by Polla Horn
for The Frostburg Express
Loved Ones Lost While Child Labor Legislation Languishes
As early as the 1780s, child labor became an issue in the United States. Throughout the 1800s, the movement continued to pick up steam. A group of reformers, known as the Progressives, wanted to make sure that immigrant children were taken out of factories and mines and placed into schools.
The 1900 U.S. Census indicated that 1.75 million children from 10 to 15 years old worked in some kind of industry. And in 1904, the Progressives formed a National Child Labor Committee.
Even before the committee was formed, Lewis Hine wanted to halt child labor. He had been a victim himself, working in furniture manufacturing as a child. In 1903, Hine bought his first camera and began taking pictures of the deplorable working conditions of children. He traveled to the coal mining fields of Pennsylvania, the factories of New York City and to the cotton mills of South Carolina. He took pictures, talked to the children, listened to their horror stories and documented what he saw and heard.
Like Matthew Brady, whose photographs captured the horrors of the Civil War, and Dorothea Lange, whose 1930s photographs revealed the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees in California labor camps, Hine's camera became a powerful tool. His dedication to the cause shaped social consciousness before the days of television, and his pictures started the wheels of government turning.
By 1911, 30 states had raised their minimum age limits for child labor. Unfortunately, requirements for showing proof of age were very lax, and young children continued to work.
Real change had to come from the federal government. In 1912, the federal government created the Children's Bureau. The Bureau gathered and published information, but child labor continued. Congress pressed on, and in 1916, the Keating-Owen Act was passed. This law stated that products from companies employing children could not be shipped from state to state, nor could they be shipped abroad. This prohibition included coal. The Supreme Court ruled the Keating-Owen Act unconstitutional in 1918, and children continued to work and die in wretched conditions.
In 1929, the United States entered the Great Depression. Three years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. One of his programs was the National Recovery Administration. Children under 16 could not work in manufacturing jobs, and children younger than 18 could not work in dangerous jobs such as logging and mining. Once again, the Supreme Court ruled that this was unconstitutional. Children contined to be exploited.
Congress acted again in 1938, passing the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prevented children under 16 from working in many jobs. The law was challenged, but finally passed through the Supreme Court. The pictures taken by Lewis Hine had helped to turn the tide.
How many young lives were lost between 1780 and 1938? How many grieving families were affected by the callous inactions of government? What help could be afforded those families whose children had to work in order to put food on the table?
Joseph Weir, 14, was killed Feb. 26, 1887, in an accident at Armstrong Mine. He was caught between cars and his arm was torn from the socket, doubled up and squeezed into his side at the ribs. He received medical attention from Dr. Porter of Lonaconing, Dr. Parson of Piedmont, and Dr. Clymer of Cross, West Virginia. He lingered near death for several days before finally expiring. He was buried in Philos Cemetery. (The Annual Report of the Mine Inspector.)
Monday morning, July 2, 1887, James Brode, 14, was working in the mine of J. B. Hansel and was struck by a falling bench prop. The injuries caused his death several hours later. He was the son of Henry Brode, and Althea V. (Hansel) Brode. (Frostburg Mining Journal.)
Peter Eisel died at his home here, Old Consolidation Mines, Wednesday, April 1, 1891, age 14 years. He was injured about the head several months prior by a falling prop, an accident to which his untimely death was attributed. (Frostburg Mining Journal.)
These are stories of three more boys whose lives could have been spared, whose families could have raised their sons, if child labor laws had been enacted and enforced.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor our Georges Creek Valley miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
P.O. Box 765
Frostburg, MD, 21532
Contact Polla Horn at jph68@verizon,net
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
if you have a story of your own to tell. Be on the lookout for more "Miner Recollections" in the coming weeks.