Child Labor

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“Letter from National Child Labor Committee Regarding Child Labor Reform,” 1914. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

At the turn of the twentieth century, child labor was regulated by state. Yet in 1900, only fifteen states had passed laws to curtail child labor, and they were enforced inconsistently. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, one in six children worked for wages, a proportion that had grown since 1870 and would continue to grow over the next decades.

In 1906, reformers in the North joined with child labor activist Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy of Alabama to form the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). To mobilize support for their cause, the NCLC hired photographer Lewis Hine to document child laborers. Hine traveled throughout the United States from 1908 to 1917, photographing child workers in factories, mills, fields, mines, and the streets, sometimes obtaining access to restricted areas through subterfuge. He interviewed children to uncover their ages, work schedules, and education. This information was published in magazines, posters, and pamphlets along with his photographs. The scenes, previously unseen by the American public, inspired a collective moral outrage.

Amidst this climate of social concern, the NCLC pushed congress to create federal child labor laws, the first of which was the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prevented the shipment of goods made in factories and mines that employed children. The United States Children’s Bureau was established in 1912. It was an agency with a mission broader than child labor reformto investigate and report on the well-being of American children.