Child Labor

From Ohio History Central

The use of children as laborers in Ohio's agricultural and industrial occupations occurred from the very beginning of the state's history. American Indian societies commonly relied on children to assist in hunting, the growing of crops, and other tasks. European farmers continued this tradition, relying on children to assist in the fields and in other chores. Once factories and mines arrived in Ohio, children commonly provided a cheap source of labor for these establishments. Business owners routinely paid children one half of a grown man's salary. The employers' rationale was that children could not work as hard or as fast as adult men, but the children commonly had the same jobs and expectations as the adults did. Mine owners especially sought out children as workers. There were two principal reasons for this. First, mine owners paid less than most other employers during the nineteenth century, making their jobs unattractive to adults. Second, the owners commonly had to extract mineral wealth, like coal and iron ore, by digging holes into the earth. The size of the worker generally determined the size of the hole. Since they were much smaller than adults, children required smaller holes, allowing the miners to extract primarily the coal and iron ore and not unnecessary rocks to make the hole larger.

By the early 1850s, many Ohioans came to oppose child labor. In 1852, Ohio was one of the first states to implement limits on the number of hours that children could work. Ohio also prohibited children younger than twelve from working in mines. In 1905, Progressive reformers convinced the state to prohibit boys less than fifteen years of age and girls less than sixteen years of age from working during the school year. Many employers ignored this law. Some families, especially those struggling economically, violated this legislation as well. These families sent their children to nearby states, like Kentucky and West Virginia, where labor laws were less stringent.

In 1921, the Ohio enacted the Bing Act, which required children to attend school until they were eighteen years old. This act also required children to be at least sixteen years of age to hold jobs in several different industries. The state government hoped that, by requiring children to remain in school until the age of eighteen, child labor would be greatly reduced if not ended entirely. Progressive reformers also emphasized the need for education for people to be able to lead productive and successful lives. In the Progressives' minds, this legislation helped provide Ohio's children with the opportunity to succeed in life.

Many Ohioans also supported an amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing child labor. An amendment was proposed in the United States Congress during the 1920s and again in the early 1930s, but many Americans, including numerous Ohioans, feared that this legislation would prevent children from being able to help parents on farms or in family-owned businesses. Although the amendment never passed, the Bing Act and other pieces of state legislation began to protect Ohio's children from exploitation in the workforce.

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