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Child Labor: An American History

Author(s):Hindman, Hugh D.
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Hugh D. Hindman, Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. xi + 431 pp. $83.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7656-0935-5; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7656-0936-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

Although children had worked in the yeoman household with their families, as indentured servants and slaves for a master, and as apprentices in the putting-out system, society’s view on the child labor issue changed from pre-industrial America to industrial America. Hugh Hindman, Associate Professor of Labor and Human Resources at Appalachian State University, tells the history of the child labor problem in America from an interdisciplinary perspective incorporating social history, political reform and economic theory. By focusing on America, this book fills a void in the literature that discusses child labor in Great Britain extensively, child labor in Belgium, France, Spain and Japan adequately and has just begun to offer research on contemporary child labor in Latin America, Africa, India and Asia. To explore how child labor in America was both unique and special it addresses several key questions: (1) How important was child labor to the industrialization of America? (2) Why did child labor, which had existed for centuries, become a social problem in America during industrialization? and (3) What were the successes and failures at effective legislative reform?

The major contribution of this book is presented in Part II entitled “Child Labor in America” because it describes child labor in the main industries and trades of the American economy using primary sources. Hindman provides original evidence on the employment of children in coalmines (Chapter 4), glasshouses (Chapter 5), cotton textile factories (Chapter 6), tenement houses (Chapter 7), and canneries and food processing sheds (Chapter 9). In addition, he highlights evidence on children who worked in the sugar beet, cranberry, tobacco and cotton fields as migrant workers (Chapter 9) and on the streets as bootblacks, messengers and newsboys (Chapter 8). He carefully extracts from the primary data collected by the investigators for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and the nineteen-volume report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Report on Conditions of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, 1910-1913 valuable information on the number of children employed, jobs children performed, work conditions, work-related illnesses and wages for each type of employment. Information on schooling options, safety issues and the strength of unions, employer organizations and restrictive regulations was drawn from NCLC publications (Child Labor Bulletins), government publications and secondary sources to identify the factors that could eliminate child labor in each industry. The interpretation of this relatively untapped source of data is impressive and wonderfully complimented by samples of the 7,000 photographs taken by the famous social photographer, Lewis W. Hine. These photographs not only document the existence of child labor during America’s industrial period but they also give a lasting impression of the degree of youthfulness, poverty and despair of the children who worked hard day after day.

Hindman’s history of the struggles of poor families to survive and of legislative and court battles waged by reformers provides lessons for the worldwide resurgence of the child labor problem today. The contemporary update of the child labor issue in America in Chapter 10 is especially informative. Using current statistics from the National Longitudinal Study, which show that “proportionally nearly as many children in America work today as at the turn of the twentieth century” (pp. 294-95) remind us that child labor has not disappeared. Although many perform freelance jobs (babysitting and yardwork), which is considerably different in nature from the factory or migrant jobs of the past, the fact that more than four million children and youth are illegally employed makes the issue more than purely academic. The conclusion of the book on global child labor in Chapter 11 reveals striking similarities in the types of work children do, the causes of child labor and the ineffectiveness of legislative action between America and developing nations.

The thesis “that industrialization is the cause of both the child labor problem and, later, its eradication” (p. 8) is not novel, but the fact that it applies to America as well as to Great Britain is novel and significant. Many economic historians have either claimed or shown this to be true for Great Britain (Levine (1987); Marx (1867); Nardinelli (1980); Piore (1994); Polanyi (1994) and Tuttle (1999)). No research to date has attempted to or succeeded in showing that for both Great Britain and America the same mechanism that created child labor also eliminated it. The thesis, although not well developed until Chapter 11, is supported by the evidence on wages and technological change in most of the industries. Poverty and antiquated machines created a need for employing children whereas rising standards of living and technological innovation led to the decline of child labor. For example, in America mechanical pickers replaced the infamous “breaker boys” in the coal mines, automated conveyor systems replaced the “dog boys” in glasshouses, and vending boxes replaced newsboys (p. 334).

The book does not, however, sufficiently analyze child labor using the tools of an economic historian. The “Discourse on Exploitation” is superficial and bases its conclusion on assumptions made about improvements in wages, Gross Domestic Product per capita and household income without providing any supporting data or references (pp. 312-319). The economic theory used in describing the model of the labor market for children is an over-simplified adaptation of existing theories. The theory of child labor found in Chapter 11 should have been developed earlier and applied to the vast amount of information Hindman has on the key industries and trades that employed children in America. The market for child labor consists of a supply and demand curve whose intersection yields the level of employment and the equilibrium wage rate. The supply of child labor is determined in a family context. Parents’ motivations to send their children to work in America were identical to the reasons uncovered in Great Britain and in developing countries — poverty (low family income), custom, habit, tradition and the absence of schooling. The demand for labor is determined by profit-maximizing firms. Hindman makes two unsubstantiated claims about the demand for labor, however. He argues that the demand for labor is not very well developed in the literature and he assumes that child labor is “low productivity labor” compared to adults (p. 331). Both Nardinelli (1990) and Tuttle (1999) fully develop the theory of the demand for child labor for the case of Great Britain. Although Hindman identifies factors which increased the demand for child labor in America (labor-intensive production processes, lower transaction costs for hiring entire families, more compliant and obedient workers, “nimble fingers,” and biased technological change (pp. 332-33), he does not apply them to his analysis of the various industries. Child labor reform and education are not seen as deterrents to employers in hiring children or to parents in sending their children to work during the early stages of industrialization.

Although it may not completely satisfy the appetite of the economic historian, this book will appeal to scholars in labor economics, law and economics and industrialization. Historians specializing in the history of childhood, labor history, social history and American history will want to read this book and have it on their shelves for reference. Hindman tells a story which needed to be told.

Carolyn Tuttle is presenting a paper at the 2003 Annual EHA Conference in Nashville (with Simone Wegge) entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.” Her book, Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution (Westview, 1999), shows how technological innovation increased the demand for child labor in Great Britain.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII