Child labor is the employment of children as wage earners. It became a serious social problem during the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom during the 1700s and spread to America as it became industrialized. Children, many below the age of 10, were employed by textile factories and forced to work long hours under dangerous and unhealthy conditions for very little pay. Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1837-1839) was written as a commentary on the evils of child labor and exposed the problems associated with child labor to the masses. Social reformers condemned child labor because of its effects on the health and welfare of children.
Lewis Wickes Hine, a northern labor reformer, visited Georgia’s textile mills to document their use of child labor and the squalid living conditions that most employees were forced to endure. Using disguises and aliases to infiltrate the mills, Hines managed to capture hundreds of images of child laborers in Georgia’s mills. Plants in Rossville, Rome, Lindale, and Columbus were especially prominent in his publications. The outrage caused by the photos that Hines took eventually led to Congressional action. In 1916, Congress passed a law setting standards for the hiring of children by industries involved in interstate or foreign commerce. The standards included setting the minimum age for work in factories and mills at fourteen, an eight-hour day, and a forty-eight hour week. The law prohibited nightwork for children under the age of sixteen.
Factory owners were angered because the standards interfered with their ability to make a profit from the labor of their most underpaid employees – the children working in the mills. Families with children working in the mills were also angry because many depended on the children’s meager incomes in order to support their families. In 1918, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the law unconstitutional. In 1924, Congress passed an amendment to the constitution allowing federal laws to be passed to protect working children under the age of eighteen. This amendment failed to receive the required approval of three-fourths of all the states. Finally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 helped to promote child labor reform. This law declared that children over the age of sixteen may be employed in any occupation except those declared hazardous by the U.S. secretary of labor. Children fourteen and fifteen years old were permitted to work in only a limited number of occupations outside of school hours. This law firmly established the constitutional legality of child labor laws.