Children at Work and at School
As factories grew, owners needed more workers. They looked to children. Children could be paid less than adults. Their small size also let them do certain jobs that were too delicate for adults. At the time, there were no successful federal laws that banned child labor in the United States.
Girls in the Workforce
The most common industrial employment for girls between ages seven and fourteen was the textile mill. Girls could earn between 80 cents and $1.40 per week. The money helped their families buy food and other necessities.
Girls often lived in a boardinghouse, where a matron was in charge. Five or six girls shared a bedroom. Two or three girls might share one bed, and many girls shared one bathroom. Workdays were
12 hours long, six days a week. Many different jobs were available, depending on the size of the girl.
Young girls were more common than young boys in the textile mills. Their small size made it easy for them to change spinners or bobbins, which were used to gather new thread. They replaced spindles and tied broken threads. Children could slip in between machines to fix small parts with their small fingers. The jobs were dangerous. Most machines lacked safety features to prevent fingers from getting caught in their mechanisms. Breathing in lint from the cotton all day could cause a fatal disease called brown lung.
Boys in the Workforce
While girls were more likely to find work in textile mills, many boys found other jobs that were just as difficult. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, boys commonly worked in coal mines. The mines provided coal for steamboats, railroads, and factories.
Boys working in coal mines did a number of tasks. Boys as young as seven worked as “breaker boys.” They crouched while breaking coal from rock for up to 12 hours a day. Older boys took care of the mules that Page 29 | Top of Articlehauled the coal. Others operated ventilation doors that kept toxic gases from building up in the mines. Explosions, poisonous gas leaks, and other accidents were common. Lead and dust from coal and rock were also dangerous. Many children from poor families worked up to 90 hours a week to help support their families.
Some adults believed all children should have the right to attend school and should not have to work. Many people believed children should not work in factories. One of the first public schools opened in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1808. Many one-room schoolhouses followed. Students of all ages traveled by foot or in horse-drawn buggies to learn in one of the new schoolhouses. The youngest students
received their lessons in the morning before they became too tired. Students also helped care for their schoolhouse. They carried firewood to keep it warm in winter, cleaned it as needed, and helped repair the structure as it aged.