B. Wood: Upon the Altar of Work

Upon the Altar of Work. Child Labor and the Rise of a New American Sectionalism

Wood, Betsy
The Working Class in American History
Anzahl Seiten
XI, 243 S.
£ 20.99; € 27,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Nina Schneider, Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Universität Duisburg-Essen

Many scholars have analyzed the US child labor reform movement through the lens of key institutions like the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) or the Children’s Bureau, or through the biographies of leading reformers like Florence Kelley.[1] Others have traced the development of anti-child labor legislation and policies[2] or the socio-cultural evolution of the concept of the child - from an object of economic to an object of sentimental value.[3] Betsy Wood’s book offers a novel framework for the history of the US anti-child labor movement: the child labor debate as a continuation of US sectionalism.

The US child labor reform movement, Wood proposes, was grounded on traditional values of “familial authority” and the “moral value of free labor” (in contrast to slavery) (p. 2) and must be read as an enduring legacy of sectionalism long after emancipation. Besides offering a new framework for the child labor reform history, she also seeks to contribute to the large body of studies discussing the legacy of US slavery. Wood posits that one connection has heretofore been overlooked: the nexus between the antislavery and anti-child labor debates. She thus connects child labor to two usually separated fields: the history of child labor reform and the history of slavery.

In contrast to most other studies on child labor that take child apprenticeships during the colonial period or the English Poor Laws as their starting point, Wood starts with the climax of antislavery debates in the 1850s and investigates anti-child labor “ideas” and “on-the-ground politics” until the 1930s. One of the study’s goals is to explain why the progressive reform movement’s proposed constitutional child labor amendments of the 1910s and 1920s failed. It does not seek to offer novel reasons for the demise of US child labor.[4]

The book is structured chronologically: Chapter 1 shows how in the 1850s Northern reformers promoted the free labor ideology as an antidote to Southern slavery and child poverty. It draws on Charles Loring Brace’s child replacement program, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), which championed farm labor as a doorway to “socially mobile, independent male citizens” (p. 9) and was later harshly criticized for exploiting children under slave-like conditions. Chapter 2 focuses on post-abolition disputes about free labor principles and child labor. Chapter 3 shows a shift in the free labor debate in the context of industrialization due to the massive use of white children’s labor in the textile industry. Northern and Southern reformers alike now started to criticize child labor fearing “white racial deterioration” (p. 4). Chapter 4 spotlights the beginning of the 20th century, when the anti-child labor movement was at its peak. It traces how the child labor reform movement started to champion federal authority rather than state-by-state action. Wood also shows the growing collaboration with the Social Gospel movement and the increasing use of religious jargon (e. g. the framing of federal intervention as “Christian duty”). In the context of WWI and with a growing faith in the modern bureaucratic state, sectionalist tensions declined. Chapter 5 illuminates the 1920s struggle about the Child Labor Amendment to the US constitution, which failed eventually. The conclusion outlines the run-up to the 1937 Fair Labor Standard Act, the first nation-wide law to regulate child labor in the US, albeit restricted to mines and factories (p. 149–52).

Overall, this is a highly interesting and novel reading of the child labor reform movement as being deeply imprinted by the debate about slavery. Wood vividly elucidates the different actors involved in the debate – the government, industrialists, charity and reform experts, and parents – and traces their opposing language and arguments. While not entirely new, one of the book’s strengths is to detail the relevance of race (and gender) in the child labor debates from the 1850s to the 1930s. Wood shows how Edgar Garner Murphy tried to convince Southern industrialists to curb child labor by arguing that white child labor exploitation would harm the white race. Wood demonstrates very clearly how, overall, calls for white unity – the duty to safeguard white children from harmful industrial work – failed to solve sectional differences.

Wood also delineates the internal frictions within the child labor movement itself, in particular, within the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). While some NCLC members like Murphy advocated for state-by-state action, the NCLC leadership headquartered in New York City increasingly privileged a federal approach to child labor regulation. Again, the schism is not new in itself. Yet, Wood offers a thick description of this conflict and draws on new sources. For example, she cites a letter written by Samuel Lindsay trying to personally persuade Murphy to stay. Critics, however, may argue that the internal conflicts within the NCLC are too mono-causally traced to US sectionalism, as there where many other conflict lines.[5]

While Wood convincingly shows that early 20th century campaigns against child labor were impacted by the “sectional crisis over slavery” (p. 2), this reader is not convinced that sectionalism was its one and only root. Child labor reform was certainly marked by US sectionalist thought and politics, but it was not a simple continuation of it. At times it reads as if the author tries too hard to make a bold and coherent overall argument. The question of racialization and child labor could have been taken in further directions. This would have also helped blurring the North-South dichotomy very apparent in the study. No word is, for example, mentioned of Florence Kelley’s engagement in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), although she – as a Northern “progressive” reformer pressing for federal child labor laws – was a founding and life-long active board member of the NAACP.[6] The NAACP is even completely absent from the book’s index.

The study also lacks a more systematic, long-durée debate about agricultural child labor and sectionalism. Agricultural child labor is covered in Chapter 1 and there are a few references to the defense of farm child labor in the South, but like most of the literature, it focuses on factory child labor. Yet, agricultural labor has played a major part in the US child labor history (and history of free and unfree labor). Agricultural labor has only been regulated in 1974 and persists – in its hazardous forms – in the US today.[7] Wood’s monocausal explanatory framework of child labor reform and US sectionalism (despite ending in the 1930s) is weak to explain why Chicano children have been massively employed on US farms, mainly as sharecroppers.

Lastly, it would have been highly elucidating had the author compared the racialized US child labor reform debates with those in other nations and especially post-abolitionist countries. “Saving the race” arguments have been made in many countries, not only with regard to the white population, and not only to delegitimize child labor. A comparison with Brazil, for instance, would have shown that race protection arguments were paradoxically used to both ends – to legitimize child labor (e.g. farm labor as healthy and thus strengthening the Brazilian race; the Brazilian race as more robust than other nations) and to delegitimize child labor (infant mortality etc.). A more generalized discussion of child labor and race may have enriched and added further complexity to the otherwise very welcome and highly recommended study.

[1] Walter I. Trattner, Crusade for the Children. A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America, Chicago 1970; Kriste Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood”: the U.S. Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912–46, Urbana 1997; Kathryn K. Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: the Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830–1900, New Haven 1995.
[2] Hugh Hindman, Child Labor. An American History, Armonk 2002; John A. Fliter, Child Labor in America. The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children, Lawrence 2018.
[3] V. A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child. The Changing Social Value of Children, New York 1985.
[4] Like, for instance, Schmidt who spotlighted the vital role of litigations against child labor employers for the demise of US child labor. James D. Schmidt, Industrial Violence and the Legal Origins of Child Labor, Cambridge 2010.
[5] For further conflict lines within the NCLC see, for example, Sklar, Kelley and the Nation’s Work.
[6] Herbert Aptheker, Du Bois on Florence Kelley, in: Social Work 11, 4 (1966), pp. 98–100.
[7] Hugh Hindman, Unfinished Business. The Persistence of Child Labor in the US, in: Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 18 (2006), pp. 125–131.