The Story: Reform

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When the child can do the man's job or the woman's job, the man or woman must lose the job or take the wages that are paid the child. There is no escape from that conclusion.

Alexander J. McKelway, Child Wages in the Cotton Mills: Our Modern Feudalism, 1913

School for mill village chldren in Lancaster, SC
Where Mill Children Go to School In Lancaster, S.C. - Enrollment
163, attendance usually about 100."
- Child Labor in the Carolinas, 1909

Almost as soon as the cotton mill industry began booming in the 1880’s, critics began speaking out against child labor. Industrial unions like the Knights of Labor and the National Union of Textile Workers protested the use of child mill workers, who would work for lower wages and therefore drive down wages for adult workers. Mill owners often insisted on “equal pay for equal work”, and paid their adult employees the same wages they paid the child employees.

One of the strongest objections to child labor was that it took from children their chance at an education. Before education was made compulsory, meaning all children legally had to attend school, many child mill workers had almost no schooling or completed only the third or fourth grade before beginning to work. A related objection was that child labor created a population of citizens who were uneducated and often illiterate, but who would also be participating in American democracy. “When it comes to the people's ruling us by their votes, electing our governors and presidents, initiating and vetoing legislation, taxing our incomes, we grow mightily concerned over the intelligence and independence of the electorate. We do not like to trust our interests now and the lives and fortunes of our children to a mass of voters who have been deprived of all opportunity for an education, who have been held in feudalistic bondage, who have been embittered by the robbery of their childhood,” wrote child labor reformer Alexander J. McKelway in 1913.

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