During the Industrial Revolution in the United States led by the advent of the steam engine, there was a great influx of laborers to factories and cities. Many who came from far away farm lands and rural areas were shocked to find that life in these factories was not all they had come to believe. In order for many of these families to survive in their new place of living, they had to utilize every able-bodied member of their family to work. This often meant that their children had to go to work as well.
By 1900, thousands of children, even those aged six or younger, were frequently employed in dangerous factories with long, double-digit work hours. Often, these children were paid much less than adults for the same amount of work. In the case of children who didn’t have families, employers would often forego monetary payment altogether arguing that since the child got a place to live and clothing and food, they were paid enough. At the turn of the century, there was no standard law that regarded child labor across the states. This meant that child labor went largely unregulated and widespread. This was perceived as a problem by many in the nation. As early as 1832, New England labor unions chose to publicly declare child labor forbidden to little effect. In 1924, almost a century later, labor unions failed to push a federal law banning child labor because a sufficient amount of states wouldn’t ratify it.
Child labor arguably hit its peak in the years immediately following the start of the Great Depression. Shortly thereafter, better labor laws and unions began to develop as the New Deal policies of President Roosevelt came in to effect. Starting in 1936, the Walsh-Healy Act was passed that banned the U.S. government from the purchase of goods made by children. This was a blow to the profits of many corporations. After another failure to pass a federal law in 1937, the unions were finally successful in passing on the following year. In 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that formally regulated the minimum working age and maximum daily hours of work for children. Finally, the federal government was forced to protect children in the workplace, and the number of children workers declined and conditions improved.
Photo by Lewis W. Hine. Sourced from: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/hine-empty.htm