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This Day in Labor History: April 16, 1836

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On April 16, 1836, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first law limiting child labor. It required that children under the age of 15 working in factories be given three months off per year to attend school. It wasn’t much, but to do anything around child labor was almost unthinkable to this time. This didn’t work either, but at least it provided an initial precedent that maybe child labor was problematic.

The American industrial state was built on the backs of children. That started at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. When Samuel Slater and Moses Brown opened their factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1793, they immediately hired a bunch of kids to work it. After all, Slater himself was a child laborer in the British factory where he learned the trade. It never would have even occurred to Slater not to hire children. It is also worth noting here that children almost everywhere in the United States worked plenty in these years. But most of them worked on farms and that was a different category of labor. Farm work was hard, no question. But it also varied a lot and it had down time in it for education. So sure, kids might not be going to school during harvest season and they were working hard during those months too. But they were getting educated and literacy in New England was higher than nearly any place in the world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, right there with the Scandinavian nations.

So the idea of work was not that shocking, but the industrial factory was kind of shocking. The horrors of this quickly became real in England, with cities such as Manchester and Liverpool becoming notorious for filth, poverty, prostitution, and children living on the edge of survival. Americans were really worried about that. Even in Federalist New England, the Jeffersonian vision of the small farmer remained the dominant self-myth of America. This is the context for attempts to create experimental villages, most famously at Lowell, Massachusetts but in quite a few other locations such as Peacedale, Rhode Island, to have carefully constructed factories with humane conditions that would build up the education and lives of young people before they married, all while producing profit for factory owners and working 14 hours a day. But those really had no chance of succeeding because in an era without regulations, it was just too easy to undercut prices through cheaper labor, especially when that labor was Irish, as it increasingly was by the 1830s.

So by the time Massachusetts began taking up the question of child labor, the conditions for industrial workers were declining rapidly, very much including children. In a place where education was highly valued, to see 7 year olds working in the factories was a bit much for a lot of people to swallow, even as the courts increasingly were interpreting the law to let employers do whatever they wanted. Now, Massachusetts was not quite the first state to at least consider this issue. For example, in 1813, Connecticut passed a law that at least required employers to ensure their workers could read. But that wasn’t a restriction on their hours of work.

In 1842, Massachusetts would follow up this law by creating the 10 hour day for children. In fact, the 1836 law was updated quite frequently over the next several decades. That was good. The problem was, as it so often was at this time, that enforcement mechanisms were effectively nonexistent. Other states followed but had the same problem. In short, even the best politicians at this time who really did want the worst parts of industrial society to be solved did not believe in a regulatory state. At best, they hoped for moral suasion of employers. But c’mon, what a pipe dream. In 1843, Pennsylvania passed the nation’s first minimum working age law, but that wasn’t enforced either.

It would not be until the Fair Labor Standards Act, 102 years after Massachusetts first approached this question, that most, but not all child labor would be banned in the United States. Today, child labor is once again on the rise as the Republican Party attempts to repeal the twentieth century. Lot of kids died between 1836 and 1938, a lot more are probably going to die in Republican states.

This is the 477th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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