In colonial America, child labor was not a subject of controversy. Children were an integral part of the agricultural economy. Not only did children labor on the homestead, they also were hired out to other farmers by their parents. It was not unusual for boys to begin their apprenticeship in a designated trade by the time they were ten years of age. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was apprenticed to work as a printer’s assistance for his older brother at the age of twelve. In the early nineteenth century, child apprenticeships declined, but with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and the influx of Irish in the 1840s and southern and eastern Europeans after 1880, minors often found factory employment. Children were ideal factory workers because they were paid a fraction of an adult’s wages, were easily managed, and were very difficult for labor unions to organize. By 1900, 18 percent of children between the ages of ten and fifteen were gainfully employed. Moreover, 25 percent of workers in southern cotton mills were below the age of fifteen, some as young a six or seven. Although many child workers labored in horrendous conditions, their incomes were vital for families who lived in dire poverty.
Attempts to prohibit child labor began prior to the Civil War. By 1863, seven states had passed laws limiting the hours of child workers to forty-eight per week, but often the laws were not strictly enforced. The use of child labor continued to rise throughout the late nineteenth century. In 1900, the national census revealed that 1,750,178 children between the ages of ten and fifteen were employed, an increase of more than one million since 1870. At the turn of the century, outraged middle-class progressives mounted a vigorous campaign to stamp out child labor. Armed with an array of statistics documenting the widespread use of child labor and poignant photographs dramatizing the poor working conditions of child laborers, the reformers lobbied states to end the practice. By 1914, reformers had persuaded nearly every state legislature to ban the employment in factories of young children, generally defined as under the age of fourteen, and to limit hours of work for older minors. However, child labor persisted as too many businessmen reaped excessive profits, too many politicians and judges were reluctant to regulate or intervene in the practice, and too many parents depended upon their children’s labor for survival. As a result, it became clear that the states could not effectively curb child labor and progressives lobbied Congress, seeking federal legislation that would end child labor once and for all.
In 1916, the Children’s Bureau undertook and published a series of studies of the conditions under which children worked in specific industries and occupations. The bureau chronicled boy mine workers in Pennsylvania, ten-year-olds working nearly all night making artificial flowers in grimy urban tenements, and barefoot children slaving in the hot southern sun picking onions, Page 274 | Top of Article cotton, and beets. That year, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was implemented, which barred interstate commerce in goods manufactured by the labor of children under the age of sixteen. Congress authorized the Children’s Bureau to administer the new law, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), ruled the law unconstitutional. The court held that although children needed protection, the federal law intruded upon the ability of the states to regulate their own child labor laws. The Children’s Bureau continued to investigate child labor violations, and in 1938 much of the exploitation was prohibited under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Primary Source: “Canal-Boat Children” [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In 1921, the Children’s Bureau received information of children living on canal boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which extends 185 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The bureau investigated and found that although the number of children were few, the “living and working conditions presented unusually serious problems.” The following article, written by Ethel M. Springer, sheds light on one facet of the child labor and welfare problem.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal extends from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, Md., along the eastern bank of the Potomac River, a distance of 185 miles, with an ascent of 609 feet which is overcome by means of 75 locks. The canal varies in width at the surface from 55 to 65 feet and at the bottom from 30 to 42 feet and has a depth of 6 feet throughout. The open season lasts approximately nine months, from early March till December. During the winter months it is customary to drain the canal to prevent damage which might be caused by freezing.
The principal cargo has always been bituminous coal mined in the mountains about Cumberland, which is transported to Georgetown. Boatmen said that they averaged two round trips a month, the distance from Cumberland to Georgetown being covered from six to eight days, and the return trip in from four to six days. Practically all the traffic at the time of the study was conducted by one company which owned the boats and employed captains to operate them. The policy of this company was to give preference to married men on the ground that a married man is steadier in his job than a single man, and that the presence of his wife and children on a boat raises the moral tone. For the year 1920, the company reported that all but 7 of the 66 captains oil its pay roll were married men.
Children Boating on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 1920 Classified by Age and Number of Seasons Worked
Children Boating on Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, 1920
Classified by Age and Number of Seasons Worked
Number who had done boat work each specified number of seasons
Age 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 or more Not reported Total Number who had done no boatwork Total
5 years or under 3 … … … … … … … … … … 3 38 41
6 years 3 1 … … … … … … … … … 4 3 7
7 years 2 2 1 … … … … … … … 1 6 1 7
8 years 1 2 … 1 … … … … … … … 4 1 5
9 years 3 … 3 … 1 … … … … … 1 8 2 10
10 years 1 1 1 2 1 1 … … … … … 7 … 7
11 years 2 3 1 1 … 2 … … … … 1 10 1 11
12 years … 3 2 … 1 1 1 … … … 1 9 1 10
13 years … 2 2 … 2 1 … 1 … … 1 9 … 9
14 years 1 5 1 3 2 1 … 1 … … 1 15 1 16
15 years 2 … 2 1 1 … … 1 … 2 … 9 … 9
16 years … 1 1 … 1 1 … 1 1 … 1 7 … 7
17 years … … … … … 1 … 1 … 1 … 3 … 3
Total 18 20 14 8 9 8 1 5 1 3 7 94 48 142
SOURCE: Springer, Ethel M. Canal Boat Children, Monthly Labor Review, vol. 16, no. 2, February 1923, p. 5.
Of the 59 captains who were married, 41 were found who had their children with them during the season studied. The number of children found accompanying their families was 135 (70 boys and 65 girls); of these, 48 were under 7 years of age. In addition to these children there were found on canal boats 7 boys who wore employed as deck hands by captains to whom they were not related. One of Page 275 | Top of Article these boys was 11 years of age, four were 14, one was 15, and one 16 years of age. It is known that not all the families were located and interviewed and it is probable that the number of independent child workers found is still less indicative of the actual number on the canal boats, inasmuch as they were even more difficult to locate than families.
The operation of canal boats is an occupation handed down from father to son. Said one mother: “The children are brought up on the boat and don’t know nothin’ else, and that is the only reason they take up ‘boating.’ Boys work for their fathers until they are big enough to get a boat of their own, and it’s always easy to get a boat.” Several men complained that they knew “nothing else” and realized that their children would have the same disadvantage. Most of the fathers had begun boating before they were 13 years of age; but since the majority had begun by helping their own fathers they did not become “captains” at an especially early age, many of them not until they were 25 years or over. Four men, however, had become captains before they were 16. The mother of one of these had died when he was 12 years of age, leaving $2,100 in cash to each of 14 children. The boy boated for one season with an older brother, receiving as compensation for the season’s work, an overcoat, a “made” (as distinguished from homemade) suit of clothes, and $7.50. When he was 14 he bought his own boat and team of mules and became an independent captain. During the first season he saved $700 and “lived like a lord.” He began with practically no education, and though he had been a captain for 54 years he had never learned to read and write. Several of his sons became boatmen and at the time of the study a 16-year-old grandson was boating with him.
All the captains included in the study were native white. Seven were illiterate. Their wives also were all native white. Five of them were illiterate. One captain, who had begun boating with his father when he was 5 years of age, said that altogether he had gone to school only 29 months. By the time he reached the fourth grade the children of his own age had long since completed the grammar grades and he was ashamed to go into classes with younger boys and girls. He seemed to regret his own lack of education and said that when his little girl was old enough to go to school he should stop boating.
The operation of the old-fashioned canal boat used on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal consists
The Federal Childrens Bureau found in 1921 that living and working conditions for children presented serious problems on canal boats on the Ohio and Chesapeake Canal. HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTIONCORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
The Federal Children’s Bureau found in 1921 that living and working conditions for children presented “serious problems” on canal boats on the Ohio and Chesapeake Canal. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
in driving the mules and in steering the boat. The mules are harnessed tandem to two long ropes or “lines” attached to the bow of the boat. From two to five mules are used by “spells,” two or three mules being stabled in the fore cabin at rest while the others draw. The boathands take turns at driving, either walking beside the mules or riding the leader. Although the captains usually do some of the driving, especially if the boat travels at night, they consider it a child’s job during the day. In dry weather the towpath, which is level except at the approaches to the locks, is well beaten down and easy to walk on, but in summer the work is wearisome and hot. In wet weather the path is muddy and slippery, and consequently shoes and clothing get very hard wear. One captain considered himself the best father on the canal because he provided his boys with rubber boots.
Steering the boat is accomplished by means of the “stick” located on the quarter-deck at the stern of the boat. This controls the rudder or “paddle,” and may be guided by the pilot standing or sitting against it. As there is practically no current to change the direction of the boat, the operation is very simple and the mother of the family often steers while doing household tasks that permit. A young child can steer a light boat, as the stick moves easily, but to steer loaded boats requires strength. The only complications in steering occur at the locks or when other canal boats are passed.
Locks are 15 feet wide and approximately 100 feet long. The usual method of opening and shutting Page 276 | Top of Article
Efforts to reform child labor succeeded in effecting some change, but it remained a profitable business practice in the 1920s. HULTONARCHIVE. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
Efforts to reform child labor succeeded in effecting some change, but it remained a profitable business practice in the 1920s. HULTON/ARCHIVE. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
them is by pushing heavy beams which extend from the swinging gates on each side. At the time of the study the lock tenders were mostly old men who were assisted by the women and children of their families; the boat workers, however, frequently helped to operate the locks as it is sometimes necessary for several persons to brace themselves against the beams of the gates.… Boats approach the locks so slowly that the steersman has ample time to fit the boat into the lock. Careful calculation, however, is required as the locks are only one foot wider than the boats.… A severe jolt against the wall of the lock has been known to sink a boat. When the boat is in the lock, the boatmen untie the mules and make the boat fast by wrapping ropes around heavy posts which are driven deep into the ground near the lock wall. After a lock is filled or emptied the boatmen pull in their ropes and steer the boat through. If another boat is waiting to enter a lock as one leaves it, great care must be exercised by the steersmen of both boats.
Hours of Boat Work
Hours of travel on the canal were practically continuous. Fifteen hours a day was the minimum reported by any of the boat families; 18 was the number of hours most frequently reported; and several families stated they worked longer. One family had operated its boat without taking any intervals for rest. “It never rains, snows, or blows for a boatman, and a boatman never has no Sundays,” explained one father. “We don’t know it’s Sunday,” said another, “till we see some folks along the way, dressed up and a-goin’ to Sunday school.” One captain and his wife who reported working 15 hours a day employed no crew but depended on the assistance of two children, a girl 14 years of age and a boy of 5. The girl did almost all the driving, usually riding mule-back, and the parents steered. The little boy helped with the driving, but did not drive for more than a mile or two at a time. The boat was kept moving until the girl could drive no longer, then the boat was tied up for the night. “We’d boat longer hours if the driver felt like it,” said the father.…
Boat Work Done by Children
Only the limitations of their physical strength prevented children from performing all operations connected with canal boats. Consequently when they reported that they had done boat work it meant that they had assisted in all parts of the work. The older children, of course, bore heavier burdens than the younger.
… [Ninety-four] children, or all except 7 of those over 6 years of age, were found assisting in the work. Twenty-one of the children of the children had begun to help when they were not more than 6 years of age, and 8 of these had begun when not more than 5. The following stories illustrate the life of the boat children.
One of the boating households consisted of four persons—;the captain and his assistant “deck hand,” the captain’s wife, and their 11-year-old daughter. The child had been driving, steering, and doing housework for “several years,” but she did not like boating and got very lonely. Her father said that she could do anything the “hand” could do, but he felt it necessary to hire a man because, as he put it, “you have to rest once in a while.” “The women and children are as good as the men,” he said. “If it weren’t for the children the canal wouldn’t run a day.” The girl’s school attendance for the year 1920–21 had been 89 days out of 177, or 50 percent of the school term.
An 11-year-old boy who had been helping his father since he was 6 years old had become his father’s “right-hand man.” This boy was one of a family Page 277 | Top of Article of seven children, two older than he, one a girl of 7, and three others under 6 years of age. “A boat is a poor place for little children,” said the father, “for all they can do is to go in and out of the cabin.” The four older children were accustomed to helping with the boat work, but the father depended especially on the 11-year-old boy. He could do any sort of work and often drove for long hours, and even well into the night. His school attendance in 1920–21 was only 93 days out of a possible 178. The father himself commented on this poor record and said that while he regretted it he was obliged to “boat” his children as he could not afford with his large family to hire extra help.
One 17-year-old girl boasted that she had been working on canal boats for 12 seasons. The mother of this girl had had 17 children, 8 of whom were living. Of the 9 children who had died, 8 had died in infancy. The 2 oldest living children had married and left home. The remaining 6 children, including the 17-year-old girl, 2 boys who were 15 and 12 years of age, respectively, and 3 girls, aged 11, 6, and 2 traveled with their parents on the canal. All except the youngest were regular boat hands, having begun to work when 6 years of age. The mother stated that for many years it had not been necessary for them to employ a crew as they had plenty of their “own hands.” During the season selected for study their boat had traveled 19 hours a day 7 days a week. While the 6-year-old girl was allowed to go to bed at 8 and presumably had lighter duties than the others, the 4 older children worked on shifts all day long, snatching a nap now and then. They went to bed at 10 p. m. and had to be up and ready to start again at 3 a. m. The oldest girl had stopped school on completing the fourth grade. The 4 other children who had been in school during 1920–21 had records which showed attendance varying from 29 percent to 73 percent of the term. The 15-year-old boy, with an attendance record of 29.6 percent, had just completed the fourth grade and was not planning to return to school in the fall.