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


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