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Child Labor in the United States

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

Child labor was widespread in agriculture and in industry in U.S. economy up until the early twentieth century but largely disappeared by the 1930s.

In the colonial period and into the 1800s parents and guardians generally required children to work. Initially most of the population worked in agriculture and children gradually moved into tasks demanding greater strength and skills as they aged. Craig (1993) uses census data to gauge the impact and value of child labor in the middle of the 1800s. He finds that the activities of farm-owning families were not closely linked to the number and ages of their children. Within each region, families in different life-cycle stages earned revenues in almost exactly the same manner. At every life-cycle stage, farm-owning families in the Midwest, for example, earned approximately 30 percent of their gross farm revenue from growing cereal crops; 29 percent from dairy, poultry, and market gardens; 22 percent from land and capital improvements; and 15 percent from hay and livestock. In addition, Craig calculates the value of child labor by estimating how the total value of labor output changed in the presence of each type of family member. He finds that children under 7 reduced the value of farm output, presumably because they reduced their mothers’ economic activities. For each child aged 7 to 12 the family’s output increased by about $16 per year – only 7 percent of the income produced by a typical adult male. Teen-aged females boosted family farm income by only about $22, while teen-aged males boosted income by $58. Because of these low productivity levels, families couldn’t really strike it rich by putting their children to work. When viewed as an investment, children had a strikingly negative rate of return because the costs of raising them generally exceeded the value of the work they performed.

The low value of child labor in agriculture may help explain why children were an important source of labor in many early industrial firms. In 1820 children aged 15 and under made up 23 percent of the manufacturing labor force of the industrializing Northeast. They were especially common in textiles, constituting 50 percent of the work force in cotton mills with 16 or more employees, as well as 41 percent of workers in wool mills, and 24 percent in paper mills. Goldin and Sokoloff (1982) conclude, however, that child labor’s share of industrial employment began its decline as early as 1840. Many textile manufacturers employed whole families and – despite its declining share – child labor continued to be an important input into this industry until the early twentieth century.

In the mid-1800s the median age of leaving home was about 22.5 for males and 20.5 for females. Apprenticed children generally left home at much earlier ages, but this institution was not very strong in the U.S. One study of rural Maryland found that nearly 20 percent of white males aged 15 to 20 were formally bound as apprentices in 1800, but the percentage fell to less than 1 percent by 1860.

National statistics on child labor are first available in 1880. They show that the labor force participation rate of children aged 10 to 19 was considerably higher among black males (65.5 percent) and females (43.7 percent) than among white males (43.1 percent) and females (13.1 percent). Likewise, the rate among foreign-born children exceeded that of their counterparts born in the U.S. – by about 9 percentage points among males and 16 percentage points among females. These differences may be largely attributable to the higher earnings levels of white and native-born families. In addition, labor force participation among rural children exceeded urban rates by about 8 percentage points.

The figures below give trends in child labor from 1880 to 1930.

1880 1900 1930
Labor force participation rates of children, 10 to 15 years old (percentages)
Males 32.5 26.1 6.4
Females 12.2 6.4 2.9
Percentage of 10 to 15 year olds in agricultural employment
Males 69.9 67.6 74.5
Females 37.3 74.5 61.5

Note: 1880 figures are based on Carter and Sutch (1996). Other numbers are unadjusted from those reported by the Bureau of the Census.

These figures show that throughout this period agricultural employment dominated child labor, despite the fact that industrialization was occurring rapidly and agricultural employment fell from 48 percent to 25 percent of the work force between 1880 and 1930.

Data from the Cost of Living Survey of 1889-90 show the importance of child labor to urban households. While the family head’s income peaked when he was in his thirties, family expenditures peaked when he was in his fifties because of the contributions of children. Similarly, in a 1917-19 Department of Labor survey, among families with working children, children’s earnings accounted for an average of 23 percent of total family income.

The continuation of child labor in industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, sparked controversy. Much of this ire was directed at employers, especially in industries where supervisors bullied children to work harder and assigned them to dangerous, exhausting or degrading jobs. In addition, working-class parents were accused of greedily not caring about the long-term well-being of their children. Requiring them to go to work denied them educational opportunities and reduced their life-time earnings, yet parents of laboring children generally required them to turn over all or almost all of their earnings. For example, one government study of unmarried young women living at home and working in factories and stores in New York City in 1907 found over ninety percent of those under age 20 turned all of their earnings over to their parents. Likewise, Parsons and Goldin (1989) find that children of fathers working in the textile industry left school about three years younger than those with fathers in other industries. They argue that many parents with adolescent children migrated to places, like textile centers, where their children could earn more, even though doing so didn’t increase overall family wages very much. On the other hand, Moehling (2005), using data from 1917 to 1919, finds that adolescents’ earnings gave them increased bargaining power, so that, for example, expenditures on children’s clothing increased as the income they brought into the household increased.

The earliest legal restriction on child labor in the U.S. was a Massachusetts law in 1837 which prohibited manufacturing establishments from employing children under age 15 who hadn’t attended school for at least three months in the previous year. Legislation enacted before 1880 generally contained only weak restrictions and little provisions for enforcement. In the late 1800s, however, social pressure against child labor became more organized under leaders such as Florence Kelley, Edgar Gardner Murphy and Felix Adler. By 1899, 44 states and territories had a child labor law of some type. Twenty-four states had minimum age limits for manufacturing employment by 1900, with age limits around 14 years in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and no minimums at all in most of the South. When the 1900 Census reported a rise in child labor above levels of 1880, child labor activists responded with increased efforts including a press campaign and the establishment of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. (Ironically, recent research suggests the Census was in error and child labor was already on the decline by 1900.) By 1910 seventeen more states enacted minimum age laws and several others increased age minimums.

Federal legislation, however, initially proved unsuccessful. The Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and in mines by children under 16, was struck down in the Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) ruling. Likewise, the Pomerane Amendment of 1918, which taxed companies that used child labor, was declared unconstitutional in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture (1922) on the grounds that it was an unwarranted exercise of the commerce power of the federal government and violated states’ rights. In 1924, the Senate passed a Constitutional amendment banning child labor, but it was never ratified by enough states. Finally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibited the full-time employment of those 16 and under (with a few exemptions) and enacted a national minimum wage which made employing most children uneconomical. It received the Supreme Court’s blessing.

Most economic historians conclude that this legislation was not the primary reason for the reduction and virtual elimination of child labor between 1880 and 1940. Instead they point out that industrialization and economic growth brought rising incomes, which allowed parents the luxury of keeping their children out of the work force. In addition, child labor rates have been linked to the expansion of schooling, high rates of return from education, and a decrease in the demand for child labor due to technological changes which increased the skills required in some jobs and allowed machines to take jobs previously filled by children. Moehling (1999) finds that the employment rate of 13-year olds around the beginning of the twentieth century did decline in states that enacted age minimums of 14, but so did the rates for 13-year olds not covered by the restrictions. Overall she finds that state laws are linked to only a small fraction – if any – of the decline in child labor. It may be that states experiencing declines were therefore more likely to pass legislation, which was largely symbolic.


Carter, Susan and Richard Sutch. “Fixing the Facts: Editing of the 1880 U.S. Census of Occupations with Implications for Long-Term Labor Force Trends and the Sociology of Official Statistics.” Historical Methods 29 (1996): 5-24.

Craig, Lee A. To Sow One Acre More: Childbearing and Farm Productivity in the Antebellum North. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Goldin, Claudia and Kenneth Sokoloff. “Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses.” Journal of Economic History 42, no. 4 (1982): 741-74.

Brian Gratton and Jon Moen, “Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 3 (2004): 355-91.

Moehling, Carolyn. “‘She Has Suddenly Become Powerful’: Youth Employment and Household Decision-Making in the Early Twentieth Century.” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 2 (2005): 414-38.

Moehling, Carolyn. “State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor.” Explorations in Economic History 36 (1998): 72-106.

Parsons, Donald O. and Claudia Goldin. “Parental Altruism and Self-Interest: Child Labor among Late Nineteenth-Century American Families.” Economic Inquiry 27, no. 4 (1989): 637-59.

Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Child Labor in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 7, 2005. URL