Happy Labor Day! Can You Imagine Your 4-Year-Old Working to Help Pay the Bills?

It’s Labor Day and there are so many reasons to be thankful that our family lives here in this country and at this time!  This is a post I wrote a couple of years ago and I thought it was worth sharing again.

After the Civil War, the availability of natural resources, new inventions, and a receptive market combined to fuel an industrial boom. The demand for labor grew, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many children were drawn into the labor force. Factory wages were so low that children often had to work to help support their families. The number of children under the age of 15 who worked in industrial jobs for wages climbed from 1.5 million in 1890 to 2 million in 1910. Businesses liked to hire children because they worked in unskilled jobs for lower wages than adults, and their small hands made them more adept at handling small parts and tools. [Quoted from the National Archives]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics this is how American adults spend their time:

And according to the statistics, most American high school students spend very little time working (in employment):

Times were quite different when Labor Day was first established.  Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 to honor the contributions of the American worker.

Between 1860 and 1900 the population of the US more than doubled from 31 million to 76 million. Between 1866 and 1914 more than 25 million immigrants came to the United States with as many as 80% of these immigrants settled in the Northern cities.  As a result, industrial leaders had a virtually unlimited supply of laborers. Workers were at the mercy of employers.  Working conditions were often dirty and dangerous.

This miner boy, Frank, was about 14 years old and had worked in the mine helping his father pick and load for three years. He was in the hospital for one year because one of his legs had been crushed by a coal car.

Wages were low and hours were often long. Entire families including the children had to work just to make ends meet.

In the photo below, this New York City family and their neighbors worked until late at night sewing garters. The youngest worked until 9pm; the others worked until 11pm.  On the right are the children Sarah-7, her sister-11, her brother-13. On the left are their neighbors who came regularly to work:  Mary-7, Sam-10 and next to the mother is a 12 year old boy. ”It’s better than running the streets” the father said. He was a grocery clerk but had been out of work for some months and worked at home on the garters.

Urban conditions were appalling. There was overcrowding and sanitation problems. Many people lived in slums. Fire protection, street cleaning, sewage systems, garbage collection and water treatment barely existed.

In 1910, almost 25% of all American children were employed full time in the nation’s factories. Local labor laws were often ignored. In many cases laws regulating working conditions and limiting/forbidding child labor did not apply to immigrants.

Between 1908 and 1912, the photographer and investigator, Lewis Hine, took his camera across America to photograph workers.  He showed children as young as three working for long hours, often under dangerous conditions.

Let’s meet the Padgett Family of South Weldon, North Carolina:

The entire Padgett family including the mother was illiterate. No one could read or write.  The mother worked in the cotton mill. Alice, 17 years old, had a steady job and made between $5 and $6 a week.  Alfred too, 13 years old, had a steady job at the mill. He started working at this mill at the age of 12 and worked in other mills before that.  Alfred made $4 a week.  Alfred (pictured at the right) became crippled getting his hand caught in the cogs of a spinning machine.  Richard was 11 and had been working in the mill since he was 10 years old. He made $2.40 a week. William, 6 years old, was nearly blind. Lizzie was 5 years old. When the investigator came the house was filthy and bare and the mother had been gone for about an hour.  She left the two older children 5 and 6 in charge of the 3 month old baby, who was sleeping in a cradle before the open fire. When she returned she fed the kids cheap candy.

The next photograph is Edgar Kitchen, age 13:

Edgar lived near Bowling Green, Kentucky. He earned $3.25 a week working for the Bingham Brothers Dairy. He drove the dairy wagon from 7am to noon. Then he worked in the afternoon on a farm. Often he worked 10 hours a day, a half-day on Saturday.  He thought he’d ‘work steady’ this year and wouldn’t go to school.

The next photo is a 7-year old oyster shucker.  She spoke no English. Her parents earned about $15 a week.  This little one and her 6-year old brother worked steady.  Location: Bluffton, South Carolina:

Lewis Hine took this picture of a little spinner in Mollahan Mills in Newberry, South Carolina in 1908.  She was tending her work like a veteran, but after he took the photo the overseer came up and said in apologetic tone that, “She just happened in.”  Hine wrote, “the mills appear to be full of youngsters that ‘just happened in’ or ‘are helping sister’.”

These days we have a lot to be thankful for.  In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, better known as the Federal Wage and Hour Act:

  • It set the work week of 40 hours.
  • It set minimum wage of 40 cents an hour. Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and some states and cities have raised their minimum wage even higher than that.
  • It prohibited child labor under 16.
  • It set a minimum age of 18 for work in industries classified as hazardous.
*Let’s remember the hard work, social and economic achievements and contributions of all American workers. Happy Labor Day!
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Photo Credits: Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection by Lewis Hine. In 1954 the Library received the records of the National Child Labor Committee, including approximately 5,000 photographs and 350 negatives by Lewis Hine. In giving the collection to the Library, the NCLC stipulated that “There will be no restrictions of any kind on your use of the Hine photographic material.”
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