The Disgrace of Child Labor

"The worst conditions," according to Harold Faulkner,"prevailed in manufacturing in which about 16% of the child workers were engaged. The picture of children kept awake during the long night in a Southern mill by having cold water dashed on their faces, of little girls in canning factories 'snipping' sixteen or more hours a day or capping forty cans a minute in an effort to keep pace with a never exhausted machine, of little ten-year-old breaker boys crouched for ten hours a day over a dusty coal chute to pick sharp slate out of the fast moving coal, of boys imported from orphan asylums and reformatories to wreck their bodies in the slavery of a glass factory, or a four-year old baby toiling until midnight over artificial flowers in a New York tenement-these were conditions which might well shame a civilized people into action."

For years labor leaders had inveighed against the use of child workers, emphasizing that such exploitation was largely due to the unwillingness of employers to pay adults adequate wages. Humanitarian arguments were stressed, but trade unionists could not help but be alarmed by the growing displacement of adults by youngsters and the lowering of wage scales in the industries employing them.

So far as employers were concerned, child labor was a blessing in disguise. Instilling the work ethic in youngsters was good for their character and kept them out of mischief. Besides, as Charles Harding, president of the Merchants Woolen Company, told a Congressional committee: "There is a certain class of labor in the mills where there is not as much muscular exercise required as a child would put forth in play, and a child can do it about as well as a grown person....There is such a thing as too much education for working people sometimes. I have seen cases where young people are spoiled for labor by.....too much refinement."

One textile employer wrote lyrically about the pleasures of child labor: "They seem to be always cheerful and alert, taking pleasure in the light play of their muscles; enjoying the mobility natural to their age. It was delightful to observe the nimbleness with which they pieced the broken ends as the mule-carriage (textile mill machine) began to recede from the fixed roller beam, and to see them at leisure after a few seconds' exercise of their tiny fingers, to amuse themselves in any attitude they chose till the stretching and winding-on were once more completed. The work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport in which habit gave them a pleasing dexterity."

To the right are a couple political cartoons of the time, noting employer attitudes toward child labor in the early 1900's

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Source: American Labor, A Social Pictorial History by M.B. Schnapper, Copyright 1972