This describes the breakers in detail from the noise and soot to the danger of children working in them. 
  4. Ask where students think this story is taking place and elicit feelings from students about the selection. 
  5. Have students record in their notebook what types of work they think children would be doing today if school were only available to wealthy children.  Students share responses in small groups.

Lesson 2 – Child Labor in Pictures

Objective :

To analyze historical primary documents.

Procedure: 
  1. Distribute pictures of child labor in Pennsylvania using Lewis Hine photographs in Kids At Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. Pages 3, 48, 50 depict children working in mines of Pennsylvania. (Other pictures may be used showing children working in mills, canneries on the streets in New Jersey and New York). 
  2. Ask students what they see in the pictures. Describe where the children are, what they are wearing, how old they think the children are, and if they can tell how the children are feeling. Give students time to respond and reflect on the pictures.  Read from Lewis Hine’s descriptions in the pages surrounding the numbered pictures above. 
  3. Distribute copy of newspaper article on page 52, which reports that a lad fell to death in the Lee Mines. On the same page, Hine writes about an inquest following his death which eventually shows that the lad was only 9 ½ years old upon his death. His parents had lied about his age. 
  4. Have students respond in their notebook what it might have been like to work in a coal mine. 
  5. Students share responses in small groups

Lesson 3 – National Child Labor Committee


To analyze the political and social reforms in the early 1920s.

Procedure: 
  1. Define social reform and how it has played an important role in making positive social changes in America  I
  2. n the first chapter of Lewis Hine & The National Child Labor Committee, the authors give an in-depth account of the NCLC and its work. An outline should be created for students to read about and discuss their work. 
  3. Distribute a copy of the exhibition panel by Lewis Hine on child labor on page 18. 
  4. Discuss the message the panel is trying to convey to its audience – the difference between what public opinion demands and what public opinion allows.
  5. Ask students to respond in the notebook – what conditions today does public opinion allow and what conditions today does public opinion demand changes. Does public outcry make a difference?  Students share responses with the class.

Lesson 4 – African American Children


Identify and explain conflict and cooperation among social groups and organization in American history.

Procedure: 
  1. Ask students to look back at the photographs that have been studied so far. (Others can be copied from Kids at Work to make the point). What do they notice about the children? Discuss age, nationality, size, gender, etc. Ask what group is missing from the photographs. 
  2. Read the excerpt from Kenneth B. Nunn, The Child as Other. (provided below) Ask for reactions and responses to the excerpt. 
  3. Discuss immigration and the economy. The massive influx of immigrants along with discrimination played a role in the disparity in the jobs African Americans were able to secure. 
  4. Ask how this conflict may have been solved. Look for public opinion and social reforms as possible answers. 
  5. Ask students to respond in their notebooks to compare and contrast the life of an African American child in the 1880s versus life today. 
  6. Students share their responses with the class.

Lesson 5 – Pennsylvania Child Labor Law


Identify and explain the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to Pennsylvania history.

Procedure: 
  1. Begin a timeline of the history of the enactment of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Law of 1915 including restrictions and limitation on child labor before the law was passed. 
  2. Discuss the obstacles that lead to the years it took for the law to finally be passed. 
  3. Choose sections of the law that you would like to discuss and debate together with students as it is read out loud. 
  4. Discuss the ease or difficulty in enforcing sections that you have chosen. 
  5. Create a T-chart organizing the changes in child labor before and after the Child Labor Law of 1915. 
  6. Ask students to respond in their notebooks what they feel the real issue of keeping children in the workforce (greed, profits, or shortage of laborers) 
  7. Students share responses in small groups.

Lesson 6 – Assessment


To assess understanding of the impact of child labor in Pennsylvania and the passing of the Child Labor Law of 1915.

Procedure: 
  1. Students review information, primary documents, notes and responses. 
  2. Ask students to chose a side to debate the question of child labor reform. 
  3. Explain to students that the year is 1914 in Philadelphia. The proposal for the Child Labor Act is being discussed. The debate is in progress. Owners, businessmen and parents whose children are currently working represent one side. They would like to see the current restrictions stay the same but feel they need to be strictly enforced. Members of the NCLC represent the other side in addition to people who want to see the Child Labor Act passed. 
  4. Appoint a monitor who will allow the discussion to begin with arguments on age restrictions. Continue the discussion with arguments about time restrictions during the school year and in the summer. 
  5. Ask students to respond in their notebook about how the debate clarified the issues surrounding child labor in the early 1900s. 
  6. Ask students: Is there child labor today?


Teacher’s Annotated Bibliography:

1) Licht, Walter. Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950. University of Penn Press. Philadelphia, Pa. 1992. An examination of the labor force in Philadelphia including but not limited to the role of family in making economic decisions and the employment patterns and problems of young people.

2) Dublin, Thomas and Licht, Walter. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 2005. A history of the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania spanning the 20th century. This history includes interviews with miners and mining families, and the social, economic, and political impact of the industry as it declined. 3) Marten, James, Editor. Children in Colonial America. New York University Press, New York, NY, 2007. This book examines the role of children in colonial American and how the process of colonization shaped childhood, and how these experiences affected their lives.

4) Westherspoon Art Museum. Priceless Children: American Photographs 18901925. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC, 2001. Photographs from several photographers and essays on childhood and child labor depicting the lives and conditions of children.

5) Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work – Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. Clarion Books, New York, NY, 1994. A study of Lewis Hine’s photographs and the story of his travels around America in the early 1900s.

6) Scranton, Philip and Licht, Walter. Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia 18901950. University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1986. This book describes the history and conditions of mills, plants and workshops in Philadelphia including many photographs taken of the sights, laborers, and the final products.

7) Curtis, Verna Posever and Mallach, Stanley. Photography and Reform: Lewis Hine & the National Child Labor Committee. Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1984. Using photographs of Lewis Hine, this book tells the story of the photographer and his work and child labor reform in America.

8) Nasaw, David. Children of the City: At Work and at Play. Anchor Press, Garden City, New York, 1985. This book chronicles children growing up in cities during the first few decades of the 20th century from their perspective.

Children’s Annotated Bibliography:

1) Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Kids on Strike. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999. After years of working long hours, children began organizing and making demands for better working conditions. This book uses first hand testimonies to describe conditions of the workplace in various parts of the country. 2) Cahn, Rhoda and William. No Time for School No Time for Play. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1972. Beginning with the textile mills in New England, this story follows child labor from working in the sweatshops, factories, and mines to the eventual passing of child labor laws. 3) Holland, Ruth. Mill Child – The Story of Child Labor In America. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY, 1970. This book tells the story of child labor in America beginning with the development of machinery to the passing of child labor legislation. 4) Hughes, Pat. The Breaker Boys. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, NY, 2004. This historical fiction account tells the story of the son of a local mine owner and his discovery of the conditions and oppression of the mining families. 5) Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of Child Labor Laws. A Cornerstone of Freedom Series. Children’s Press, Chicago, IL. 1984. Beginning with the Pennsylvania mining industry, this story describes child labor and the struggle for reform.

Web Site Resources:

1) Child Labor in Pennsylvania, 2) Child Labor Law, Act of 1915, P.L. 286. No. 177, 3) The History Place, Child Labor in America 1908-1912, Photographs of Lewis W. Hine, 4) The Progressive Era, Unit 5. Moments in Time Series. Glenco, A Division of

McGraw-Hill Companies, Peoria, IL. ISBN 0-07-861046-X. (Copyright: Time Incorporated), 5) The University of Dayton School of Law. Race, Racism and the Law. Article printed below. 6) National Child Labor Committee. .


Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.

Students will have opportunities to read and understand essential content of informational texts and documents; use, understand and evaluate a variety of media; and use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes. o 1.1 Listening to Read Independently (A, B) o 1.2 Read Critically in all Content areas (A,B,C) o 1.6 Speaking and Listening (A,D,E) o 1.8 Research (A,B)

Pennsylvania Academic Standards for History

Students will have opportunities to read and understand the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups; use primary documents to evaluate writings, letters, diaries, newspapers and other works; understand how continuity and change have influenced history; understand how conflict and cooperation among social groups and organizations have affected our society. o 8.1 Historical Analysis and Skill Development (A,B,C) o 8.2 Pennsylvania History (A,B,C)