Children in the Labor Force

Introduction

[Protest against child labor in a labor parade]Mary Smith was born in Orange County fifty-seven years ago. Her father was a renter and he found it difficult to support his eight children on what was left after the landlord was paid. Not that the children didn't lend a helping hand. Mary cannot remember when she did not contribute her quota of work-hours toward her own support. At six she stood up in a chair to wash the dishes and prepare the scanty meals for cooking while her mother labored in the fields. There were then three smaller children who required the time left over from housekeeping duties. As she grew older there seemed no way to make a little time for school. She thinks that reading must indeed be a great pleasure. Many times she has picked up a book and sat with it in herhands wishing that she might know what was inside its pages.

When she was eleven the family income was supplemented by group participation in a relatively new industry. Smoking tobacco was gaining in popularity and the manufacturers of the product needed many small bags in which to pack it for distribution. The bag factories which grew up in answer to this need sent the bags out by the thousands into the surrounding countryside to be strung and tagged. During periods of slack in farm work Mary and her young brother walked the five miles into Durham and took back to their home two large sacks, each containing ten thousand small bags. She can remember sitting up all night on occasion during the rush season, each member of the family working as hard as he could to string these sacks for which they received thirty cents a thousand. When sleep laid such a heavy claim on her that she felt she could no longer stand it her mother sent her out on the back porch to dash cold water on her face that she might keep her eyes open yet a little longer. The year she was twelve her skill increased so that she raised the family income by several dollars, and her parents out of appreciation of her industry bought her two percale dresses instead of one.

By the time she was fifteen years old her father had decided his family would have a better living at a cotton mill than they could ever make for themselves on another man's farm. They sold the mule and the cow but they kept the twenty-six chickens for a while after moving to town. The nice fresh eggs came in handy because wages weren't so high that such things could be bought in plenty.

Mary began work at twenty-five cents a day. Her hours were from six to six but she will tell you that she doesn't believe the twelve hours then were any harder than eight hours now what with the speed-up system they have. Her man Jim comes in clean wore out at the end of a day, but of course she knows he's not a young man any longer. In fact, his working days are almost over because he's not so far from sixty and his body is none too stout.

When she married at eighteen she was making four dollars a week and Jim four dollars and a half. If it hadn't been for the installment plan she wonders if they ever could have bought the two beds and stove with which they began housekeeping. Nighttimes Jim made four chairs and a table. With so much furniture in their house they decided to take a couple of boarders to help with the installments still to be paid. The furniture wasn't more than paid for when Mary had to have an operation which cost Jim fifty dollars. That was three months before her first baby was born and another baby was on its way before the debt was finally paid.

Sometimes when her health was too bad to work in the mill Mary took up her old occupation of stringing bags. The wage had increased to fifty cents a thousand and with steady use of her spare time she could do a thousand a day. In the course of time five children were born to Mary Smith and four of them managed to live past babyhood. Mary's last child was born in 1912. It didn't live but three days and the Smiths had to borrow the money to bury it. "That year was one of the hardest in my life...."

From: [Mary Smith], July 15, 1938
in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of  Modern America (1890-1930)

STANDARD 1: How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption.

Standard 1A: The student understands the origin of the Progressives and the coalitions they formed to deal with issues at the local and state levels.

9-12: Assess Progressive efforts to regulate big business, curb labor militancy, and protect the rights of workers and consumers. [Evaluate alternative courses of action] 

Standard 1C: The student understands the limitations of Progressivism and the alternatives offered by various groups. 

9-12: Specify the issues raised by various women and how mainstream Progressives responded to them. [Consider multiple perspectives]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Juvenile convicts at work in the fields.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED:
    c1903.
    SOURCE: Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

  2. DESCRIPTION: [Eight girls sewing by hand, looking at the camera during a sweatshop inspection].
    DATE CREATED:
    [ca. 1903]
    REPRODUCTIONS
    : How to Obtain Photographic Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT
    : Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:
    Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933 in American Memory, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
    REPOSITORY:
    Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, IL

  3. DESCRIPTION: Mrs. Battaglia, Tessie (age - 12 years), Tony (age - 7 years), 170 Mulberry St. Rear house, 5th floor. Garment workers. Husband crippled by a fall, tends to basement. Mrs. Battaglia works in shop except Saturdays, when the children sew with her at home. Get 2 or 3 cents a pair finishing men's pants. Said they earn $1 to $1.50 on Saturday. Father disabled and can earn very little. New York.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 01/25/1908
    SOURCE: Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives Building - Archives I (Washington, DC)

  4. DESCRIPTION: Leveroni family. Earns 4 [cents] a gross making violets. Can make 20 gross a day when children all work. Father has work. Mrs. Leveroni, Tessi, age 9, Stephen, age 6, Margaret, age 7, Josephine Cordono, age 10. These children work on Saturdays, on afternoons after 3 o'clock, and evenings until 8 or 9. New York.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 01/25/1908
    SOURCE:
    Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives at College Park - Archives II (College Park, MD)

  5. DESCRIPTION: Leveroni family. Earns 4 [cents] a gross making violets. Can make 20 gross a day when children all work. Father has work. Mrs. Leveroni, Tessi, age 9, Stephen, age 6, Margaret, age 7, Josephine Cordono, age 10. These children work on Saturdays, on afternoons after 3 o'clock, and evenings until 8 or 9. New York.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 01/25/1908
    SOURCE:
    Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives at College Park - Archives II (College Park, MD)

  6. DESCRIPTION: Lincoln Cotton Mills, Evansville, Ind. Girls at weaving machines; warpers. Evansville, Ind.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 10/1908
    SOURCE:
    Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives at College Park - Archives II (College Park, MD)

  7. DESCRIPTION: Lacy (12 years old) and Savannah (11 years old) Ballard. Have worked two years. Father said, "the little one is a cracker-jack on spinnin', at least so the boss says. She ain't satisfied unless in the mill. The oldest one isn't so good at it. Not as quick." (Note the tense, serious look on the younger. Older more like a real girl.) Gastonia, N.C.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 11/07/1908
    SOURCE:
    Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives at College Park - Archives II (College Park, MD)

  8. DESCRIPTION: Girls running warping machines in Loray Mill, Gastonia, N.C. Many boys and girls much younger. Boss carefully avoided them, and when I tried to get a photo which would include a mite of a boy working at a machine, he was quickly swept out of range. "He isn't working here, just came in to help a little." Gastonia, N.C.
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 11/07/1908
    SOURCE:
    Department of Commerce and Labor. Children"s Bureau. (Most Recent). Part of Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, ca. 1912
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives at College Park - Archives II (College Park, MD)

  9. DESCRIPTION: [Protest against child labor in a labor parade]
    DATE CREATED: [1909 May 1]
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Obtain Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE: American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Washington, DC

  10. DESCRIPTION: Photograph of 5 year old Willie (William Frederick Tear, 490 Louisiana Ave.) one of Washington's youngest news-boys. He is a kind of free-lance, helps other boys out, and roams around the city on his little velocipede, with all the recklessness of extreme youth. Gets lost occasionally. He was so immature that he couldn't talk plain, and yet he was pretty keen about striking people for nickels. 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 04/16/1912
    SOURCE:
    Series: Papers Accompanying Specific Bills and Resolutions of the 63rd Congress Committee on the District of Columbia, 04/07/1913 - 03/03/1915
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives Building - Archives I (Washington, DC)

  11. DESCRIPTION: Photograph of news-boys selling near the Capitol building
    CREATED/PUBLISHED 04/10/1912 
    SOURCE:
    Series: Papers Accompanying Specific Bills and Resolutions of the 63rd Congress Committee on the District of Columbia, 04/07/1913 - 03/03/1915
    ACCESS: Unrestricted
    REPOSITORY: National Archives Building - Archives I (Washington, DC)

  12. DESCRIPTION: Child Labor Report
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1913
    SOURCE: BUREAU OF INDUSTRIAL STATISTICS AND INFORMATION (Child Labor Report) Manuscript 1913 Accession Number: MdHR 811299, Location: 2/3/6/12, E6380
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  13. DESCRIPTION: Child Labor Report, Documentation
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1913
    SOURCE: BUREAU OF INDUSTRIAL STATISTICS AND INFORMATION (Child Labor Report, Documentation) Manuscript
    1913 Accession Number: MdHR 811299-1, Location: 2/3/6/12, E6381
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  14. See: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor

  15. See: Modern History Sourcebook: Harriet Robinson: Lowell Mill Girls. Source for the autobiography of Harriet Hanson Robinson's life as a female factory worker (from the age of ten in 1834 to 1848) in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Additional Media Resources

The History Place: Child Labor in America, 1908-1912. The Photographs of Lewis W. Hine

Child Labor [Political] Cartoons

Additional Instructional Resources

Resources on Incorporating Primary Sources and Historic Sites in Classroom Instruction

Child Labor in America

Turn-of-the-Century Child

Secondary Resources

Brown, Emma E. "Children's Labor: A Problem." The Atlantic Monthly (December 1880): pp. 787-792 

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Baltimore Museum of Industry
1415 Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230
Phone: (410) 727-4808

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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