Working and Schooling

Mapping Child Labor Laws and Compulsory Education in early 20th C. US
Meghan Cope, Dept. of Geography, University of Vermont,

Although children have always worked in and alongside their families in various capacities, the 19th c. shift in America toward industrial work involved the dislocation of work outside of the home/farm and a switch from subsistence or trade to waged labor. As manufacturing became less and less based on skill, and more mechanized, children were seen as viable, cheap, and expendable workers. Waves of horror stories of abuse, mutilation, and death of child workers resulted in concomitant waves of public demands for reform. It is notable that the ‘white’ child was the spur for greater concern in the realm of labor, while black children, many of whom were farm laborers, rarely sparked the interest of reformers (Alphonso, 2014).

Map of 48 US states in 1900 showing levels of protection of children (labor laws and compulsory schooling).
Cartography by Gemayel Goxcon

Geographic Perspectives

Several dimensions of the debates and policies limiting child labor and encouraging schooling have geographic significance:

  1. Because child labor laws were only implemented at the state (and sometimes local) level before the National Labor Standards Act (NLSA) of 1938, there was a lot of regional variation based on context of the state’s economic, political, and ethnic/racial characteristics.  
  2. The state-by-state initiation of child labor laws and compulsory schooling happened against a backdrop of efforts by reformers to create federal-level policy, meaning that there are scale issues here. Reformers repeatedly proposed legislation that was passed by Congress only to have it rejected by the Supreme Court as ‘unconstitutional’. Then, in 1924 both Houses passed the Child Labor Amendment to the US Constitution giving Congress “the “power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under 18 years old” (quoted in Fliter, 2018, p. 141); the CLA was never ratified by three quarters of states but it was preempted by the NLSA in 1938. To this day, compulsory schooling is legislated at the state level.
  3. One of the flash-points of child labor law was in border areas between states with higher levels of protection for children and those with looser laws. For example, one reformer  bemoaned the situation of the “Pittsburgh District” of glass-making industries: “Ohio has a fourteen year age limit for the employment of children, Pennsylvania a thirteen year limit, West Virginia a twelve year limit. Ohio prohibits the employment of children under sixteen at night, Pennsylvania permits the employment at night of children of thirteen, while West Virginia permits children twelve years old to work at night.” (Owen Lovejoy, National Child Labor Committee, 1905, p. 47)
  4. The rhetoric of both reformers and their opponents frequently called on images and ideals of rights, patriotism, and ‘the nation’. For example, one reformer wrote: “we are agitating and striving more and more, not only to save the children from the wrong kind of work at the wrong time and under wrong conditions, but at the same time to prepare them for the right kind of work at the right time and under right conditions that the citizens of to-morrow may work for and be worthy of the highest ideals of the republic (emphasis added, Ben Lindsey, National Child Labor Committee, 1905, p. 101)
  5. The practices of working, schooling, and experiencing the rapid changes in economic and family life of the early 20th C. meant many children’s everyday spaces were also changing. Children experienced industrial work-spaces such as the factory floor, different kinds of living arrangements, the expansion of the playground movement in cities (Gagen, 2000), and the rise of danger in the streets with the coming of automobiles.

Copyright Meghan Cope 2019

Timeline of Key Events


Scholarly Publications:

Agyepong, T. E. 2018. The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Alphonso, G. 2014. “Of Families or Individuals? Southern Child Workers and the Progressive Crusade for Child Labor Regulation, 1899-1920”, in Marten, J. (ed.) Children and Youth during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. New York: NYU Press, pp. 59-80.

Bandiera, O. Mohnen, M., Rasul, I., and Viarengo, M. 2018. Nation-building through Compulsory Schooling During the Age of Mass Migration, The Economic Journal, 129 (617): 62–109

Bernstein, R. 2011. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: NYU Press.

Clay, K.; Lingwall, J.; and Stephens, J. 2012. Do Schooling Laws Matter? Evidence from the Introduction of Compulsory Attendance Laws in the United States, Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research,

Fliter, J. 2018. Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Gagen, E. 2004. Making America Flesh: Physicality and nationhood in early twentieth-century physical education reform, Cultural Geographies (11): 417-442.

Hart, J. F. 1977. The Demise of King Cotton, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 67(3):  307-322, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1977.tb01144.x

Hindman, H. D. 2002. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Holloway, S. & Valentine, G. (eds.) Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning. London: Routledge.

Lindenmeyer, K. 1997. “A Right to Childhood”: The US Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-1946. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Mills, S. 2013. ‘An instruction in good citizenship’: Scouting and the historical geographies of citizenship education, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (38): 120-134.

Mintz, S. 2004. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard.

Moehling, C. 1999. State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor, Explorations in Economic History, 35: 72-106.

Sallee, S. 2004. The Whiteness of Child Labor Reform in the New South. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Schmidt, J. 2010. Industrial Violence and the Legal Origins of Child Labor, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schuman, M. 2017. History of child labor in the United States – part 2: the reform movement. January, Monthly Labor Review, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Shapiro, E. 2019. Desegregation Plan: Eliminate all Gifted Programs in NY. New York Times Aug. 27, Section A, Page 1.

Simmons, L. 2015. Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. Chapel Hill: UNC Press.

Trattner, W. I. 1970. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Wilkerson, I. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House.

Zelizer, V. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Reports, Proceedings, and Period References:

Abbott, E. 1908. A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America, American Journal of Sociology, IV (17): 15-37.

Anderson, N. L. 1905. Child Labor Legislation and the Methods of its Enforcement: The Southern States, Addresses at the First Annual Meeting of the NCLC, NYC. New York: NCLC, pp. 77-93.

Ensign, F. C. 1921. Compulsory School Attendance and Child Labor. Iowa City, IA: The Athens Press. Reprinted in American Education: Its Men, Ideas, and Institutions, 1969, New York: Arno Press and The New York Times.

Erickson, H. 1905. Child Labor Legislation and the Methods of its Enforcement: The Northern Central States, Addresses at the First Annual Meeting of the NCLC, NYC. New York: NCLC, pp. 53-65.

Hand, W. H. 1914. The Need of Compulsory Education in the South, Compulsory School Attendance. US Bureau of Education Bulletin No. 2; Washington: Government Printing Office.

Johnson, E. S. 1935. Child Labor Legislation, in Brandeis, E. and J. R. Commons (eds.) History of Labor in the United States, 1896-1932. New York: Macmillan.  

Kelley, F. 1905. Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation. New York: Macmillan.

Lindsay, B. B. 1905. Child Labor Legislation and the Methods of its Enforcement: The Western States, Addresses at the First Annual Meeting of the NCLC, NYC. New York: NCLC, pp. 94-101.

Lovejoy, O. R. 1905. The Test of Effective Child Labor Legislation, Addresses at the First Annual Meeting of the NCLC, NYC. New York: NCLC, pp.45-52.

McKelway, A. J. 1905. Child Labor in Southern Industry, Addresses at the First Annual Meeting of the NCLC, NYC. New York: NCLC, pp.16-22.

McDowell, J. R. 1909. The Difficulties of Child-Labor Legislation in a Southern State, The Child Workers of the Nation: Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference, Chicago, IL. New York: NCLC, pp. 166-171.

NCLC (National Child Labor Committee) 1928. Child Labor Facts, Publication #343. New York: NCLC.

NCLC (National Child Labor Committee) 1938. Child Labor Facts, Publication #372. New York: NCLC.

Plessy v. Ferguson. 1896. Text available at

Riis, J. 1892. The Children of the Poor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.