The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 5, 2013

Children once had to work to help feed their families

POINT BLANK: By John Blankenship

— By the time most high school students turn 16 years of age, they’re already looking for a part-time job.

They mainly want to work so they can afford an automobile. When they get one, they have to keep on working to pay for it and keep it on the road.

As a result, the job takes a priority over everything else — school, sports, leisure, even sleep.

Working teens are nothing new on the American landscape. But today’s youth work because they choose to do it.

It wasn’t always like that, though. There was a time in this country, not too long ago, when children worked to keep their families from starving.

n n n

By 1900, the year my grandmother was born, child labor in this country was booming. Children worked in factories, mills, canneries, fields and coal mines.

In fact, by 1900, more than 2 million kids under the age of 16 worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. They earned poverty wages. And they worked under dangerous conditions.

Children really were no more than slave laborers. Three-year-old toddlers picked cotton in the fields. Twelve-year-old kids worked the night shift in the factories.

Boys picked slate from coal piles with bleeding fingers, or they descended into the mines every day to dig coal from the pits.

Girls worked in the spinning rooms of cotton mills. They tended dangerous machines in suffocating work environments where they could barely breathe. Cold water sometimes was thrown into their faces to keep them awake during their long work shifts.

Things were pretty grim for children during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Many people were so poor they were forced to send their offspring to work as soon as they could. Parents earned such low wages that families would starve without the money earned by their kids.

And orphans were everywhere, with no place to live and nothing to eat unless they earned money on their own.

Entire immigrant families lived in squalid conditions. Their dilapidated shacks in cannery labor camps were infested with rats and roaches. They were filthy and they had no clean water to drink.

Families drifted from one labor camp to another, as the work drifted from place to place.

Working conditions in both the North and South were pretty much the same.

Work began at approximately 3 a.m. in some cases and didn’t cease until late at night.

Because parents and children worked together, even babies were present at 3 a.m., whether it was picking peaches or strawberries. As soon as a baby could waddle around and use a knife without killing himself, he was put to work in the cannery camps.

For working a 12-hour shift, a child might receive 10 cents a day.

n n n

As time passed, reformers gradually rose up against the child slavery, claiming that children have the right to be just children.

But despite the efforts of the National Child Labor Committee, children continued to fall prey to the harsh working environments: tuberculosis and bronchitis were common.

Children working in mills were half as likely to reach the age of 20 as children who did not have to work.

Possibly the worst cases of child labor were in the coal mines of Appalachia, where boys from 9 to 14 slaved away as mule drivers, runners and gate keepers.

Little boys worked in the coal breakers outside the mines. They removed slate and stone from coal as it poured out of the chutes into giant holding bins beneath them.

Thick black dust billowed everywhere, making it hard to see and even more difficult to breathe.

Because the coal kept flowing from the chutes into the bins, quite often boys slipped into the stream of coal beneath their feet and were smothered to death or mangled.

As soon as a boy was 12, he had to leave the breaker and work in the coal mines. Here, explosions killed people, and roofs collapsed on them.

It must have been a lonely, miserable existence to be a child in those days. Maybe kids today don’t have it so bad after all.

n n n

Top of the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: