• September/October 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 7

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Centennial Series: Immigrant Children

Portrait of child detained for family illness.
Portrait of child detained for family illness. 1905-1909. Photograph. Artstor. Web. 16 Aug. 2011.

This is the fourth article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary next year. 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.

The United States experienced an influx of immigrant families around the turn of the 20th century, when large numbers of families from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived seeking the economic opportunities provided by the Industrial Revolution. In fact, from 1892 to 1900, more than 3 million immigrants moved to the United States. The majority of these families landed in urban areas with low-rent housing and close proximity to factories. In New York and Chicago alone, nearly four-fifths of school-aged children had foreign-born parents, according to the 1890 U.S. Census (Reef, 2002).

Adjusting to life in their new country was often difficult, and poverty was prevalent among immigrant families. Many children were expected to contribute to the economic welfare of their family by taking on work rather than attending school. Immigrant children often accompanied their parents to factories where they worked long hours for low wages (Reef, 2002). Other children sold newspapers or other goods on the streets, risking exposure to crime and disease. The parental expectation for children to work was not necessarily tied to the family's life in a new country; many children in Europe labored on farms, and their education was often not a family priority (Lassonde, 2000).

The practice of sending immigrant children to work was at odds with the education reforms occurring in the United States in the early 1900s. During this time, most States passed compulsory-education laws, and the country saw a dramatic increase in the number of public schools, especially in metropolitan areas. Classrooms in cities that saw the greatest number of immigrants eventually had unmanageable classroom sizes as many children assimilated and left work to enter school. 

For immigrant families in which the children attended school, a divide sometimes occurred between the generations. Some adults who had not attended schools in their home country considered schooling unnecessary for their own children. Immigrant schoolchildren, however, were assimilating in ways that their parents could not, and the public schools were key to their acculturation.

Chicago's Hull House, founded in the late 1800s by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, was one of the city's main immigrant receiving areas during this time. In less than two decades, the original Hull House mansion grew to 13 buildings that attracted thousands of people by providing social and educational programs (Johnson, 2005). The organization was active in providing aid to child immigrants. In fact, among the first services was a kindergarten, which offered schooling to children while their mothers worked (Polikoff, 1999). The scope of the organization expanded over time and began to sponsor classes, hold public concerts, offer free lectures, and operate social clubs for both children and adults.

In 1908, a group of Hull House women led by Jane Addams formed the Immigrants' Protective League. The group was formed to tackle immigration issues at the legislative level, where members lobbied for improved health care for immigrants, as well as fewer Federal immigration restrictions. The Hull House women also were instrumental in the campaign to persuade Congress to pass legislation to protect children. Their causes included issues that greatly affected child immigrants, such as child labor laws and education requirements (Johnson, 2005). Among these advocates from Hull House were Julia Lathrop, the first chief of the Children's Bureau, and Grace Abbott, Lathrop's successor.     


Johnson, M. A. (2005). Hull House. In J. L. Reiff, A. D. Keating, & J. R. Grossman (Eds.), The electronic encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/615.html

Lassonde, S. A. (2000). Compulsory schooling and parent-adolescent relations. In P. S. Fass & M. A. Mason (Eds.), Childhood in America (pp. 142-145). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Polikoff, B. G. (1999). With one bold act: The story of Jane Addams. New York, NY: Boswell Books.

Reef, C. (2002). Childhood in America: An eyewitness history. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc.

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