No Turning Back the Clock on Child Labor

We’re being subjected to all kinds of backward thinking from the campaign trail, but as there’s no middle-grade equivalent to Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE to use as a tie-in, I’ll focus on this from Newt Gingrich (emphasis added):

“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.”

Are you sure that’s what you meant, Newt?  Would you like to clarify things?

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works,” Gingrich replied. 

Um, Newt. That doesn’t really help.  And you call yourself a historian?

Even though there’s zero chance Newt will show up here at From the Mixed-Up Files, I’m going to provide a booklist that would refresh his memory on the devastating poverty that forced entire families to work twelve-hour days for just pennies.  Parents so desperate they sent their malnourished, young children into unsafe factories, mills, and mines so they’d have enough food to survive.  People weren’t destitute because they chose not to work but because the Haves squeezed the Have-nots for every last bit of profit via wages, company stores, and rent.

Today, millions of families are struggling financially. And despite Newt’s moralizing, they’re working hard to make ends meet. The answer isn’t firing the “union janitor” and replacing him with nine-year-olds but creating more living-wage jobs for young adults and adults, and providing affordable, quality education for everyone.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the kind of power over time and space to make that happen right now but I can offer a historical perspective that should prevent us from turning back the clock on child labor (all italicized descriptions from indiebound):

KIDS AT WORK: LEWIS HINE AND THE CRUSADE AGAINST CHILD LABOR by Russell Freedman with Photography by Lewis Hine

Photobiography of early twentieth-century photographer and schoolteacher Lewis Hine, using his own work as illustrations. Hines’s photographs of children at work were so devastating that they convinced the American people that Congress must pass child labor laws.

Tracy’s Note: An incredible testament to Lewis Hine who for ten years worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (formed in 1904), documenting the exploitation of children in mills, mines, factories, city streets, and agricultural fields.


COUNTING ON GRACE by Elizabeth Winthrop

1910. Pownal, Vermont. At 12, Grace and her best friend Arthur must leave school and go to work as a “doffers” on their mothers’ looms in the mill. Grace’s mother is the best worker, fast and powerful, and Grace desperately wants to help her. But she’s left handed and doffing is a right-handed job. Grace’s every mistake costs her mother, and the family. She only feels capable on Sundays, when she and Arthur receive special lessons from their teacher. Together they write a secret letter to the Child Labor Board about underage children working in Pownal. A few weeks later a man with a camera shows up. It is the famous reformer Lewis Hine, undercover, collecting evidence for the Child Labor Board. Grace’s brief acquaintance with Hine and the photos he takes of her are a gift that changes her sense of herself, her future, and her family’s future.

Tracy’s Note: I grabbed this from the pile right after finishing KIDS AT WORK, and was thrilled to make the connection between the cover photograph and Lewis Hine’s work. The author says once she saw that face in a museum exhibit, she never forgot it. Her character, Grace Forcier, was inspired by the expression captured by Mr. Hine. (Author includes For Further Reading list in back).


KIDS ON STRIKE by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

By the early 1900s, nearly two million children were working in the United States. From the coal mines of Pennsylvania to the cotton mills of New England, children worked long hours every day under stunningly inhumane conditions. After years and years of oppression, children began to organize and make demands for better wages, fairer housing costs, and safer working environments.
Some strikes led by young people were successful; some were not. Some strike stories are shocking, some are heartbreaking, and many are inspiring — but all are a testimony to the strength of mind and spirit of the children who helped build American industry.

Tracy’s Note: It was inspirational and gratifying to read about courageous young people who understood that workers united had much more power than workers divided, including Kid Blink who led the newsies on strike against Hearst and Pulitzer, and sixteen-year-old Pauline Newman who led the garment factory workers’ New York City rent strike.


BREAD AND ROSES, TOO by Katherine Paterson

Newbery-author Katherine Paterson’s tale of the 1912 mill workers’ strike.

Rosa’s mother is singing again—union songs. She’s joined the strike against
the corrupt mill owners. Rosa is terrified. What if Mamma is jailed or, worse, killed?

Jake’s dad threatened to kill him if he joined the strike. For Jake, that is reason enough to do so.

Then Rosa, Jake, and the other children living in the middle of the strike are offered a very special opportunity: To live in Vermont until the strike is over. For Rosa, being away from her family is worse than seeing them in harm’s way. For Jake, it’s a chance to start over. For both of them, it’s a time of growing up.

Tracy’s Note: Again, serendipity guided the order of my reading. I started this after finishing KIDS ON STRIKE where I’d learned about the 1912 mill workers’ strike in Lawrence, MA, and so knew the details about organizers from Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or Wobblies) framed for murder, and how children were sent out of state for their safety.


GROWING UP IN COAL COUNTRY by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Inspired by her in-laws’ recollections of working in coal country, Susan Campbell Bartoletti has gathered the voices of men, women, and children who immigrated to and worked in northeastern Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. The story that emerges is not just a story of long hours, little pay, and hazardous working conditions; it is also the uniquely American story of immigrant families working together to make a new life for themselves. It is a story of hardship and sacrifice, yet also of triumph and the fulfillment of hopes and dreams.

Tracy’s Note: After all my reading, I now have a particular loathing for mine owners who made their profits on the backs of children who spent their days hunched over coal chutes or alone in the dark (except for rats) or running alongside mine cars as they rolled downhill, jabbing sticks in the wheels to slow them down.

BILLY CREEKMORE by Tracey Porter

He is a motherless child,
a coal miner, 
a circus star, 
a con artist, 
a seer, 
a hero,
and a survivor.

This is the tale of Billy Creekmore, a young boy with mystifying powers and the gift of storytelling. But his life in the Guardian Angels Orphanage is cruel and bleak, and when a stranger comes to claim Billy, he sets off on an extraordinary journey. From the coal mines of West Virginia to the world of a traveling circus, he searches for the secrets of his past, his future, and his own true self.

Tracy’s Note: At the end of the story the author explains that with the exception of the title character, every boy character in BILLY CREEKMORE is named after a boy who died in a mining accident before reaching his seventeenth birthday.


FACTORY GIRL by Barbara Greenwood
At the dingy, overcrowded Acme Garment Factory, Emily Watson stands for eleven hours a day clipping threads from blouses. Every time the boss passes, he shouts at her to snip faster. But if Emily snips too fast, she could ruin the garment and be docked pay. If she works too slowly, she will be fired. She desperately needs this job. Without the four dollars a week it brings, her family will starve. When a reporter arrives, determined to expose the terrible conditions in the factory, Emily finds herself caught between the desperate immigrant girls with whom she works and the hope of change. Then tragedy strikes, and Emily must decide where her loyalties lie. Emily’s fictional experiences are interwoven with non-fiction sections describing family life in a slum, the fight to improve social conditions, the plight of working children then and now, and much more. Rarely seen archival photos accompany this story of the past as only Barbara Greenwood can tell it.                                                                                                                                                                    
Tracy’s Note: This is a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction with wonderful photos (many of them from Lewis Hine), the only such mixture I found on the subject. The book briefly addresses more current child labor practices around the world, including a child labor timeline.

Other resources:

SHUTTING OUT THE SKY: LIFE IN THE TENEMENTS OF NEW YORK 1880-1924 by Deborah Hopkinson (includes chapter on child labor: Everyone Worked On)

CHILDREN OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Russell Freedman (includes chapter on child labor: Kids at Work; also exquisite photographs including work by Dorothea Lange)

Tracy Abell‘s first job was on the night shift in a canning factory where she used a suction hose to remove “undesirables” from peas moving past on a conveyor belt. She’s happy to report she received work breaks and was paid overtime.


Tracy Abell