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Child Labor in the United States

by Saverio Giovacchini, American Social History Project

This activity asks students to look at Progressive-era photographs of child factory laborers, taken by Lewis Hine, and at an online exhibit about southern factory mill towns from the early twentieth century. After viewing this visual evidence, students write a letter of advice to the imagined parents of a child laborer and a one paragraph explanation of why they offered the advice they did in the letter.

Child Labor in the United States

Title: Child Labor in the United States

Author: Saverio Giovacchini, American Social History Project

Mechanization and standardization were supposed to make factory work easier by dividing the labor process into a series of simple tasks. Simplification indeed occurred but its results benefited the factory owners rather than the workers. Employers could now reduce labor costs by hiring workers without previous industrial skills, including imigrants from rural areas and a growing number of women and children. Facing declining wages and unable to provide the necessary family income parents were forced to send their children to work in the factories. By 1890, 19% of U.S. children between 10 and 15 years of age were employed. Several states prohibited the employment of children but state laws were easily circumvented, and the largest industrial concerns were exempt from state regulations because they produced for an interstate, national, market. In 1916 the Keating-Owen Act limited the employment of children but the Supreme Court struck down federal legislation regulating child labor in 1918 and again in 1922 (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company).

Many reformers attempted to make the public aware of the conditions children faced in the factories in order to prompt social and legislative reform. Because of its power and immediacy, photography played a large role in these efforts. Beginning in 1909,  Lewis W. Hine, a reform minded photographer working for the National Child Labor Committee, documented the work of children in the modern factory.

Goal: The object of this activity is to familiarize the class with the historical and emotional contexts surrounding child labor.

Themes: child labor, welfare state, labor history, family history.

Skills: analysis of visual and verbal documents; historical imagination; computer literacy.


a. Lewis Hine’s on line photo gallery (http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/index.html).

b. On line-exhibit of Southern mill towns (http://www.ibiblio.org/sohp).


Step # 1: Visit the on-line exhibition of Hine’s photographs about working children.

Step # 2: For more information on the options facing a child worker and her or his parent also visit the on-line exhibit dedicated to mill towns in the Southern Piedmont

Step # 3: once you have examined the photographs and explored the web site about the mills, open a new word-processing file and write a one-page letter to the parents of one of these children.

GUIDELINES: use your imagination for a moment and place yourself in the parents’ shoes: you want your child to have a happy future, but you also need the money he or she brings home. Furthermore, you are aware that, should he or she stop working, you will not be able to feed him or her.

Now try and advise these parents using language and arguments that speak to their [not your!!] situation. What should the child do? Should the child leave his or her job and come home? Should he or she participate in the union efforts? Should he or she go on strike?

Step # 4: Add a one-page statement to your letter in which you explain the rationale for your advice to the child’s parents. In this statement use a minimum of three footnotes to refer at least once to a) the textbook, b) the in-class lectures, c) the on line exhibit about the mill-town.