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Remembering Child Labor In America

06.13.2001 | LABOR

"The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor...As early as he may get at labor the more beautiful, the more useful does his life get to be."
-- Asa G. Candler, Founder of Coca-Cola

Time magazine recently published a heartrending piece about the problem of child labor in Africa, where an astonishing forty-one percent of youth between the ages of five and fourteen work. This article sent me back to one of my favorite histories, a book to which I frequently return: Milton Meltzer's Bread--And Roses: The Struggle of American Labor, 1865-1915. In just over two hundred pages, Meltzer compellingly relates the story of labor's early years, a turbulent period for the country's workers. He examines the victories and defeats of American labor, populating his text with such incredible figures as Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, and William Sylvis. And I've never forgotten Meltzer's chapter on child labor. Horrific stuff.

According to the U.S. Census of 1910, almost two million children between the ages of ten and fifteen worked. They toiled in mills, mines, and factories. Exploited by their capitalist masters who were solely concerned with profits, they worked exhausting hours, often in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, for miserable pay. In telling this story, Meltzer skillfully uses primary documents; the impact on the reader is stunning. Consider three examples.

In 1877, the Labor Standard graphically described a breaker room at a St. Clair, Pennsylvania, coal mine, where "breaker boys" separated slate from coal. "These little fellows go to work in this cold dreary room at seven o'clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get $1 to $3 a week. Not three boys in this roomful could read or write. Shut in from everything that is pleasant, with no chance to learn, with no knowledge of what is going on about them, with nothing to do but work...They had no games; when their day's work is done they are too tired for that. They know nothing but the difference between slate and coal."

In 1906, John Spargo, an English Socialist who settled in America, wrote vividly about the harsh conditions endured by child mine workers. Describing a young "trap boy" from Mt. Carbon, West Virginia, Spargo observed, "Think of what it means to be a trap boy at ten years of age. It means to sit alone in a dark mine passage hour after hour, with no human soul near; to see no living creature except the mules as they pass with their loads, or a rat or two seeking to share one's meal; to stand in water or mud that covers the ankles, chilled to the marrow by the cold draughts that rush in when you open the trap-door for the mules to pass through; to work for fourteen hours--waiting--opening and shutting a door--waiting again--for sixty cents; to reach the surface when all is wrapped in the mantle of night, and to fall to the earth exhausted and have to be carried away to the nearest shack to be revived before it is possible to walk to the farther shack called home."

The previous year, journalist Robert Hunter told the tragic tale of Mary Jensen, a destitute child laborer in New York City who toiled long hours in a confectionery. Mary "dipped candy six days a week, from seven in the morning until seven at night. When the Christmas season came round she worked longer, sometimes...80 hours a week. She hardly knew that this great season meant for many children glowing fires, warm logs, toys, and stockings, and candy, and loving words, and a jolly, open-hearted, open-handed, child-loving Santa Claus. She only knew that when this season came she had to hurry to make candy which she never ate."

Officially, at least, the horror of child labor ended in the United States in 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act, a product of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and one of the most humane laws ever passed, halted this injustice against America's young. Someday soon, may the exploited youth of Africa be similarly blessed.

About the Author
Kirk Bane, a teacher, Kirk Bane, a teacher, lives in Texas
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