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.

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