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The Child, the State, and the Nation

1893-1904 — delivered to students at several colleges and universities in Chicago and New York City


It has been shown that children are working in their homes, in the streets, in commerce, and in manufacture; and it appears that there are divers economic and social causes for their work.

Chief among these causes of child labor is the greed of parents, due largely but not exclusively to poverty. Two cases out of the writer’s acquaintance may illustrate the false ideals which underlie much parental exploitation of young children.

An Italian immigrant arrived in this country possessed of nothing beyond his wife, little son and daughter, and railroad fare to Chicago. In that city he rented one dark room in a tenement-house and proceeded to pick rags in the streets. His wife sorted the rags in the court of the tenement-house with the help of the daughter; and the boy became a boot-black as soon as he was strong enough to make leather shine. The children never attended school, the compulsory attendance law being, at that time, wholly illusory. The father prospered, placed money in the savings-bank, and in an incredibly short time began to buy, under a third mortgage, the house in which he lived. The court of the tenement-house becoming too small for his work, he rented a vacant lot on which he stored rags, old iron and junk of all sorts. He never ceased to pick rags, and transferred the labors of his wife and daughter from their court to the new place of business which he sur rounded with a high fence. He completed the payments for all the mortgages upon the tenement-house, continuing to the time of his death to live, with all his family, in the dark room which he had occupied on his arrival. He paid for the corner-lot upon which he conducted his business and made other investments. It was his ideal to leave his children a large fortune. But one day he trod upon a rusty nail, and with characteristic niggardliness, bound up his bleeding foot with one of his own rags. Lockjaw followed and he died, leaving to his now grown up, illiterate son and daughter one hundred and forty thousand dollars. The son, by drinking and gambling, dissipated the fortune in a few months, and the daughter disappeared into the sad obscurity of the Levee.

In the case of the second family, a young Bohemian, able-bodied and eager to work, brought his bride to this country, both filled with the hope of earning and owning a home. When the eldest child was eleven years old, the father was killed on the railroad, where he was at work as a section-hand, and the home, half-paid for, was lost by the widow. But she never wavered from the early ideal, and sent her eldest boy at once to work in a cutlery, where he riveted the wooden handles of knives, performing an entirely mechanical task adapted to his feeble intel lect. This child was hunchbacked, feeble-minded and consumptive. When the mother was remonstrated with for exposing him to the fatigue and dan ger attending his work among wood-dust and steel- filings, her reply was : “Him no good. Him work, send Valeria and Bocumil school, buy house, them some good.” For years, the factory inspectors of the state, and the local school officer, after the enactment of the compulsory attendance law, endeavored to free the unfortunate boy from his deadly occupation. The mother made whatever affidavits might be necessary from time to time, to enable him to continue, and relentlessly sent his brother and sister to work at the earliest moment possible. When last seen, she was rising at three o’clock in the morning to dig onions for a pickle factory in the outskirts of the city ; the daughter Valeria, ten years old, was working from dawn to dark throughout the summer, sorting onions; the cripple was dying of overwork and neglect; and the other boy, Bocumil, originally healthy, had become deformed from beginning too early to carry boards on his back in a furniture factory.

The widow, however, regarded herself and was regarded by her approving pastor as a model of thrift because she had bought and partially paid for a tiny frame cottage, on the prairie, far from any school, in the immediate neighborhood of the pickle-factory. She will never know that she has lost for her children all the best things that America offers to the immigrant child, in the life of the public schools. Fortunately, the recently enacted stringent laws will make it impossible for other children coming to Chicago to be deprived, by the false ideals of their parents, of those precious possessions of child life in America, leisure and school.

A second cause of child-labor is the greed of employers for cheap labor, enhanced by every improvement in machinery of the kind that makes the work of children available ; and enhanced, also, by the very cheapness of the children to such an extent as to delay the introduction of new machinery if its installation is costly. This greed is exhibited in its most odious form in the glass industry, the textile industry, and the sweating-system. It knows no restraints except those of effective legislation enforced by enlightened public opinion, as is shown by the action of those Northern cotton mill men who obey the laws of Massachusetts and New York in their mills in those states, but in Georgia fall to the level of their local competitors, employing children ten years old and less, throughout eleven hours a day.

A third cause of child labor is the greed of the community in desiring to keep down the cost of maintenance of its dependent class. This greed dis guises itself under the form of solicitude for the moral welfare of the children. Just as the managers of the worst so-called reformatories insist that children must work under the contract system, “because they must be kept busy to keep them from being bad,” so this solicitude for childish morals insists that “children must not be habituated to dependence,” quite forgetting that dependence is the quality be stowed upon childhood as its distinguishing characteristic.

Any candid person, on being asked, “What virtues may be reasonably expected of children ?” must reply that we do not yet know. Our studies of the psychology of childhood are still so imperfect and inconclusive that it is not safe to dogmatize in this field. But by a process of elimination it is possible to arrive at certain conclusions which seem worth at least careful consideration.

Thus, observation of so-called self-made men suggests a serious danger that a child precociously self- respecting in the matter of earning his living may pay a high price, later in life, for his precocity. It is proverbial that the employer who began life as a working boy and through continuous exertions rose to power and responsibility, is apt to be a ruthless employer. The unnatural strain of his own early experience seems to entail this penalty upon his character and consequently upon his unhappy employees. Self-respect due to self-maintenance seems to be a virtue suitable to the later years of adolescence and to adult life, — never to childhood. Moral precocity seems to be quite generally followed by exhaustion or by reaction taking the form of greed, rapacity and calculating self-seeking.

Just as excessive fatigue, or habitual loss of sleep in childhood is punished in later life by the craving for stimulants, and by nervous insufficiency manifesting itself in the most diverse ways, — so the burden of industrial employment borne in early, tender years, disables the boy or girl for enlightened, self- supporting citizenship in later life.

To impute a virtue not normal to childhood and then insist that the children shall live up to adult standards applied to that virtue, is perverted, and injurious alike to the community which follows this course and to the children who suffer under it. If the burden of self-maintenance or the attempted maintenance of others is placed upon young children, — if child labor is tolerated, — the ethical standards of the community are bad. For a task which is normal and right for adults cannot be performed by children without sacrificing in the process their future usefulness to the Republic.

The insistent plea that children must work in order that they may acquire habits of thrift and attain prosperity for themselves and their families is uttered with greatest persistence by the employers who profit by the labor of the children. It is the glass manufacturers who voice this tender solicitude for the moral well-being of the wage-earning children in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when there is a growing movement in those states for prohibiting night work, as it has been prohibited in Illinois. In the South, it is the cotton-mill owners and their legal advisers who insist that little children from the mountain farms must toil eleven hours a day in the mills of Georgia, working throughout the night whenever it may be useful to their employers to have them do so.

These pleas are heard with willing ears by com munities which begrudge money for the maintenance of schools and the assistance of dependent widows and orphans; and not without good reason. No sooner had the new law of New Jersey required children to attend school to the fourteenth birthday, and prohibited boys under that age from working in manufacture, than it became necessary to build a new schoolhouse in a suburb of Millville, to accommodate the boys turned out of the glassworks. In Alton the enforcement of the child labor law of 1893 led to the immediate construction of a new schoolhouse for the children freed from the glassworks, and to the reopening of a building which had long been out of use. Wherever children are freed from work, the community must provide for them schools, teachers, attendance agents, factory inspectors and all those officials and provisions which are essential to the care and defense of childhood under the pressure of the competitive system.

Besides being essentially immoral, the effort to burden young children with the task of self-maintenance is doomed to failure, for under existing conditions a child does not, and cannot achieve complete self-maintenance. The three great series of industries in which children are largely employed, — the textiles, glass-making and the needle-trades, — are parasite trades. They are all protected by tariffs for the advantage of the employers; — and by more or less stringent trade regulations for the advantage of the adult male employees. In the case of the needle- trades, there are lavish subsidies from the public treasury of New York City, the great center of the needle-trades for the western hemisphere. By the help of these subsidies, sewing is done by the inmates of institutions erroneously called private, while maintained by the taxes of the community, at rates with which no private manufacturer can long compete. But more insidious than all these contributions to the parasite industries is the steady contribution of underpaid work from children who carry home wages too small to support them.

Parents become willing to exert themselves less when the eldest boy and girl begin to contribute something towards the family maintenance, and are not strenuous in the demand that the child’s wage shall afford self-support. “Every little helps,” is the hand-to-mouth consideration with which the hard-worked immigrant withdraws his son or daughter from school on the first day that the law allows.

The unthinking community tends to approve every exertion in the direction of money earning on the part of those who are most nearly at the line of submergence, asking no questions as to the ultimate effect upon the future citizen.

The oncoming generation neither knows nor cares what burden of incapacitated members the present generation is preparing for it. But the burden will have to be borne, just in proportion as the children of to-day are deprived of the right to childhood. And nothing is more surely handed down than the callous indifference of the mass of the people to the causes of that destitution which is an intrinsic part of the life of every manufacturing community; — as, for instance, the death or disability of the bread winner, or the widespread and ever-increasing custom of desertion by the fathers of burdensome young children.

Thus the essentially immoral effort to place upon the children the burden of self-maintenance not only fails at the moment, — it reacts injuriously upon the community, preparing for the next generation an undue share of incapacitated members, bequeathing to the future a large proportion of unfit and incapable citizens, and finally generating, among the people at large, indifference to the causes of death or disability of the breadwinner.

On the other hand, with the growing recognition of the right of the child to maintenance and education throughout a prolonged period, goes a lively interest in the health and welfare and probity of the normal breadwinner, who is theoretically responsible for its support.

In other words, while the demand for child labor is an economic one, the causes of its persistence are moral and social and are rooted in the false ideals of parents, employers, taxpayers, and all those indifferent people who care nothing what citizens are being trained for the future life of the Republic.



Source: Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation, by Florence Kelley, (New York) 1905, pp. 58-66.