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The Child Labor of Early Capitalism Is Making a Big Comeback in the US

Child labor was common in urban, industrial America for most of the country’s history. Now lawmakers are making concerted efforts to repeal statutes that prohibit it.

Between 1890 and 1910, 18 percent of all children between the ages of ten and fifteen, about two million young people, worked, often twelve hours a day, six days a week.

Their jobs covered the waterfront — all too literally as, under the supervision of padrones, thousands of children shucked oysters and picked shrimp. Kids were also street messengers and newsies. They worked in offices and factories, banks and brothels. They were “breakers” and “trappers” in poorly ventilated coal mines, particularly dangerous and unhealthy jobs. In 1900, out of one hundred thousand workers in textile mills in the South, twenty thousand were under the age of twelve.

City orphans were shipped off to labor in the glassworks of the Midwest. Thousands of children stayed home and helped their families turn out clothing for sweatshop manufacturers. Others packed flowers in ill-ventilated tenements. One seven-year-old explained that “I like school better than home. I don’t like home. There are too many flowers.” And down on the farm, the situation was no less grim, as children as young as three worked hulling berries.

All in the Family

Clearly, well into the twentieth century, industrial capitalism depended on the exploitation of children who were cheaper to employ, less able to resist, and until the advent of more sophisticated technologies, well suited to deal with the relatively simple machinery then in place.

Moreover, the authority exercised by the boss was in keeping with that era’s patriarchal assumptions, whether in the family or even in the largest of the overwhelmingly family-owned new industrial firms of that time like Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks. And such family capitalism gave birth to a perverse alliance of boss and underling that transformed children into miniature wage-laborers.

Meanwhile, working-class families were so severely exploited that they desperately needed the income of their children. As a result, in Philadelphia around the turn of the century, the labor of children accounted for between 28 percent and 33 percent of the household income of native-born, two-parent families. For Irish and German immigrants, the figures were 46 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Not surprisingly, then, working-class parents often opposed proposals for child labor laws. As noted by Karl Marx, the worker was no longer able to support himself, so “now he sells his wife and child. He becomes a slave dealer.”