Winter 2022      Volume 51, Number 1

The “Bates Shop”: Fishing for Primary Source Documents: Exploring the History of Child Labor
By David Bates

Document: Column  

Introductory Paragraph:  Incredibly small are the fingers that work along with those of the rest of the family,” noted journalist Lewis Hine in 1909, “and if the child is too small to sit up, [he or she] is held on the lap of the worker or stowed away in boxes near at hand” (Hine, 1909). The vivid, jarring horror of these words—of children and their “incredibly small” fingers working in heavy industry (a cannery, in this case), of parents forced to bring infants to work and stow them in boxes—is accentuated by the dull, matter-of-fact manner in which they are presented. Yet the tone is sadly appropriate as child labor was once commonplace in America. By 1910, some two million children under the age of 15 worked for wages in industrial jobs (National Archives, 2017). Child workers were treated like adults—they worked as many as 12 or 14 hours per day and often suffered disabling injuries from machines or debilitating diseases from fumes and smoke. But unlike adults, their work came at the cost of school, play, and other normal childhood pursuits, leaving many child workers malnourished and stunted physically, intellectually, and socially.

Such a morbid topic may seem inappropriate for a classroom, but if handled with care and tact, a lesson on child labor can be illuminating for students. Discussing children as historical figures allows children to relate to history more authentically than they could if the “main characters” are presidents, generals, and other major figures. In particular, viewing images of child workers and reading their words all but demands that students compare historical situations to their own, making connections between past and present. From the teacher’s perspective, perhaps the greatest advantage of such a lesson is that child labor is among the most extensively documented social phenomena in American history, with primary sources readily available. This column will discuss some examples of such primary sources and how they might be used in the classroom.


Page Numbers:   63-67

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