History of Child Labor Laws
European settlers brought social-values with them to America. Many of these values remain today such as the value Americans place on work. The colonists equated idleness with delinquency. Children often helped out in farmwork or in their father's trade or business to help support the family.
A 1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony law required families to provide education to their children and apprentices. This involved teaching children how to read, as well as a trade or some manner of employment. This law was intended to ensure that children all had an upbringing that prepared them to be industrious and hard-working adults.
Families in unfortunate circumstances, who could not afford to take care of and educate their own children, would often have their children enter apprenticeships at young ages. Children of slaves were born into servitude and often did not have the same rights.
The industrial revolution changed America from a predominately rural population to an urban one. Factories were dependent on women and children for cheap manageable labor. Families depended on the meager income of their children, however there was still growing concern about the working conditions of children.
Children as young as 6 worked up to 13 hour days in unhealthy and dangerous conditions for minuscule wages. However, social conscience blossomed and deplorable factory conditions began to be challenged. Education of youth became an issue and in 1836, Connecticut passed a law requiring working children to attend school 3 months a year. By the late 1800's States had passed over 1600 laws limiting or forbidding child labor. Unfortunately, many of these laws were ignored, or did not apply to everyone, such as immigrants.
Progressive Reforms and Labor Movements
By the early 1900s there was a growing belief that the federal government should protect children. Many women joined the fight for social reform and against children working in factories. Two ardent progressive activists were Mother Jones and Florence Kelley.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones became the voice of children after her husband and children died of yellow fever in 1867. She was one of the strongest campaigners for the countries first labor union, The Knights of Labor, and a champion for the poor worker. In 1903 she led a group of child workers on a march to President Theodore Roosevelt’s mansion. She wanted him to ban child labor but he refused to meet with them.
Many women joined the fight for social reform and fair treatment of children. Progressive activist Florence Kelley was a leader in the battle. She organized marches; boycotts of goods produced with child labor and pressed the federal government to outlaw child labor. By 1913, all but 9 states had passed laws setting the minimum age of 14 for factory work.