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Child Labor: What is it?

Did you know?

In 1900, 18% of all American workers were under the

age of 16.

Child labor is the use of children in industry or business. Generally we use the term when talking about the illegal abuses and exploitation of children through any form of work that deprives them of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and is mentally, physically, socially, or morally harmful. Historically, the use of child labor was widely encouraged by industrial development, agreed to by parents and guardians, and generally ignored by the government. 

Brief History of Child Labor in the US

Although children have always worked in some form or another throughout time, the Industrial Revolution made the need for low-skilled labor grow, which in turn made employers look to children. The 1870 census reported that one out of every eight children was employed and by 1900 the rate increased to more than one in five across the United States.

Age was only one of the considerations when deciding if a child was ready to join the workforce. Often parents would evaluate their capabilities in performing the labor required and their physical size before deciding to send them to work. The children were able to move around in the small spaces of a factory or a mine where adults couldn’t fit, often resulting in their working in tight, dangerous places. Children were easier to manage, asked for little in terms of safety measures, and accepted significantly less pay than adult laborers. In many cases, children weren’t paid at all, their wages either going directly to their parents or to cover their room and board. When they did earn wages, children often earned 10-20% of what an adult would earn for the same job.


Lewis Hine was a progressive photographer who used his photography as a tool to make change happen. In 1907, he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to travel the country and photograph children in factories. By 1913, he had taken over 5,000 photos documenting the abuse of child labor in various industries like coal mines, glass factories, textile mills, and canneries. While he traveled the country and documented appalling photos of children at labor, his work in the Lewiston mills took place in April of 1909.


Watch a short movie of his Lewiston images here. 






Industrial Revolution: Child labor grows

1 out of every 5

children is employed

Maine laws prohibit children under 14 from working during school hours

Fair Labor Standards Act

is established

A Bit About Child Labor & Schooling

Maine was considered progressive in the area of labor laws, implementing its first labor law in 1847.  This law, like modern day equivalents, was designed to keep children from neglecting their education in lieu of earning a paycheck. By 1887, more laws were passed requiring children under 15 to attend at least 16 weeks of school each year.  


In 1915, Maine continued to be on the front-lines of reform and imposed school attendance requirements for working children.  This made it illegal for children under the age of 14 to work during school hours.


In 1938, a Federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, changed things entirely.  It adopted an eight-hour day and a forty-hour work week, while allowing employees to earn up to an extra four hours of overtime. According to the act, workers must be paid minimum wage and overtime pay must be one-and-a-half times regular pay. It looked out for children, too: those under 18 were prohibited from dangerous jobs, and those under 16 could not work in manufacturing or mining or during school hours.


Today, Maine continues to uphold child labor laws. 

To learn more, click here.


Child Labor in Maine's Textile Mills

Children, like men and women, worked side by side to make Maine what it is today.  While most of these children did not choose to labor from the often extremely young age of four or five instead of attending school, they did contribute to the building of Maine’s industrial and economic heritage. In the mill, as in most other industrial factories, work appropriate for children was clearly differentiated from work appropriate for adults. Tasks that required less physical strength or specific training were given to children of all ages and some were still separated along gender lines. Children could be hired

for the following positions:

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Poster for Child Labor Standards for the Nation's Children





Boys would be tasked to help keep the factory floors clean by sweeping away the cotton fibers and dust that came off the machines. This job needed to constantly be done as many mills ran their machines 24 hours a day.

Working behind a winding machine, a child would load a hopper with empty quills that would be loaded with a specific color of thread. They would then carry the filled quills to the shuttle room.

These children would replace the full bobbins filled by the spinning frame with empty ones. If they were not quick enough in this job, the bobbins could overfill and catch on fire on the machine.

Children would wind together threads to produce a single strand of fine yarn onto bobbins on a spinning frame. This job was traditionally held by young girls and women.

Curator Corner

What kind of money was made?

Children at the textile mills would often work fewer hours than their adult counterparts but could still have a shift lasting between 8-14 hours a day. Bates Mill is cited as having a 9-hour shift for their child laborers in 1861 to help fill the demands of their government contacts. These hours would often occur late into the night and some supervisors would throw cold water on the children to keep them awake. Even after more formal educational restrictions were passed, children would go to school from

8 am–1pm and then work at the mill from 1:30–9:30 pm.

Prior to 1900, the young girls employed in textile mills were making $4 per week, most of which was being sent home to their families or paying their rent at the tenement blocks. After the turn of the century, a typical child laborer was paid $1.75-3.00 per week when working full time. Like many other jobs available to children, the pay would change depending upon the job they were doing.

Older, more experienced children were noted by Lewis Hine in 1909 to earn $4 per week. Hine also indicated the day began early, about 6 am and ended

about 6 pm.


If the work week was 6 days, how much an hour did these children earn? 


Is this a price you think was “worth it” to cut short their educations? 

How could we measure that decision?

Fast Fact:

The current minimum hourly wage in Maine is $12.00 as of January 1, 2020.  The average work week is 40 hours.  How much is the minimum earning of a full time worker in Maine, as of 2020?

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Why Were Kids Working?

They lived in poverty.

In 1890, only 45% of American workers earned a yearly income above the poverty level. The average worker earned only about $13/ week leaving many families unable to afford the costs of raising a child. This meant that even the smallest amount of help that a child’s salary offered was welcome.  

There was the Puritan Mindset.

Puritanism began as a movement within the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hard work and industriousness were stressed as pillars of their faith. Children were required to do some form of learning or activity all day to avoid being idle. The idea was that as long as children were working, they were contributing to social welfare and learning useful skills that could benefit the entire community. Mill and factory owners even started to feel that they were doing workers a favor by providing useful work for them and their children.

Fast Fact:

In 2019, a family of four who earns $26,172 or less is “living in poverty.” (US Census Bureau)

Federal guidelines for defining poverty were developed in

1963 and 1964. 

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What do

you think?

Was child labor, in the context of 1909, "good" or "bad?"

Oral History of Irene Berube

00:00 / 01:57

Click to download the transcript of the entire Oral History

Work as a child was a dangerous affair. Machinery and tools injured nearly three times the number of children as adults. Many lost fingers, hands, or legs through entanglement with machinery, simple miscalculations, or distractions. For those who survived, many carried scars from factory life well into their adulthood. 

Dangerous Working Conditions

Across the globe standards differ, but one thing is held in common: children should enjoy a childhood that includes an education and a safe life unencumbered by forced work. The UN has declared 2021 The International Year to Eliminate Child Labor (by the UN). 


Click this link to learn more.

Child Labor Today

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Recommended Reading


Picturing Class:

Lewis W. Hine Photographs Child Labor in New England

Katherine Paterson 

High School and Adult Readers



Katherine Paterson 

Middle School Readers 


Kids at Work:

Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor
 Russell Freedman

Middle School Readers 


Mother Jones and

Her Army of Mill Children

Jonah Winter and Nancy Carpenter

Elementary Readers 

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