It is difficult for modern Americans to imagine a time when children worked instead of attending school, but children were part of the labor force for a significant portion of American history. In fact, the United States enacted its first federal child labor law in 1916. Some states, such as Massachusetts, passed mandatory requirements for children to attend schools, but most did not. Generally, only wealthy children regularly attended school while other children spent their days working. The kind of work performed by children varied based on where the children lived.
Children in urban areas often found employment in factories while rural children usually worked on farms and in households. As the field of psychology grew, the concept of childhood changed in the collective American consciousness and gave rise to regulations on child labor at the turn of the century.
The Industrial Revolution changed the United States' economy in the 1800s. Many urban children worked in factories; according to the Encarta encyclopedia, children between seven and 12 years of age comprised one-third of the factory workforce at that time. Children commonly found employment in cotton mills, wool mills and paper mills. Children often worked long hours during the day and night. Many children worked under conditions known in the 20th century as “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, so did her responsibility for household chores in preparation for marriage. A young woman would marry as early as her 15th birthday. Some children in rural environments received education at home from 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, daily life for a child on the prairie in the 19th century could be even 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. In addition to working the land, children on the prairie had to know how to defend it. Violent encounters between pioneers and resettled natives occurred across the prairie and western region of the growing nation.
Childhood and Education
In the early 1800s, education was a privilege for the wealthy. This began to change as early as 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 the scientific field of psychology grew in the second half of the 19th century, the concept of childhood as a developmental phase of life entered the consciousness of mainstream America. This paved the way for child labor laws to grow in popularity at the turn of the century.