Monday, September 20, 2010

The Face of Child Labor

As September rolls around, many of our kids head back to school. It's a sometimes exciting, sometimes sad time - who wants to leave behind the beach, freedom, and Popsicles for the classroom? But a scholar friend of ours recently unearthed a pamphlet that shows the alternative to school for many Lower East Side children at the turn of the century: work. And not house work or farm chores - more like "sew buttons on 100 coats before bed."

The chart below, showing “Children Found at Work in Certain New York City Tenements October, 1906-April, 1907,” was published in 1908 in a pamphlet by the New York Child Labor Committee, National Child Labor Committee, and the Consumers' League.

As you can see, the chart shows that 558 of the children surveyed were working, while only 491 were attending school.

Even more interesting than this chart to me were the pamphlet's photographs, which immediately caught my attention.

The Museum’s Piecing it Together tour focuses on immigrants at work and how labor affected their lives. Both families we “visit” on the tour, the Levines and Rogarshevskys, were connected to the garment industry; the Levines ran a garment shop out of their home, the very thing the Consumer’s League was attempting to stamp out with pamphlets like this one.

As I stand in the Levine apartment on my tours, I find that some parts of the shop are easy to imagine. The crowded conditions, the low light, and the heat of the apartments in summer. I’ve felt these conditions myself working in 97 Orchard Street this year, our hottest summer on record!

But as many times as I’ve given the tour, I still have trouble imagining that children were the workers and often faced the terrible conditions in the garment industry alongside adults.

In their pamphlet, the Child Labor Committee makes it painfully clear that these child workers are not leading the kind of carefree lives we imagine children should. Most captions remind the reader how young the children are or what they should be doing instead of work. For example, the caption on the image below reads, “Work instead of play after school for these little flower-makers.”

Child labor was one of the facts of Lower East Side life, often a necessity to make ends meet in poor families. Illuminating this for visitors and helping younger guests contrast it to their lives today is a powerful way to demonstrate how much has changed for the children in our neighborhood.

Sometimes it's not enough simply to say that some of the people Harris Levine employed might have been as young as ten. Actually seeing the young children hard at work in these photographs, and being reminded of what more fortunate children would be doing instead, illuminates so much more. 

Even though things have changed here, the sweatshop has moved elsewhere, and a new generation of children are experiencing similar conditions in other locations around the world. At the Tenement Museum we also strive to draw these contemporary connections, reminding folks that what you see below is still happening. The Child Labor Committee strove to stamp out child labor with promotional materials like this pamphlet. What tactics do you see reformers using to stop child labor today?

- Posted by Educator Ellysheva Zeira, with thanks to Sarah Litvin

Special thanks to Marjorie Feld, a professor at Babson College and historian of the Progressive era, who is currently working with the Museum on a grant and sent us this pamphlet.

Read more about child labor in New York State, 1910-1922, in another report.

IMAGE CREDITS: Photos taken by Consumers' League, National Child Labor Committee, and New York Child Labor Committee, 1908. Pamphlet in collection of Harvard University Library. This material is owned, held, or licensed by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Contact Library for further copyright, reprint, or distribution information.


  1. Nicely done; thanks for the link to the New York Child Labor Committee pamphlet--we'd never read that before.

    There's an image that really hits home for us about child labor. In "The Children of the Poor," Jacob Riis has a photograph of "Little Susie at Her Work" (pasting labels onto pocket flasks). As Riis notes: "[her hands were] so deft and swift that even the flash could not catch her moving arm, but lost it altogether."

    You can see a poor reproduction of the image at

  2. Thanks for the comment and for the link. Seeing labor in home workshops is definitely the most intriguing for us at the Museum. For pure visual oomph, I've always found the Lewis Hine photos of the children in the mills and the mines the most heartbreaking, as well as the most humanizing -
    - Kate

  3. please consider this article on child labor


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