Work Life

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“Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker, South Pittston, Pennsylvania,” 1911. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Mills, Factories, and Mines

The American Industrial Revolution during the second half of the nineteenth century created ample demand for low-skill jobs. Income disparity was rampant, especially in the crowded cities of the Northeast, and children were expected to contribute to their family’s household income. Factory work for children was not isolated in the urban North, however. Children worked, often alongside their parents, in the glass factories of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, textile mills of the South, and oyster canneries of the Gulf Coast.

In fact, positions existed specifically for childrentasks which were designed to take advantage of their small size or to compensate for it. Coal mines employed children to work in the coal breaker, an area outside of the mine where coal was sorted and graded. Known as “breaker boys,” these children would work for ten to twelve hours a day separating slate from coal.

Factory and mine work kept children out of school and also put them at great physical risk. The long hours and physical demands of monotonous manufacturing work threatened to impair children’s development, as did the hazardous environment that they labored in. Spinning machinery, exceedingly high temperatures, and toxic fumes were common features of mills and factories.