Child Labor Essay

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By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization had swept the United States and the employment of children had become an increasingly visible practice and a controversial problem, as an estimated 2 million children toiled in factories, mines, and offices around the country. Frequently, countless children no older than six or seven found themselves thrust into factory work that destroyed their health, stunted their social development, and left them prepared only for a life of more of the same. Working at jobs that were solitary and incessant, they were constantly tired and depressed, were denied the natural expression of childish joy and excitement, and soon began to feel and look prematurely old. For decades, church and government officials struggled to outlaw the worst excesses of the child labor system, but only the combination of protective legislation and compulsory education instituted by the end of World War I began to loosen the tight grip of work on the lives of millions of American children. This entry recalls the history of child labor and its conclusion.

Children At Work

Child labor resulted from several interrelated factors. To many observers, the employment of children in factories and other workplaces served a philanthropic function, as work kept poor children from becoming public charges, taught them the Puritan values of industry, and protected them from the sins of idleness. As industry developed more opportunities for low skill and low-wage labor, factory officials began to aggressively seek out child workers who could do the work of adults but could not demand the same compensation. At the same time, throughout the country, family income was often so low that parents had little choice but to send their children to full-time employment to supplement their own meager earnings.

Even in agricultural regions, family welfare often took priority over the interests and aspirations of individual family members, with children helping out on the farm as soon as they could do the work. Still, these children often received at least minimal education, as their work was part time and seasonal, while industrial jobs demanded full-time attention, leaving urban children the clear choice between work and school. Also, while difficult, farm labor required tasks that varied from time to time, occurred mainly in the fresh air and sunlight, and allowed for occasional periods of rest. Industrial work was steady and year-round, making it difficult to reconcile work and school, and generally demanded mind-numbing attention to repetitive hand motions in an enclosed environment too often deafeningly loud, dirty, and dangerous.

To many, the solution to the problem of child labor appeared to be the passage and implementation of protective legislation that outlawed the employment of children in certain locations and at specific ages. Such laws evolved from pity for the exploited children, the sense that they were being prepared to act as informed citizens, and the recognition that the stunted intellectual and social skills that came from such labor cheapened and impaired industry itself. By the late 1920s every state had enacted some form of child labor legislation, even if it was honored only in the breach. Children under the age of sixteen were prohibited from engaging in most forms of dangerous factory work, and many companies had concluded that unschooled children were of marginal employment value in any case.

From Factory To School

Still, it was soon evident that legislation to eradicate child labor would not be enough to keep many children in school, as the education itself appeared disconnected from their lives and occupational needs. Students often found the curriculum boring, the discipline extreme, and the environment similar to the factories from which they had been excluded, leading many children to drop out completely; rates of absenteeism were high among those who remained.

In response, most states initiated mandatory attendance plans, and the effect was immediate. Enrollments and attendance improved, and countless children found their lives transformed by the new emphasis on the expansion of childhood in environments that were increasingly congenial. Nevertheless, schooling left children with little more than the rudimentary skills of reading and writing, and many were in danger of quitting even without the job opportunities that might have otherwise drawn them away. Wishing to be more physically active while earning money of their own, others did eventually leave school to pursue whatever employment the new laws had ignored.

The solution was a change in the direction and purpose of early education. Soon, countless elementary schools offered practical work with an industrial bent, high schools modified their curriculum to include manual skills, trade schools emerged to provide vocational training to help those who would later find skilled work, and continuation schools developed programs for those who had already entered industry with insufficient preparation. With these changes, schools began to appear as a larger part of real life, while parents and children could see that school attendance and academic achievement might eventually lead to better compensation and more pleasant working conditions. At the same time, industrial leaders came to appreciate employees who had learned specific job skills while in school and who demonstrated higher levels of industrial discipline that reduced the need for constant and close supervision. Educated workers were thrifty, efficient, and loyal and brought with them much more than the simple skills children had earlier learned while on the job.

While employment kept unruly children in check, provided additional income to struggling families, and offered cheap labor for American industrialists and merchants, it also left children injured and incomplete. Only education provided an opportunity for many to escape the worse of industrial jobs and to learn the skills and discipline required for advancement in the work they eventually found.


  1. Fuller, B. (1983). Youth job structure and school enrollment, 1890–1920. Sociology of Education, 56, 145–156.
  2. Landes, W., & Solmon, L. (1972). Compulsory school legislation: An economic analysis of law and social change in the nineteenth century. Journal of Economic History, 32, 54–97.
  3. Mayer, J. W. D., Tyack, J. N., & Gordon, A. (1979). Public education as nation-building in America: Enrollments and bureaucratization in the American states, 1870–1930. American Journal of Sociology, 85, 591–613.

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