by Jennifer Watts
How would you feel if you did not have to go to school today? Excited? Upset? What if I told you that instead of school you had to go to work? This was true for thousands of Tennessee children in the past. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that compulsory education has been law. For hundreds of years, children played important roles in the survival of the family. Children worked in a variety of jobs. They worked on family farms, were apprentices learning a trade, or earned money at local businesses.
Tennessee is an agriculture state. Farming has been important since before it was even a state. Families were often larger back then. A bigger family meant more children who could help with the work. Depending on their age, children were given jobs they could do. At the age of 5, they started doing chores on the farm. Older boys worked in the fields tending crops and animals. Older girls helped cook, clean, make clothes, and care for younger siblings. Children worked from sunup to sundown just like their parents.
Plow, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Children were also apprenticed to tradesmen, people who worked at a specific job, like carpenters, blacksmiths, and printers. Parents who could not afford to take care of their big families often sent one or two children to be an apprentice. This was only an option for boys.
Parents would sign a contract with a tradesman. Then the boy would move in with him and the tradesman took care of him while teaching him how to do a certain job. That way when the boy got older, he could then do the job on his own.
Later, children would also start working in factories like textile mills. The mill owners used children because they were small and fast. They were also cheaper to hire than adults. Girls worked as “spinners” who made thread. Boys worked as “doffers” who replaced the full spools of thread with empty ones. They could quickly move from one side of the mill to the other. Their small hands could fit into the machines to replace parts. They worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. The money they earned went to their parents.
Elk Cotton Mill in Fayetteville, Tennessee in 1910 by Lewis Hine, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Knitting Machine used in Englewood, Tennessee, Tennessee State Musem Collection.
Children climbing on machines by Lewis Hine in 1909, Library of Congress.
Tennessee children also worked in coal mines. This was another job for only boys. It was dusty, smelly, and hard work. They worked as “trappers”. They got the full coal cars in and out of the mine. They also worked as “breakers”. Their job was to break up coal. It was said that the dust could get so thick that they couldn’t see what they were doing.
Young boys working at the Coal Creek Mine in East Tennessee in 1910 by Lewis Hine, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Hardhat used in Dunlap, Tennessee, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
People believed child labor helped the family. In 1870, one out of every eight children worked. In 1900, the number was one out of every five children. Being “big enough” and the family’s need of money sent many children to factories and coal mines. Unfortunately, many children were hurt while working. Sometimes they lost fingers or hands in machines. Sometimes the jobs turned out to be deadly. Child coal miners also had trouble breathing because of the coal dust they had inhaled over time. It was because of these dangers that many people began to want child labor banned or made illegal.
By the early 1900s several laws had been changed limiting the age of when a child could work. This fight was often led by women, especially mothers. In 1906, the first child labor law was introduced in Congress. It was not until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act ended child labor. Children had to go to school instead of work in the factories or mines. It was the beginning of children going to school the way you know it today.
Compulsory - required by law
Apprentice(s) - a person learning a skill from an expert.
Contract - a legal agreement.
Textile Mills - a factory where cloth/textiles are made.
Illegal - against the law.
How old was a child when they started working on farms?
What year did child labor end in the United States?
How would you feel if you had to work but could not keep the money you earned?
Why do you think people pushed for kids to go to school after sending them to work became illegal?
Interview and ask your parents or grandparents when they first got a job and what it was like for them. What are some similarities and differences between your parents’ first job and your grandparents’ first jobs?
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.