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February 2012Vol. 13, No. 1Centennial Series: Child Labor in America

This is the seventh article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary in April 2012. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

Child labor has been a reality throughout history. Whether it was working on a family farm or helping out with a family business, children in all but the wealthiest families have long been expected to contribute to the economic well-being of their families in some way.

In the United States, the rapid industrialization of the early 19th century created the need for cheap labor, a demand that was often filled by children. The U.S. Census of 1900 estimated that one child out of six between the ages of 10 and 15 was gainfully employed, for a total number of 1,750,178 children. That number did not include children who were younger than age 10 or children who helped out on family farms or in urban "sweat shops" before or after school (Zelizer, 2000).

A 1907 study found that while almost three-fourths of working children labored in agriculture, more than 500,000 children were employed in nonagricultural jobs, including in coal mines, textile mills, the clothing industry, iron and steel works, furniture and lumber factories, and glass factories, or they worked as domestic servants, messengers, street vendors, and office workers (Lindenmeyer, 1997). Many children worked long hours in hazardous conditions at low wages. Often, their poor families desperately needed the income to supplement the parents' low wages, but for the children, the reality of the work often threatened their health and denied them the opportunity to attend school.

The Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, was a time when many social activists sought to improve the conditions of the urban poor, particularly of immigrant children who lived and labored in the slums of large cities. The journalist Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant, brought much public attention to the issue through a series of articles, books, and public lectures that featured startling photographs of the grim conditions of tenement neighborhoods in New York City (Riis, 1890/2011).

In 1842, Massachusetts and Connecticut passed the nation's first laws restricting the number of hours a child could work, and by 1912, every State had some form of protective child labor law. Enforcement of these laws, however, varied widely and in many cases offered very little protection (Lindenmeyer, 1997). In 1904, a coalition of State child labor activists formed the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to advocate a national approach to restricting child labor. Although it would be many years before effective Federal labor legislation would be passed, the work of the NCLC paved the way for a larger Federal role in protecting child workers (Marten, 2005). 

The Federal legislation that created the Children's Bureau in 1912 charged the new agency to investigate and report on a number of issues, including child labor (Lathrop, 1914). To that end, the Children's Bureau surveyed existing State child labor laws, analyzed existing data, and conducted a series of studies to gain a further understanding of the working conditions and wages of child workers.

According to the Children's Bureau's first annual report, published in 1914, the key to reigning in the child labor problem in America was a legal requirement for work permits:
“One step in protecting children is taken when the law says that a child shall not work under a certain age. The certificate serves in part as a method of enforcement of this minimum-age provision, and in part as a protection for the child between 14 and 16 against unsuitable work, such as may threaten his health or his morals" (Lathrop, 1914). 

In 1917, the Bureau was given responsibility for the administration of the first Federal child labor law, and the Bureau’s small staff worked with States to develop procedures for enforcement that laid the groundwork for future Federal child protection efforts (Bradbury, 1956).


Bradbury, D., & Eliot, M. (1956). Four decades of action for children: A short history of the Children's Bureau. Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Retrieved from (2 MB)

Lathrop, J. (1914). First annual report of the Chief, Children's Bureau, to the Secretary of Labor, for the fiscal year ended June 1913. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from (1 MB)

Lindenmeyer, K. (1997). A right to childhood: The U.S. Children's Bureau and child welfare, 1912-46. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Marten, J. (2005). Childhood and child welfare in the Progressive Era. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Riis, J. (2011). How the other half lives. D. Leviaton (ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. (Original work published 1890).

Zelizer, V. (2000). The changing social value of children. In P. Fass & M. Mason (Eds.), Childhood in America (pp. 260–261). New York: New York University Press.