The Story: Reform

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The authorized agent of the Department of Labor is hereby empowered to suspend any certificate for the lawful employment of a child under 16 years of age when it appears that such child is working under conditions that may injure his health, or morals, or endanger his physical safety.

Rules and Regulations of the Department of Labor Relative to the Employment of Children Under Sixteen Years of Age - NC Dept of Labor, 1933

Rules and Regulations of the Department of Labor Relative to the Employment of Children Under Sixteen Years of Age - 1933

These efforts began to change the tide of public opinion against child labor, and in 1916 the Keating-Owen Child Labor bill was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. This bill said that the federal government could regulate child labor. Previous laws against child labor only existed at the state level and were rarely enforced. The Keating-Owen bill was overturned two years later, however, when the Supreme Court ruled that it limited state powers to regulate labor and exceeded federal authority.

Child labor began to decrease in the 1920’s, due more to changes in the cotton industry than to the efforts of social reformers. New technology eliminated the need for many workers, and new fabrics and techniques made millwork more difficult. Experienced adult workers were needed for this work, and the use of child workers declined.

In 1933, North Carolina enacted laws regulating the use of child labor in industries such as cotton manufacture. The Department of Labor stated that “no girl under 14 years of age shall be employed or permitted to work in any mill, factory, cannery, workshop, manufacturing or mercantile establishment, laundry, bakery, place of amusement, or other place of business set out in Regulation 1 above or in messenger or delivery service, or at any form of street trades” and boys between the ages of 12 and 14 had to obtain special permission to work in those industries. The laws also limited work hours, stating “no child under 16 years of age may be employed or permitted to work in the places of employment set out in Regulation 1 above for more than eight (8) hours in any one day and forty-eight (48) hours in any one week”. Although child labor had begun to decline without legislation, these laws effectively ended it in the cotton mills of North Carolina.

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