Politics

Then Again: Child labor was a fact of Vermont life in the 1800s

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This iconic photograph of Addie Card (often misidentified as Addie Laird) working at the North Pownal Manufacturing Co. cotton mill in 1910 was featured on a U.S. Postage Stamp celebrating child labor reforms. Card, who was 12 years old when the photograph was taken, began working at the mill when she was 8.

At the end of a long argument among four men over who had the toughest childhood, one tops the others by claiming, “I had to get up in the morning at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay (the) mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.’” 

You might recognize the line. It’s from a classic Monty Python skit in which exaggeration drives the humor. But, as in all good comedy, the sketch has some grounding in reality. The men were riffing on the brutal facts of life for children who once toiled in English factories. 

As in England, the economy of the mid-19th century also redefined many Vermonters’ lives, including those of children. As factories and mills grew, many Vermont children became more than their parents’ pride or an extra set of hands to help around the farm; they became wage earners.

Childhood in Vermont could mean working grindingly long hours in dangerous factories for meager wages. Their paltry pay provided their families with much-needed income. But despite the economic benefits of having children work, reports of factory conditions shocked Vermonters and spurred state lawmakers to intervene in ways that ran contrary to their generations-long practice of refusing to regulate businesses. 

In Vermont, as in the rest of the nation, children had always worked on family farms. The idea that another child was an extra mouth to feed didn’t really come into play. From a young age, children were able to do more than simply earn their keep. The prevalence of large families can be attributed to the dictates of religion or the fear of high infant mortality, but it also had an economic basis. Many saw children as a path to prosperity. 

When children left the farm and joined the workforce, however, the push to maximize productivity led to excesses that couldn’t be ignored. 

Not that the Vermont Legislature acted quickly. Lawmakers didn’t address the issue of child labor until 1867, when they limited the hours children could work in factories. Thus, Vermont became the last New England state to regulate child labor. 

Thirty years earlier, lawmakers had voted that they had no business policing the issue. At the time, the Legislature followed a strictly conservative philosophy that control should be in local hands on every issue possible, including the regulation of child labor. That left town officials in charge. 

The Legislature offered only vague guidelines to follow. The law stated that “it shall be the duty of the selectmen and overseers of the poor within their respective towns in this state to examine into the treatment and condition of any minors employed in any manufacturing establishment” and determine whether the “education, morals, health, food or clothing” of child workers was “unreasonably neglected.” 

Local officials were also to decide whether the children were treated with “improper” harshness or forced to work at “unseasonable hours or times, or in any unreasonable manner.” If an employer were found to be treating child laborers poorly, officials were instructed to “admonish” them. In extreme cases, officials could remove children from the workplace and find them new jobs, where it was hoped they would be treated better. 

The Legislature was moved to act in 1867 after hearing testimony that in some mills children toiled 10 to 14 hours a day, averaging about 12 hours. This testimony came from the mill owners themselves, according to historian and lawyer Paul Gillies in an essay in the book “The Mills at Winooski Falls.” 

A lawmaker from Colchester told his colleagues of an extreme example. At the Winooski Woolen Factory, he said, between 75 and 100 children below the age of 12 were forced to work 14 hours a day for low wages, and their bosses ignored their pleas for fewer hours. The head of the factory testified that he employed no one under the age of 12 and he’d never heard any complaints about long hours. The Colchester representative backed off his claims. The legislative committee that was studying a possible child labor law ultimately declared that no regulation was needed. 

But the General Assembly felt differently. Lawmakers, perhaps prompted by abuses elsewhere, passed a bill making it illegal to employ anyone under the age of 10 or to have children under the age of 15 work more than 10 hours a day. (Mind you, in those days it was a six-day workweek.) Violators faced a $50 fine. Vermont had its first child-labor law. 

It was hardly the last. Over the coming years, the Legislature continued to whittle away at the number of hours children could work and increase the age at which they could start their labors.

 

The next push came in the early years of the 20th century. It happened during what has become known as the Progressive Era, when a movement developed to address the political, social and economic issues faced by the underrepresented, including women, laborers and immigrants. 

The Vermont Federation of Women’s Clubs took a lead role in addressing the issue of child labor, along with the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont and the Vermont chapter of the National Child Labor Committee, which included women among its founders. The organizations studied the conditions of child laborers and prodded state lawmakers to act. 

This young messenger for Western Union told photographer Lewis Hine that he was 13 and had been working the job for a year and a half. His shift ran from noon until 10:30 p.m. Library of Congress

The Legislature responded with a series of laws. In 1904, lawmakers raised the minimum age from 10 to 12 years old for children working in mills and other manufacturing operations or as messengers. Additionally, children under 15 could not work later than 8 p.m. 

If the Vermont Legislature needed further impetus to act on the issue of child labor, photographer and activist Lewis Hine provided it. For the previous several years, Hine had been photographing child laborers, many of them below the legal age, at factories in the Northeast for the National Child Labor Committee. In 1910, he turned his lens on Vermont. 

Hine’s photographs of disheveled children outside mills in Pownal, Bennington and other towns shocked and shamed Vermonters. 

Hine took the memorable photograph of 12-year-old mill worker Addie Card, which in 1998 became the basis of a U.S. postage stamp that celebrated child labor reforms. (For years, Card’s last name was thought to be Laird. Hine recorded the name correctly, but the ink faded and was later misread.) 

Vermonters formed a local chapter of the National Child Labor Committee in 1911. One of its first acts was to study children’s working conditions. The committee’s report included the story of a 15-year old who worked 13-hour days for more than a month, but was fired for missing a shift that started at 2 a.m. on a Sunday. 

The Legislature responded in 1913 by further curbing children’s work schedules, allowing a maximum of nine hours a day and 50 hours a week for children under 16, and 11 hours a day and 58 hours a week for 16- and 17-year-olds. Children’s work hours were getting shorter. 

Today, children under the age of 16 can still work 48 hours a week, but few do. State laws now promise kids an easier life than Vermont children once knew. And all that these children have given up is the prospect of one day being able to swap true stories about how tough things once were.

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