In retrospect, many social advances seem like no-brainers. Slavery? Yeah, that was wrong. Disenfranchisement of women? Yeah, wrong again. Letting little kids work in mines and mills? Yeah, let’s not do that.
However, no matter how simple something seems in hindsight through the filter of our modern sensibility, there were always people or organizations that opposed the progress we were making as a culture.
Child Labor in the 1900s & 1910s
By the time the 1900 census was tabulated, approximately 2 million children were reported to be working in mills, mines, farms, factories, shops, and on the streets of American cities. The 1900 census report helped spark a national movement to end child labor in the United States. To help better illustrate the scale of the problem, the National Child Labor Committee hired the photographer Lewis Hine to criss-cross the country photographing and reporting on the use of child labor in many different industries.
Initially, social reformers condemned child labor because of its detrimental long-term effects on the health and welfare of children. One of the most famous individuals helping to drive public opinion was already dead by the beginning of the 20th century.
The writings of Charles Dickens [1812-187], who had performed factory work himself at age 12, were used to highlight the dangers — both physical and spiritual — of children working instead of attending school. One of the most effective attacks came from his novel Oliver Twist. Widely read in both Britain and the United States, his masterwork portrayed an orphan boy raised in poorhouses and workhouses and by street criminals in industrialized London in the 1850s.
The first successful passage of a child labor bill was the Keating-Owen bill of 1916. Based on Senator Albert J. Beveridge’s proposal from 1906, it employed the government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce as a tool to regulate child labor. Known popularly as the Keating Bill, the law banned the sale of products from any factory, shop, or cannery that employed children under the age of 14. It also outlawed the products of any mine that employed children under the age of 16, and from any facility that had children under the age of 16 work at night or for more than 8 hours during the day.