• Notes From The Frontier

Child Labor in the 1800s

By the year 1900, about a fifth of all workers in the U.S. were under 16 years of age.  In southern cotton mills, 25 percent of the employees were below the age of fifteen, with half of these children below age twelve. There were more than two million children working in factories, mines and on farms so that their families could survive. Many of those families were immigrant families.

The United States was bursting at the seams with industrial and population growth. Factories, mines and agriculture needed workers and children were cheap, expendable and easily controlled. But wages were very low—unlivable for adults with families—and children had to work so that the families could survive. Add to this scenario the reality that there were very few legal controls on employing children. This made conditions for abuse unfettered.


Some factory and mine owners employed children as young as four years old, who usually worked from 4am to 5pm, or sometimes 8pm. Many immigrant families who were escaping grinding poverty in Europe were used to child labor. In England and Scotland in 1790, for example, two-thirds of the workers in cotton mills were children under 15 years old.

Conditions in American cities for the poor and working class were miserable: filth, garbage and horse manure everywhere, horrific pollution caused by ubiquitous coal burning and factories belching exhaust, epidemic rates of cholera, typhus, and smallpox, and abysmal overcrowding. Truly a dystopian world.

Workplaces in the late 1800s were just as brutal and unforgiving. Because there were no controls and employees, especially child workers, were considered so expendable, abuses were rampant. Mines and factories were extremely dangerous places to work. Textile mills, for example, had complicated spinning machines, whirling spindles, moving shafts, belts and gears that were not required to be guarded. And many children, who came from poor families, did not wear shoes and had ill-fitting clothing that could catch in the machinery.


The writer John Brown in 1828 wrote of a horrific accident in a factory:

“A girl named Mary Richards, who was thought remarkably pretty when she left the workhouse, and, who was not quite ten years of age, attended a drawing frame, below which, and about a foot from the floor, was a horizontal shaft, by which the frames above were turned. It happened one evening, when her apron was caught by the shaft. In an instant the poor girl was drawn by an irresistible force and dashed on the floor. She uttered the most heart-rending shrieks! The factory overseer ran towards her, an agonized and helpless beholder of a scene of horror. He saw her whirled round and round with the shaft - he heard the bones of her arms, legs, thighs, etc. successively snap asunder, crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her round, and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works, her blood was scattered over the frame and streamed upon the floor, her head appeared dashed to pieces - at last, her mangled body was jammed in so fast, between the shafts and the floor, that the water being low and the wheels off the gear, it stopped the main shaft. When she was extricated, every bone was found broken - her head dreadfully crushed. She was carried off lifeless.”

Furthermore, factory owners liked to hire children because they were small and had small hands and could maneuver into small places to unclog spinning machines that often jammed. But many children got hands and limbs caught in the machinery when it started again. Consequently, children had dangerous accidents three times the rate of adults.

A doctor who treated factory worker injuries wrote in 1819:

“When I was a surgeon in the infirmary, accidents were very often admitted to the infirmary, through the children's hands and arms having being caught in the machinery; in many instances the muscles, and the skin is stripped down to the bone, and in some instances a finger or two might be lost. The number of children at that time who were employed in factories, was 106. The number of children who had received injuries from the machinery amounted to very nearly one half. There were forty-seven injured in this way.”

Neither adults or children who were maimed in factories or mines were compensated. Many were left maimed for life, unable to work, and damned to the poorhouse the rest of their lives.


There were other dangers in factory and mining work. Young girls often worked in match factories. The harsh potassium chlorate caused the girls to lose their teeth. Children who worked in mines often suffered lung damage at an early age. Boys who worked in glass making factories suffered eye trouble, lung ailments, heat exhaustion, cuts, and burns. Since workers were paid by the piece, they had to work productively for hours without a break.

Suffragettes and concerned mothers were the first to protest child labor in the mid-1800s in New England. Very modest reform legislation began in the 1870s. Then, in 1881 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) held its first convention and began to gain clout. But child labor continued well into the 1900s. Congress passed federal laws limiting child labor in 1916 and 1918, but the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. It was not until 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, which for the first time set national minimum wage and maximum hour standards for workers in interstate commerce and also placed limitations on child labor.


One man in particular did a great deal to move the American public sentiment against the horrors of child labor. In 1908, the photographer, Lewis Hine, became the official photographer of the National Child Labor Committee. Hine photographed child workers across the country, from New York to the Carolinas to Pittsburgh, documenting the horrific conditions in which children worked. His photographs included a series on children who had lost limbs in factories, mines and in agriculture.

Hine said of his work: “Photography can light-up darkness and expose ignorance.” It is in great part due to his powerful images that millions of children were eventually freed from the darkness of child labor.

For related posts, go to NotesfromtheFrontier.com


-Why We Have Labor Day?

-The Shirtwaist Factory Disaster

-The Heartbreaking Tale of Orphan Trains

-In Praise of the Working Man

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