“Only Your White-Faced, Sunken-Chested, Curved-Backed Little Christians”: Immigration, Race, and the Nationalization of the Child Labor Problem in the United States, 1904–16

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Roosevelt Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Julia Bowes, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
At the turn of the twentieth century, rates of industrial child labor were spiraling in the United States. The 1900 census revealed that between two to three million children in the United States were “toiling for their daily bread,” or about twenty percent of all children in the nation. In the late nineteenth century, the influx of twelve million immigrants from eastern and southern Europe meant that child labor had been perceived primarily as an immigrant problem in the industrial Northeast. Reformers in that region had successfully pushed for state regulations to limit child participation in the workforce, claiming the “educational and legal forces of the state” were necessary to enforce the rights of the child and safeguard the future citizenship of the nation against the foreign-born parent. But after the Civil War, the South rapidly industrialized as well. In 1880, there were 161 textile mills in the South. By 1904, the number had reached over 900. As child labor spread to the South, the native-born white child became the face of the problem nationally.

This paper considers how ideas about race, ethnicity and citizenship intersected in the national movement to end child labor in the United States. Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, a national movement spearheaded by the National Child Labor Committee, grew to demand the federal government act to end child labor. The paper analyzes that campaign to elucidate the role that racialized ideas about childhood innocence, citizenship and “race suicide” played in justifying the expansion of national government in the Progressive era.