In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners in the United States employed child workers. In Britain, child labor became a major issue in the 19th century and eventually legislation was passed that brought it to an end.
In 1892 the social reformer, John Peter Altgeld, was elected as governor of Illinois. Soon afterwards he managed to persuade the state legislature to pass legislation controlling child labour. This included a law limiting women and children to a maximum eight-hour day. To enforce this legislation he appointed one of the country's leading campaigners against child labour, Florence Kelley, as the state's first chief factory inspector. She recruited a staff of twelve, five of whom were women, including Alzina Stevens as her chief assistant. However, this success was short-lived and in 1895 the Illinois Association of Manufacturers got the law repealed.
Julius Wayland and Fred Warren, the editors as the socialist journal, Appeal to Reason, were strong opponents of child labor and published a series of articles on the subject. This included the moving piece on the death of Roselie Randazzo by Kate Richards O'Hare and other articles by Eugene Debs and Mary 'Mother' Jones. Norman Hapgood of Collier's Weekly and other muckraking journalists also became heavily involved in this campaign.
The National Child Labour Committee was formed in 1904 in an attempt to persuade Congress to regulate child labour. One of its members, Jane Addams, reported in 1907 that there were over two million children under the age of sixteen in paid employment in the United States. She went on to argue that this helped to explain why there were "580,000 children between the ages of ten and fourteen years, who cannot read or write".
In 1908 the National Child Labor Committee employed Lewis Hine as their staff investigator and photographer. Hine travelled the country taking pictures of children working in factories. Hine also lectured on the subject and once told one audience: "Perhaps you are weary of child labour pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labour pictures will be records of the past."
At the beginning of the 19th century a group of social reformers involved in the Hull House settlement in Chicago, began to call for a federal agency to help protect children. People involved in this campaign included Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Robert Hunter, Henry Damerest Lloyd, Julia Lathrop, Lillian Wald, Alzina Stevens, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, Alice Hamilton and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
In 1912 President William Taft created the Children's Bureau to "investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people." Taft appointed Julia Lathrop, a member of the Hull House settlement, as the chief of the bureau. Over the next nine years Lathrop directed research into the dangers of child labour.
Alice Hamilton was one of those involved in this research and she provided evidence that industrial toxic substances, such as lead, nitrous fumes and viscose rayon, were causing serious side effects including mental illness, loss of vision, paralysis and sometimes death.
In 1916 Congress made its first effort to control child labour by passing the Keating-Owen Act. The legislation forbade the transportation among states of products of factories, shops or canneries employing children under 14 years of age, of mines employing children under 16 years of age, and the products of any of these employing children under 16 who worked at night or more than eight hours a day. In 1918 the Supreme Court ruled that the Keating-Owen Act was unconstitutional.
After the Supreme Court ruled that the Keating-Owen Act was unconstitutional, Congress passed a Second Child Labor Law. This levied a tax of ten per cent on the net profits of factories employing children under the age of 14, and of mines and quarries employing children under the age of 16. This legislation was declared unconstitutional as a result of the Drexel Furniture Company case in 1922.
Grace Abbott, who had replaced Julia Lathrop as head of the Children's Bureau in 1921, advocated that the only way this problem could be solved was by a change in the Constitution. In 1924 Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution giving itself the right to regulate child labour under 16 years of age. However, only 28 states ratified this Amendment.
Frances Perkins, who had been recruited to the campaign against child labour after hearing a speech on the subject by Florence Kelley in 1902, was appointed as the Secretary of Labor in 1933 by the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. She therefore became the first woman in American history to hold a Cabinet post. Perkins immediately tried to persuade Roosevelt to bring an end to child labour. However, it was not until June, 1938, that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The main objective of the act was to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers". This included the prohibition of child labour in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce. It set the minimum age at 14 for employment outside of school hours in non-manufacturing jobs, at 16 for employment during school hours, and 18 for hazardous occupations.