Children at Work in the 20th Century
The little servants were everywhere . . . until 1938, when President Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act included some of their concerns, American children were subjected to all manner of exploitation, service and labor, unprotected by any national laws. It’s sometimes said that, had the Great Depression not made adults willing to work for a child’s wage, reform may not have happened even then. Before Roosevelt’s Act, a 1916 national child labor law went into effect to block interstate transport of goods if underage laborers were involved in production, but it was struck down in 1918. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to protect children, but it was blocked and eventually dropped. Children were fair game in America in the early 1900s, both in their families and in society.
“Frequently beginning their working lives before their tenth birthday, children worked in hazardous jobs at mines, mills, factories, sweatshops, and on farms, with little or no wages. Labor laws did not exist, and the common perception of the ease with which children were manipulated made them targets for a variety of rights violations.”1
While laws protect most children today, their labor remains unregulated in American agriculture. The 1938 federal laws still allow children as young as 12 years old to work unlimited hours before and after school in the ag sector. As a result, as many as 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of America’s harvested food, and they’re sorely underpaid. Some may assume this is an immigration issue, or describes children who work on prosperous family farms, but most of these working children are American citizens who suffer from poverty so intense, they can’t afford to buy the food they harvest.2
My grandmother, Laura, was born in 1906, into a world where children were often seen by many as little servants, small adults expected to work to survive, often in fields or factories. Readers may have seen Laura’s handwriting and read her ledger notes in my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account. Before she was the young housewife recording how to make her own soap from lard and lye, she was the abandoned child left at a Lutheran orphanage in Fremont, Nebraska.
For some orphans in 1911, adoption offered a chance to be part of a family, but this didn’t happen for my grandmother. When she was five years old, she and her sister were placed with different families, and Laura’s didn’t choose to adopt her. They wanted a worker, so in the official census in 1920, she’s recorded as a “boarder” at that family’s address. In truth, she was a hard-worked child servant in a household that looked down on her, even as they provided the bare essentials. A typical Christmas gift was a few yards of cloth for that year’s dress. Her responsibilities included taking care of children not much younger than herself, and she was whipped for their misbehavior. There were no laws to protect children during her childhood, and no loving parents, in her case.
My grandmother’s story, like many stories of the little servants who worked in America, remains a mystery. We’ve never located either of her parents, and we don’t know why her father left her behind, promising to return, and yet, never did so. Family mysteries inspire stories, and my grandmother is the inspiration for Margaret Rose and the little servants, the unwanted children in my new novel, Seven Kinds of Rain, to be released this summer. My grandmother was quieter than Margaret, but surely had as much grit, to survive as she did.
I think readers will like Margaret Rose, who earns the nickname Magpie in the story. She’s smart and takes on all comers. Here’s a little of Maggie’s voice, as she considers the woman she works for, in Seven Kinds of Rain:
“In one carton of books up here, I found Fowles’ New Easy Latin Primer. It teaches a funny language nobody speaks, but it’s a mother to other languages. It has no letter W. Latin is confusing, so I asked my teacher about declensions. She said it’s not a usual question for an eight-year-old girl, but she explained well.
“Trying to forget about Florence, I sit on my mattress to look at the Latin book. My teacher says I’m lucky to have a special talent to remember everything I read and with Latin, I have my own secret language. Maybe for a diary, or if I have a friend someday, we can use it for secrets. To help me feel better, I also found some little swears nobody will understand, but nothing bad enough to send me to hell. Like puter anus, which means rotten old woman but sounds worse. And verres and clunis, hog and buttock.
“Remembering Florence’s red, crying face distracts me from the Latin on the pages. I’m sorry for her and want to forgive the whippings and missed school. The Latin swears help a little, like letting steam out of my hot kettle, but I can only say them in the closet or up here. It doesn’t help that Florence’s little pointy teeth and long nose remind me of a fox, vulpes. If she looked softer, more like a rabbit, lepus, I’d feel more like petting her, and less like trapping her and pelting her out.”
Watch for more information about the world of Seven Kinds of Rain in upcoming posts, with Maggie and her friends, Jack and Kuruk. Then the book comes, in summer, 2016, for you to find yourself in the story.
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- Child photo from Wikipedia, “Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North Pormal [i.e., Pownal] Cotton Mill. Vt.” by Lewis Hine, 1912 – 1913. E. F. Brown – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-01830 This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05282.