Industrialization & Child Labor in New York
Document Showcase is a regular feature that highlights a topic from State history using records from the New York State Archives. Each Showcase includes sample documents, an historical sketch, and links to educational activities for classroom use.
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Children in America worked long before the Industrial Revolution. While industrialization did not create child labor, it did change the nature and places in which children worked, especially after the Civil War. More children began working outside the family home or farm, under circumstances that were harmful to their development, if not downright hazardous to their health and safety. Beginning in the 1890s, progressive reformers and labor leaders began drawing attention to the circumstances under which children worked and pressing for laws to eliminate child labor.
Following the disastrous Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, the New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission to study the conditions under which workers of all ages labored. Investigators discovered families, including children as young as five, engaged in manufacturing tasks under horrific conditions in their own tenement apartments. The commission sponsored changes in state law to prohibit children under fourteen from being employed at factory work in any location, including tenement houses. Yet, as their progressive forebears had learned and their New Deal successors would soon discover, support for regulation of child labor was far from unanimous. State and federal child labor laws were struck down as unconstitutional and a federal Child Labor Amendment failed to gain adequate support among the states. For some parents, regulation infringed upon their right to run their own households and decide what was best for their own children.
Still, great progress was made in reducing child labor through state laws and under the short-lived National Recovery Act of 1933. Federal regulation of child labor became permanent in 1941 when the United States Supreme Court upheld the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Nevertheless, child labor endures even today in certain economic sectors and within specific cultural groups.
See our Document-Based Questions and related activities related to Industrialization and Child Labor, and designed to meet New York State Education Standards.
Slide Show Details
Document 1: Cigar Makers’ International Union of America union label, expressing opposition to “filthy tenement-house workmanship” and other non-union labor, 1892.
Document 2: Excerpt of brief, submitted to the state Supreme Court by the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, supporting restrictions on manufacturing in tenement houses, 1914.
Document 3: Excerpt of Chapter 529 of the Laws of 1913, prohibiting the employment of children less than fourteen years of age in manufacturing work in tenement houses.
Document 4: Letter from the WPA Teachers Union to Governor Herbert Lehman, urging the governor to support the proposed Child Labor Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1937.
Document 5: Telegram from Mrs. Oliver S. Chatfield to Governor Herbert Lehman, noting opposition of Nassau County mothers to the proposed Child Labor Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1937.
For More Information
For further information regarding the history of the Factory Investigating Commission and descriptions of commission records held by the State Archives, see Working Lives: A Guide to the Records of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission.
For digital copies of photographs and selected documents compiled by the Factory Investigating Commission, see our Digital Collections.
For detailed descriptions of labor-related and other records of Progressive and New Deal era governors, consult finding aids to the records of Governors Alfred E. Smith, Nathan L. Miller, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For digital images of selected union labels in the collections of the State Archives please use the "search" option in our Digital Collections.
Send questions or comments about the Document Showcase to the Public Programs Office of the State Archives by email at: ARCHEDU@mail.nysed.gov or phone (518) 474-6926.