Although children have formed a part of the workforce in all nations’ histories since time immemorial, the demand for child labor increased exponentially during the late nineteenth century in America. According to the course textbook, children under the age of fifteen comprised approximately 20% of the total workforce in the U.S. by the turn of the twentieth century (1900). Children worked long hours, earned less than adults for the same work, rarely went to school, and developed health problems. Children as young as five years old worked in a variety of industries, from coal-mining, factory work, and farming to newspaper delivery.
Most newspaper boys, called newsies, were orphans and runaways between the ages of six and fifteen. When newspaper owners William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, two of the richest and most powerful men in the U.S., raised the price of their papers at the expense of the newsies in 1898, the newsies retaliated. Thousands of newspaper boys banded together, formed a union, and decided to strike. They stopped selling papers for two weeks in 1899, and demanded shorter hours and better pay. Hearst and Pulitzer initially laughed off the strike. However, they stopped laughing when their newspaper sales quickly decreased by two-thirds during the strike. Hearst and Pulitzer offered the newsies an accepted compromise: the ability to return unsold papers at the end of the day and get their money back. New York Governor and future U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, who eventually championed child labor reform, took notice, along with concerned reformers. However, Congress did not pass federal legislation to stop child labor abuses until 1938.
1. Do you think the newsboys’ story is one of triumph or loss? Why or why not?
2. Why do you think the federal government took so long to reform child labor?
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