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Child Labor

Child labor was an important byproduct of industrialization. Physical labor might require an adult, but the operation of a machine could often by assigned to a child. The first child labor law was passed by the state of Massachusetts in 1836, which specified that children under the age of 15 could not be employed in an incorporated factory unless they had attended school for three months in the prior year. The Pennsylvania Senate conducted hearing on child labor in factories in December 1847. They were told that in many cases, children worked from sun up to sun down and that not infrequently children below the age of 12 were working in factories. The legislature responded in March 1848 with a law to limit the hours of labor and prohibit labor by children under 12. Rhode Island passed legislation in 1857, which prohibited:

  • Employment of any minor under the age of 12 in manufacturing,
  • Employment of any minor under the age of 15 in manufacturing, unless the child had spent at least three months in school in the previous year, and
  • Employment of a minor between 12 and 15 for more than eleven hours in one day, or before 5:00 a.m. or after 7:30 p.m. Offenders in Rhode Island were subject to a potential fine of $20. Nationally, progress was not swift. By 1860, there were still fewer than ten states with child labor laws and only four had minimum ages for factory labor. Even in 1919, a statement by Catholic bishops showed that the job was not complete:
    Public opinion in the majority of the states of our country has set its face inflexibly against the continuous employment of children in industry before the age of sixteen years. Within a reasonably short time all of our states, except some of the stagnant ones, will have laws providing for this reasonable standard.
    In the 1920`s, efforts to pass federal legislation against child labor were vigorously opposed by business interests. Supporters of such legislation, which, it was said, would be destructive of the rights of individuals and the states, were accused of being atheists and Bolsheviks. In 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, it was not hard to persuade public opinion that the evil of child labor was contrary to the public interest, when adults were facing 25% unemployment themselves. FDR noted in his third Fireside Chat that, "In the Cotton Textile Code and in other agreements already signed, child labor has been abolished. That makes me personally happier than any other one thing with which I have been connected since I came to Washington."