Child Labor in the Progressive Era: Secondary Sources

The World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey

This book is an important resource for learning about child labor in America because it discusses the history of how it came to be and actions taken during the Progressive Era to outlaw it. Some of the history it mentions is that major cities were being overrun with vagrant children who were causing problems and because churches and charities were ill equipped to deal with them, they were sent to live with families in the midwest. Because there was a labor shortage there this led to many more children being sent away from Eastern cities leading to what is now known as placing out on Orphan Trains. These children became essential labor to the rural and agricultural areas they were sent to. This practice was widely accepted at the time but the rise of the Progressive Era changed public opinion.

We also get a brief overview of the coal industry and it’s role in child labor. The numbers of children working in these dangerous mines is staggering; in fact it mentions that “in Pennsylvania alone, in 1902, the Department of Mines estimated that 27,393 boys under sixteen years of age worked in the mines” (Hindman, 466). There were laws in place to prevent very young children from working there but they were not often enforced and children were three times more likely to be injured than the grown men working alongside them (Hindman, 467).

Another industry that was mentioned that I found interesting was the glass industry. Glass making started out as a skilled craft but with industrialization and the invention of molds it became increasingly easier to make and less skilled workers were able to do it. Children had multiple jobs such as taking items from the molds to finishers and also removing them from the finishing oven. Another job was “the ‘mold boys,’ who sat at the feet of the glass blower in a squat, cramped position, closing and opening the molds for hours at a time” (Hindman, 468). The working conditions were very dangerous with the ovens often being around 2500 degrees and the temperature inside the factory easily reaching over 115 degrees. Abuse and illness was also rampant with children being the most severely affected.

The books also discusses child labor in the American textile industry and how by the time the NCLC was founded in 1904 child labor in textiles had decreased significantly except in southern mills where it was still growing. There were no compulsory schooling laws as there were in the north and mill owners were reliant on the cheap labor children provided. Girls were often spinners and boys were doffers (bobbin changers) and sweepers, working twelve hour days with nary a break. This fight went on until the 30s, long after child labor laws were put into place in other parts of the country.

While child labor and compulsory schooling laws were becoming more commonplace they actually did little to reduce the number of child laborers. Rather, it was a shift in public opinion that took place during the Progressive Era due to the work of social reformers. Through the creation of organizations such as the National Consumers League (NCL) and the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) ideas surrounding childhood shifted and it became much less acceptable to use the cheap labor of children to advance the industrialization of the United States. The NCL pioneered innovative ways to garner public attention for this issue including consumer boycotts which were a very new idea back then. They also instituted a labeling program that identified items that were made by people working under fair conditions. The NCL eventually went on to work more in the legislative arena. As for the NCLC they began with the plan of working on the national level to end child labor. They were primarily investigators but their work, including the now famous photos taken by Lewis Hine, helped spur them on the become incorporated by Congress. Eventually a bureau dedicated to the well being of children was founded which was a testament of this committees success on a national level.

Hindman, H. D., & Hindman, H. (2009). The world of child labor : an historical and regional survey. Retrieved from


The Inspector and His Critics: Child Labor Reform in Pennsylvania

This article is about the child labor epidemic in Pennsylvania during the Progressive Era, specifically the relationship between of the head of the inspectors and reformers. Pennsylvania was known to have the most child laborers in its factories, more than all of the southern cotton states combined (Speakman). The appointment of John Delaney seemed like a win for reformers as previous inspectors worked for manufacturers and did not have the interest of the children in mind. Within the first few months of Delaney’s tenure one of his inspectors removed more underage children than the entirety of all inspectors the previous six months (Speakman).

This however, did not last. Delaney was a huge proponent of child labor and his main goal was to prove reformers wrong. He shrunk the annual reports saying that they were accurate and he did not run a statistics agency but this was a problem because they were the only hard numbers available between census. He also placed the blame of child labor on the parents rather than industry. His argument was that the parents got them falsified papers so the factories could not be held liable. While many children were removed from illegal and unsafe conditions, Delaney was also hesitant to prosecute manufacturers unless they were serial offenders.

This piece shows the conflict that often occurred between state agencies, manufacturers and reformers. While child labor was an obvious moral issue the state and manufactures saw it as an essential part of commerce and were hesitant to do too much to quell it.

Speakman, J. (2002). The Inspector and His Critics: Child Labor Reform in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 69(2), 266-286. Retrieved from


Child Labor In the Progressive Era: Primary Sources

Luther Watson, 14 Year Old Amputee

This image depicts a fourteen year old boy, Luther Watson, who lost his right arm to a veneering saw in a box factory in Cincinnati, OH in 1907. It is a sad but accurate representation of the fate of many children who had to work to help support their families before child labor laws were enacted. While Luther lost his arm, many were killed in accidents as there was no regulation.

Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, (1905 – 1934) Luther Watson…is 14-years-old…His
right arm was cut off…, November 1907. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America,


Child Labor Day Suggested: A Letter to Pastors and Churches Prepared by Clergymen

This letter was sent to churches across America by the Secretary of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Owen R. Lovejoy. He proposes that churches should set aside a day to help “awaken America against the evil of Child Labor” (Lovejoy) because even though laws had apparently been enacted at the time of writing to improve conditions child labor was on the rise and it was disintegrating the family and deprived children of schooling and health. He argues that the church has a moral obligation to correct this evil so that it is not “lost in the general destruction sure to overtake a bumptuous and brazen Babylon” (Lovejoy). This echoes a lot of what the Progressive era was built on; that society had lost its morals and needed to reform all the ills that had overtaken the country.

Lovejoy, O. R. (1908, Jan 16). Child labor day suggested. New York Observer and Chronicle (1833-1912), 86, 90. Retrieved from

The Babies Who Work

This article appeared in Harper’s Weekly in early 1910 about the proposed Children’s Bureau that the the NCLC was advocating for. White argued for the fair treat of treatment and highlighted the fact that if the government could afford to spend millions of dollars on the plant, animal, and forestry bureaus they could surely spend fifty thousand on a bureau that was to benefit children. He also said pointed out that other countries were ahead of the US in studying the welfare of children and that as such we should take note because allowing children to work was depriving them of their childhoods and would affect them well into adulthood. His overall point was that the circumstances of birth should not deprive children of these things as they are already destined to a harder life so the government should make sure children have equal opportunity to their childhoods.

White, F. M. (1910, January 08). The Babies who Work. Harper’s Weekly. Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Cartoon by Lewis Wickes Hine

This cartoon depicts a larger than life hand labeled as Child Labor Employer trying to crush a group of children who are simultaneously trying to hold it up. The arm appears to be that of an affluent person as noted by the suit jacket, cuff link, and sparkling ring but is faceless as it represents all of the factory owners who are complicit in their treatment of children. The children appear to be exhausted with their vitality gone but can’t stop working or there will be consequences.

Hine, L. W., photographer. (ca. 1912) Cartoon. United States, ca. 1912. [?] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Protest Against Child Labor in a Labor Parade

This photograph depicts young women in the Progressive Era at a Labor March protesting child labor. The woman in the forefront is wearing a sash that appears to say “abolish child slavery” though the image cuts it off and the sash in Yiddish if translated says the same. This photograph was meant to show how citizens of this era took up for social causes such as child labor which they likened to slavery. It is also a nod to the treatment of immigrants who were also not treated abhorrently during this time period.

(1909) Protest Against Child Labor in a Labor Parade. New York, 1909. [May 1] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,


Searching for primary sources on the internet was really convenient as there are many tools just a few clicks away that allow one to search many archives of photographs, newspaper articles, journals, etc. while sorting for specific dates and subjects. A lot of databases also offer excerpts or thumbnails so it is fairly easy to tell if a source is relevant to what one is searching for.

Histories of the National Mall: Review

The Histories of the National Mall project is a well executed, interactive representation of the National Mall that has comprehensive history of not only famous landmarks, but also important events and people associated with it as well as the history of the place itself and how it came to be. The content is laid out in a way that makes it easy for users to navigate through and each item has a description so that users can find out more if they so desire. If a user is looking for something specific they can also just simply type it into the search bar on the main page which is an essential function of any well-developed website. If a user is still unsure of where to begin there is also a page dedicated to discussing what is in the site, so they can start there in order to get their bearings and figure out where to go.

The creator of the site has an easy to use navigation bar at the top that easily communicates to users the different ways they can explore the history accumulated within. If you want to search a person you simply click on people and it takes you to an alphabetical list. Each listing has a picture accompanying the name which is hyperlinked; when you click through you then find yourself reading a brief description of the image. If you want to know more about the person you can find a brief biography and important dates associated with them such as their birthday if it is available. I especially loved the exploration pages though. I thought it was a truly unique ways of exploring through scavenger hunts and ask me more questions such as “who takes care of the Mall?” that really allowed users to engage with the history within the site.

Every aspect of the site functions as expected. It is unique in that it allows users to view maps of the mall and click on different sites which then leads to a pop up with an event or person listed. Each of these then has an informative paragraph accompanying it allowing the user to expand their knowledge. This is a very effective way of using digital media as this type of interactive experience is not available in other formats such as print or film. It is non-linear, so users can jump around different eras and see what makes this part of Washington D.C. a unique cornerstone of history in the city. It really aims to bring the area alive and allows the user to orient themselves wherever they are exploring so it’s easy to know where they are at all times. Not only that but this site is able to be used with mobile devices which is essential in this day and age when people are accessing media twenty-four seven from all over the world with their phones and tablets. Exploring this project is a joy for historians and regular citizens alike who want to learn more about the National Mall.