Today, there are laws in the United States that prevent employers from hiring children. That wasn’t always the case! Your ancestors might have worked when they were children. In general, the reason parents allowed their child to take a job was out of necessity.
Children were employed in many industries. Textile mills hired both boys and girls. Boys worked in coal mines where their job was to break coal from the rock by hand. Typically, these “breaker boys” were between the ages of 8 and 12. Children worked on the family farm, and sometimes were hired out to other farmers.
Throughout history, children had been employed as servants and apprentices. During the Industrial Revolution, child labor became extremely common. Children worked in order to help support their families. They worked long hours for little pay in dangerous factory conditions. Children who were working were unable to attend school.
Some employers preferred to hire children over adults. Children were easier to manage and to keep under control than adults were. The employers could get away with paying children less than adults. The biggest advantage of hiring children was their small size. This was important in industries that required workers to be able to move around in small spaces (like in factories and coal mines).
In 1900, 18% of all American workers were under the age of 16. In the southern cotton mills, 25% of the workers were below the age of 15 (with half of those children below the age of 12).
Although efforts had been made over the years to reform child labor, to create laws that improved the workplace, and to emphasize how important it was that children get an education, not much changed until the Great Depression. It’s possible that the lack of jobs changed public opinion about child labor.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) established minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. It also put restrictions on child labor. One restriction prohibited the employment of children under the age of 16 in manufacturing and mining.
Other changes led to the decline of child labor. Work that used to be done by hand had become mechanized, and semiskilled adults were needed to operate the equipment. States responded to this by increasing the required number of years of schooling, by lengthening the school year, and by enforcing truancy laws. In 1949, the child labor law was amended to include commercial agriculture, transportation, communications, and public utilities.
Image by Children’s Bureau Centennial on Flickr
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