During most of the nineteenth century, child labor was extensively utilized. With the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, use of children in factories exploded. Children were able to operate machinery that did not require strength or skills. They were used to do many tasks in small, tight spaces. Moreover, they worked long hours. By 1810, it is reported that roughly two million school-aged children were working 50 to 70-hour work weeks. Many children who worked in factories often worked 12 to 18 hours a day and earned only a dollar after working six-day work weeks. In addition to these extensive hours, children were also subject to dangerous tasks and working conditions, some of which included duties to clean mill machinery while the machinery was still running and having to work in mines that threatened collapse.
As a result of educational reformers in the mid-nineteenth century, several states established requirements for school attendance and minimum wage for labor. However, these laws had many loopholes and were not strictly enforced.
In the 1840s there was a large influx of southern and eastern European immigrants that provided a new pool of child workers. With more available child workers and an expansion of the American industry near the end of the nineteenth century, the country saw a rise in the percentage of children aged ten to fifteen years who were employed. This increase in labor allowed the harrowing working conditions for child laborers to rise to public attention.
As a result, leaders of the National Child Labor Committee organized in 1904 sought to eliminate child labor. Through political action, photographic documentation of work conditions, and lobbying, child labor committees emphasized reform. In 1916 and 1918, Congress passed federal child labor laws, but such laws were ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Congress sought to pass an amendment authorizing federal child labor legislation in 1924, but the fear of federal power increase, as well as the 1920’s political climate, prevented many states from consenting.
Child labor reform finally benefitted from the shift in the political climate brought on by the Great Depression. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set national minimum wage and maximum hour standards, and also limited child labor.
In addition to federal child labor laws, states have laws and regulations as to when and how children may be employed, as well as safety and schooling requirements.