Child Labor During Industrial Revolution

Throughout human history, child labor has been practiced all over the world. Children have been working in harsh conditions and were used as apprentices and servants. The period of the Industrial Revolution became the zenith of this exploitation. Progressive reform movement became the way to the federal guarantee protecting children from miserable labor conditions. This movement is the key point of protecting the rights of children, and it formed the model of childhood that we know today.

The Causes of Reform Movement

Up to the twentieth century, child labor has been part of human life throughout history. The situation started to change for the better in the mid-nineteenth century when educational reformers made an attempt to convince society of the necessity of primary schools. The suffrage movement occurred, people started to seek social justice and equality. These processes also involved the sphere of child labor, making society change.

Child Labor Throughout the History

In the times when tribes wandered the land, children took part in fishing and hunting. When the tribes have divided into families, they cared for crops and livestock. In medieval times, they were introduced to the guild system (U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2017). Children were supposed to help their parents already at the age of five (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). Large families often sent their children to other households so that they could work there as plowboys, maids, or servants. With establishing of manufactures, children were involved in the working process even more actively due to the invention of machines.

The U.S. was not an exception, as child slavery was common here. In the U.S., colonial laws aimed to prevent children from being idle and thus becoming a burden on society. Alexander Hamilton (1791), the Secretary of Treasury, noted in his report that children could provide cheap labor, or otherwise they would be idle. This was supported by the Puritan moral that put work at the center of life and strived to solve the problem of idle children that could become paupers.

Industrialization Period

During the period of industrialization, the workers were moved from their home workshops and farms into the cities. At the factories which were located in urban areas, child labor was in high demand. Children were regarded as a preferable workforce because they were easier to manage and less likely to strike (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.). Besides, factory owners paid less to children, which made their labor cheap and thus brought more profit to the factory.

Thus, the overall moral and social background of people in the eighteenth century made children’s life very hard. They had to work as hard as adults, at the same time receiving less money. The rising of social justice had put this problem in the focus of the legislation system. Slowly and gradually, the steps to the protection of children’s rights and improving their working conditions started to be taken.

The Course of Reform Movement

With the changes in society, the vision of child labor was also changing. In 1832, the unions of New England condemned child labor. The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen stated that children should not be involved in working at the factories for many hours (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.). Besides, the association also resolved that children should have an opportunity for healthy recreation. They considered that hard work without having rest negatively affects the well-being of children.

The process was influenced by the laws adopted in England. For example, in 1833, a Factory Act was passed which aimed to improve the working conditions for children (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.). According to this act, children younger than nine years old could not work at the factory. Employees had to provide certificates that proved the age of workers. Children under thirteen years old could not work more than nine hours a day, and night shifts for children were banned. This became the starting point for improving children’s living and working conditions. The revolutionary processes of other countries were supported by the U.S.

In 1836, the initiative was supported by early trade unions. They proposed a law that would set a minimum age for working. This was the first public and formal proposal that introduced age limits for working at the factory (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.). In Massachusetts, children under fifteen had to attend school at least three months a year in order to be allowed to work. In 1842, different states started to limit workdays for children (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.).

For example, in Massachusetts, a workday for children was limited to ten hours. The initiative was supported by other states, although it was not enforced in a manner that would be enough for the total restriction of longer workdays. In 1876, Working Men’s Party urged the law limiting the minimum working age (The University of Iowa Labor Center, n.d.). According to this law, it was prohibited to employ children under fourteen years old.


Some activists were especially effective in their fighting for children’s rights. For example, Grace Abbott, who was supporting the suffrage movement and entered the Children’s Bureau, led the campaign for limiting child labor on a constitutional level (Eastern Illinois University, n.d.). Jane Addams and Lewis Line, who were involved in the National Child Labor Committee, were also following the mission of promoting children’s rights and dignity. Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge also played an important role in protecting children’s rights. In 1906, he introduced a child labor federal bill in Congress (Beveridge, 1906).

By this bill, he was especially striving to protect the children from Southern states who worked in the cotton mills. The senator pointed at the economic background of the unwillingness of states to abolish child labor. Children from the states that had limited child labor would go to neighboring states in order to earn money. Thus, the topic of child labor attracted broader attention from the public.


In the twentieth century, the rights of children were protected more actively and at higher levels. A number of governmental initiatives were issued in order to regulate the issues of working age and conditions. Children received more guarantees from the state that allowed them to spend more time on education instead of working. In 1912, President William Howard Taft established a Children’s Bureau (U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare Social Security Administration, 1962).

The sphere of responsibility of the Bureau included investigation and reporting on the issues that would protect the welfare of children among all social classes (U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare Social Security Administration, 1962). In 1916, the Owen Child Labor Act was passed by Congress (U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare Social Security Administration, 1962). According to this act, the goods produced by factories using child labor could not be traded between states. However, although Woodrow Wilson signed this act, the Supreme Court claimed that the act was unconstitutional.

As for the long-term consequences, the measures taken by these activists became the foundation for the legislative and social changes that brought rights to children. Gradually, the focus has shifted from the necessity to work to education, and children ceased to be regarded merely as a source of the cheap workforce. They have received the opportunity to develop personally and to get more sophisticated skills. Thus, children’s quality of life increased significantly due to the progressive reform movement.


I chose this topic because I see how generations are different from each other in their values and everyday activities. Young people that children that live in the digital era mostly spend their time online, creating blogs, playing online games, and so on. I wondered how different the life of young people and children a few centuries ago was. Although I knew that it was hard, during my research, I realized that it was much more difficult than I imagined.

In addition, I wanted to know which event became a turning point after which the child labor conditions started to improve. I learned that it was a difficult path, and it was a collective work of different activists and organizations. Before the Fair Labor Standards Act, many laws and documents were proposed in order to limit the workday and set the working age. I found it interesting that Massachusetts was the most progressive state in that sense.

As for further researches, historians could expand the topic, researching the child-protecting movements in other countries. In addition, it would be interesting to discover the connection between religion and labor standards for children. Puritanism influenced the vision of labor a lot, so research in this field would also be useful. The researchers could also analyze other ideologies and religions and their connection to the attitude to child labor. Thus, there is a wide field for further historical research in this sphere.


Beveridge A. (1907). Child labor and the nation. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 29(1), 115-124. Web.

Childhood lost: Child labor during the industrial revolution. (n.d.) Eastern Illinois University. Web.

Hamilton, A. (1791). Report on the Subject of Manufactures. Web.

History of child labor in the United States—part 1: little children working. (2017). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Web.

The Children’s bureau (1962). U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare Social Security Administration. Web.

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