The first federal child labor law in the United States was enacted in 1916, and it regulated commerce in goods produced by children. Some states, such as Massachusetts, had mandatory requirements for children to attend schools, but most did not. Although wealthy children regularly attended school, other children worked on a daily basis in the 19th century in the United States. The kind of work done varied based on where the children lived.
The Industrial Revolution changed the United States' economy in the 1800s. Many urban children worked in factories. Children could commonly be found in cotton mills, wool mills and paper mills. Children constituted 50 percent of the workers in cotton mills. Approximately 41 percent of workers in wool mills and 24 percent of workers in paper mills were children. Children often worked long hours during the day and night. Many children worked under conditions known in the 20th century to be “sweatshops.”
Families who owned or rented farm land generally worked the land as a family. Children began assisting with farm work as early as age 5. The participation of a child in farm work grew as the child grew. As a male child matured and gained strength he did more strenuous work. As a female child matured, she was more responsible for household chores in preparation for marriage. A young woman would marry as early as her 15th birthday. Some children in rural environments were educated at home by their parents, or in small schools organized by churches, but literacy was uncommon.
Pioneer families lived in territories of the United States outside the established cultures and economies of the states. Because of this lack of structure and establishment, daily life for a child on the prairie in the 19th century could be harsher than life in the chartered states. For a child, life on the prairie resembled life on a farm, with daily work and chores to cultivate the land for the family’s survival. There were often violent encounters between pioneers and resettled natives across the prairie and western region of the growing nation. In addition to working the land, children on the prairie had to know how to defend it.
In the early 1800s, education was reserved for the wealthy. This began to change as early the 1830s. Massachusetts adopted a law prohibiting employment of a child under the age of 15 who hadn’t received at least three months of schooling in the previous year. By 1850 other states adopted similar laws, regulating the number of hours a child could work to no more than 10 hours a day. As psychology grew as a science in the second half of the 19th century, the concept of childhood as a developmental phase of life was introduced in to mainstream culture. The concept of child labor laws grew in popularity as the 1800s ended and the 1900s began.
- A People's History of the United States; Howard Zinn; 2003
- Class Brain.com: Keating Owens Child Labor Act of 1916
- Scholastic Books: History of Child Labor
- Fundamentalfinance.com: Sweatshops and Child Labor
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images