the Gilded Age was an era of prosperity for many
Americans, economic depressions brought hard times
to many businesses and made sporadic employment
a reality for the working class.
The industrial plants that survived became more
demanding in terms of both the speed and the regularity
with which their workers produced goods. Increasingly
frustrated by unfair demands, many laborers chose
to strike. It was a collective action, a way of
protesting as a group against the economic injustices
of the workplace.
Strikes enabled laborers to
express disagreement with the idea of a permanent
wage-laboring class. This was the opposite of what
the American republic claimed to offer.
Few working-class citizens were
able to own or operate a business, buy property,
or upgrade to better housing. By the turn of the
century, most reformers favored the argument that
poverty was the result of the nation's unstable
Child Labor Reform
Concern for the conditions of the poor gave way
to a growing interest in the rights of the working
One of the most persistent causes
of Progressive Era reformers was child labor reform.
The 1890 census revealed that
more than one million children, ten to fifteen years
old, worked in America. 
That number increased to two
million by 1910. Industries employed children as
young as five or six to work as many as eighteen
to twenty hours a day.
Physical ailments were common.
Glassworks employees were exposed to intense heat
and heavy fumes. Young miners sat on boards in cramped
positions, breathing heavy dust, sifting through
coal. Seafood workers stood for hours shucking oysters
at five cents a pail. The sharp oyster shells sometimes
cut their hands.
Breaker Boys, Pennsylvania
Industrialization did not create
child labor, but it did contribute to the need for
child labor reform. The replacement of skilled artisans
by machinery and the growth of factories and mills
made child labor increasingly profitable for businesses.
Many employers preferred hiring
children because they were quick, easy to train,
and were willing to work for lower wages.
Progressive Era reformers believed
that child labor was detrimental to children and
to society. They believed that children should be
protected from harmful environments so that they
would become healthy, productive adults. Their goals
were to develop programs that would eliminate children's
participation in industry and increase their involvement
in education and extracurricular activities.
Child Labor Laws
the reformers had an ally in President Theodore
Roosevelt, politicians with ties to industry voted
against any long-term solutions to problems such
as child labor.
The Keating-Owen Act passed
in 1916 but was later declared unconstitutional
on the grounds that Congress could not regulate
local labor conditions. The act, if passed, would
have freed children from child labor only in industries
that engaged in interstate commerce.
Boy Lost Arm Running
Saw in Box Factory
In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson
approved and signed into law the "Tax on Employment
of Child Labor." This placed a ten percent tax on
net profits of businesses that employed children
under age fourteen or made them work more than eight
hours a day, six days a week. 
The Supreme Court declared this
law unconstitutional. Yet the initial passage of
the bills may have had some effect on businesses,
as the number of working children between ages ten
and fifteen declined by almost fifty percent between
1910 and 1920. 
There was still a great deal
of opposition to a national amendment against child
labor. Opponents labeled the proposed amendment
a communist idea that would control the nation's
The Smith-Hughes Act,
passed in 1917, provided one million dollars to
states that agreed to improve their public schools
by providing vocational education programs. The
National Child Labor Committee and other organizations
believed that these programs would offer children
an alternative to work.
By 1929 every state had a provision
banning children under fourteen from working. Thirty-six
states had laws that prohibited factory workers
under sixteen from working at night or for more
than eight hours a day. 
In February 1941 the Supreme
Court overruled the 1918 decision against the Keating-Owen
Act. As a result, businesses that shipped goods
out of state had to abide by the ruling that children
could only work outside of school hours and that
children under eighteen were unable to work in jobs
that were hazardous to their health.