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This project will explore the role of children in family life and their involvement with child labor in the United States from the year 1877 through the year 1955. In particular, it will examine the exploitation of children’s rights and the extent to which members of lower social classes and minority races and ethnicities were adversely impacted by child labor.

The role of children in family life in the United States has historically always included in some way a form of children assisting their families in terms of helping them meet their financial needs. However, the industrial revolution and rise of mass production of goods drove a substantial amount of children away from working on a family farm or home supervised by their parents or relatives and into factories, mines, and cotton mills where the conditions were often far more dangerous and less regulated [1]. Although the majority of children working as laborers, around 60 percent, from the years 1910-1920 continued to be employed in the agricultural sector, children being brought up in rapidly developing industrial areas were increasingly being employed in factories, mills, mines and on city streets from a very young age [2]. While advocacy groups aiming at protecting children’s rights and reforming child labor existed in the late 19th century and early 20th century, groups such as the National Child Labor Committee and the American Federation of Labor often failed to have a meaningful impact on federal legislation regarding child labor laws. A staggering one out of every five children in the United States worked as child laborers in the year 1900 [1] and 18 percent of children aged 10-15 worked between the years 1890 and 1910 [3].  

The majority of children who were sent off to the mines, factories, and cotton mills to become laborers hailed from lower class families who out of necessity were reliant upon their children working in order to sustain a living [4]. The justification used by many employers to hire children from cities and put them to work was that they were saving them from engaging in idleness and a life riddled with immoral activities [5]. Under the guise of a seemingly moral justification for employing children from low income communities was the harsh reality that employers prime motive for employing children has always been that they could get away with paying them less and exploiting their youthful energies to be channeled into labor and an increased profit for the owners [6].

Particularly vulnerable children, such as those coming from immigrant and African American communities, became victims to individuals posed as offering apprenticeships to children when in reality these people’s main goal was to take advantage of young people and exploit them through forced labor [5]. From the late 1870s through the 1910s a hierarchical system that was aimed at employing immigrant children of predominantly Italian descent emerged. Controlled by a Padrone, an Italian word for boss or manager, a child and their family would be deceived into believing that the Padrone was interested in teaching the child a musical instrument and having them be his apprentice. In reality the Padrone was most often an abuser who forced his young employees to submit to his every order and severely punished them if they failed to meet his standards of obedience [5]. Stricken with poverty and desperate for their children to earn a living the parents of these young children would often stay behind in their home country of Italy or Greece while the children were sent to America. The abuse of young mostly male immigrant children by Padrones was most prominent in large industrious cities out west such as Chicago. The system of child labor controlled by the Padrones diminished as child labor practices and new employment opportunities for children expanded during the early part of the 20th century [5].

African American child laborers during the late 19th century and early 20th century were one of the most exploited yet overlooked groups of this particular time period. In the south numerous factories and cotton mills prevented African American children from working in their facilities in order to ensure that young rural black laborers were kept under the control of the white planters [7]. The majority of African American child laborers worked in the agricultural sector as their families were part of sharecropping systems that benefited the plantation owner often at the expense of the working families hard labor. The children born into a family working in the sharecropping system attended plantation owned schools that were poorly maintained, overcrowded, and lacking proper instructions. Education stopped after the eighth grade and the plantation owner shut down the school whenever there was work to be done in the fields which means that these children went to school for only about four to five months of the year at most. While many advocates for child labor at the time argued that they were teaching children how to develop a respectable work ethic, it is clear to many modern historians that their exploitation of these children was largely unjustifiable as they robbed young people of the chance to experience childhood [8].  

The first era that this project aims at covering is the first three decades immediately following the end of the industrial revolution. The time period, from 1877-1910 will serve as a place to feature the rise of immigrant communities and families living in tenements with a focus on the role of the child in family life. The second era will cover the time period from 1911-1930 and will highlight practices such as the Padrone system and the exploitation of vulnerable immigrant children. The third era covered will be the years 1930-1955 and will discuss the diminishing practice of child labor in the United States as well as which demographic of children child labor laws benefited the most.


  1.  Hindman, Hugh. Child labor: An American History (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharp, 2002)
  2. Gratton, Brian and Moen, Jon Roger . “Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920,” no. 3 (2003): 355.
  3. Douglas, Dorothy and Lumpkin, Katherine Child workers in America (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1937)
  4. Zelizer, Viviana Pricing the priceless child: the changing social value of children (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994) 
  5. Wood, Marjorie. “Emancipating the child laborer: children, freedom, and the moral boundaries of the market in the United States, 1853‒1938” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2011).
  6. Dredge, Bart. “David Clark’s Campaign of Enlightenment”: Child Labor and the Farmers’ States Rights League, 1911-1940.” North Carolina Historical Review 91, no. 1 (2014): 30-62.
  7. Hall, Greg. “”Light Work, Women, Children, and Progressive Era Reform in West Coast Commercial Agriculture and Canning”.” Journal of the West 55, no. 1 (2016): 81-105.  
  8. Pearson, Susan J. “Age Ought to be a Fact: The Campaign Against Child Labor and the Rise of the Birth Certificate.” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1144-1165.