As the industrial revolution took hold in 19th century America, factory owners preferred to hire families, including children. Child labor was so accepted and widespread in the early years of that century, no one clamored for its abolition. (Even Andrew Carnegie got his start as a "bobbin boy" in a Pittsburgh textile mill.)

When long workdays prevented children from getting even a modest education, however, people began to get concerned:

  • An 1813 law, passed in Connecticut, encouraged employers to provide young workers with lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. It did little good.
  • In 1836, Massachusetts passed America's first child labor law. It required children under the age of 15 to spend at least three months a year in school.

After the Civil War was over (in 1865), a highly mechanized textile industry flourished in the South. With the slaves freed, children were brought into the shops:

  • Children as young as 6 or 7 worked 13-hour days in hot, dusty mills and factories. Proposals for change were unwelcome.
  • At the dawn of the 20th century, only a few Southern states had passed laws limiting the numbers of hours children could work.

During the first year of the 20th century, America's census revealed a disturbing fact. At least 2 million children were working in mines, mills, factories, stores and on city streets.

Charles Dickens - an Englishman forced to work at Warren's Blacking Factory when he was a lad of twelve - had written numerous novels, such as Oliver Twist, which drew attention to the plight of 19th century working children.  Dickens and his stories - including A Christmas Carol - remain popular today and were helpful in calling attention to the travails of working-class children in Britain.

Few protections, however, were in place for American children by the time of the 1900 census.


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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5186stories and lessons created

Original Release: Apr 01, 2004

Updated Last Revision: Apr 28, 2019

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"CHILD LABOR OVERVIEW" AwesomeStories.com. Apr 01, 2004. May 23, 2019.
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