With the coming of industrialization in Europe and the United States, the implied right of abuse was transferred to the factory, where orphaned or abandoned children as young as five worked sixteen hours a day. In many cases irons were riveted around their ankles to bind the children to the machines, while overseers with whips ensured productivity. In England the Factory Act of 1802 stopped this pauper-apprentice work system, but the law did not apply to children who had parents. Those youngsters worked in the mills for twelve hours a day at the mercy of often tyrannical supervisors.
Nonworking hours offered little relief to poor, orphaned, or abandoned children. Dependent children such as these were put into deplorable public poorhouses with adult beggars, thieves, and paupers. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century did the public recognize the terrible abuses that occurred in these almshouses, and major efforts were begun to provide separate housing for children.
During the nineteenth century, middle-class families began to see their children as representative of the family's status. For many of these families, education for the child, rather than labor, became the goal. With this attitude, many of the labor abuses gradually came to an end. Eventually, child labor laws were passed in most industrialized countries to limit the kinds of jobs children could do and the number of hours they could work.
Private Organizations Take Action against Abuse
The first case of child abuse that caught public attention in the United States occurred in 1874. Neighbors of Mary Ellen, a nine-year-old child in New York City, contacted a church social worker, Etta Angell Wheeler, when they heard disturbances from the little girl's tenement ("The Story of Mary Ellen," American Humane Association, http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=wh_mission_maryellen_wheeler [accessed November 23, 2004]).
Upon investigating the child's home, the social worker found her suffering from malnutrition, serious physical abuse, and neglect. Mary Ellen was living with Mary and Francis Connolly. The girl, who was said to be the illegitimate daughter of Mrs. Connolly's first husband, was apprenticed to the couple.
At that time there were laws protecting animals, but no local, state, or federal laws protected children. Consequently, Wheeler turned to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help. The case was presented to the court on the theory that the child was a member of the animal kingdom and therefore entitled to the same protection from abuse that the law gave to animals. The court agreed, and the child, because she was considered an animal, was taken from her brutal foster mother.
In court Mary Ellen related how her foster mother beat her daily with a leather whip and cut her face with scissors. She was not allowed to play with other children and was locked in the bedroom whenever her "mamma" left the house. The court placed the child in an orphanage. She was later adopted by the social worker's family.
The court found Mary Connolly guilty of assault and battery for felonious assault with scissors and for beatings that took place during 1873 and 1874. She was sentenced to one year of hard labor in a penitentiary.
Mary Ellen Wilson's case led to the founding of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) in 1875. The first child protective agency in the world, the NYSPCC continues in the twenty-first century to work for the best interests of children. Similar societies were soon organized in other U.S. cities. By 1922, fifty-seven societies for the prevention of cruelty to children and 307 other humane societies had been established to tend to the welfare of children. After the federal government began intervening in child welfare, the number of these societies declined.
The Beginnings of Federal Protection for Children
In 1900 the U.S. Census found that about two million American children, representing 18.3% of children ages ten to fifteen, were working in mills, farms, factories, and on city streets all over the country. As a result of this finding, a private organization, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), was established in 1904 to work for child labor reforms. The committee hired Lewis Hine (1874–1940) to photograph and write about the working conditions of child laborers, some as young as three years of age, across the country.
It was also during this time that many concerned people lobbied for the creation of a federal agency dedicated solely to promoting the welfare of children. Starting in 1906 and for the next six years, legislators introduced bills proposing such an agency. In 1909 the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children under President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) recommended that Congress pass legislation to create the Children's Bureau. It was not until 1912 that the bill became law under President William Howard Taft (1857–1930).
The Children's Bureau promoted the passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 675), the first federal law regulating child labor. The act prohibited the interstate sale of products from any mine made by children under the age of sixteen, from any cannery, factory, and shop made by children under the age of fourteen, and from any business employing children under the age of sixteen who worked at night or more than eight hours during the day. The law did not cover youngsters employed in agriculture and domestic work. In 1918, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hammer v. Dagenhart (247 U.S. 251), found the law unconstitutional. According to the Court, the law was not about regulating interstate commerce; it was designed to regulate states' manufacturing conditions over which Congress had no right to interfere. It was not until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (52 Stat. 1060), that the federal government started regulating child labor, among other provisions. The law established sixteen as the minimum age for child labor and eighteen for hazardous jobs (The Our Documents Initiative, "Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916: Document Info," http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=59# [accessed November 23, 2004]).