THE US rapidly emerged as an industrial giant in the years following its Civil War. Industries such as manufacturing, petroleum refining, steelmaking and mining grew at exponential rates as the country crossed the threshold from being a staple exporter to having a national market economy for the first time. A population explosion of the blue-collar working class was an immediate result. Millions of
newly-arrived immigrants and ex-rural folk journeyed to urban centres in the hope of improved job security and prosperity.
They were often sorely disappointed: most manual jobs required long hours for very little pay, which often meant that every able family member – including children as young as three or four – worked simply to survive.
As a result, child labour was widespread during the industrial revolution, reaching its peak between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1900, more than two million children – mostly immigrants under the age of 16 – were employed in a number of inhumane and life-threatening jobs at textile and flour mills, machine shops, factories and coal mines. Coal, the cornerstone of industrialisation in the US, had become a necessity for everyday living by the 20th century.
Coal provided a cheap and efficient source of power for steam engines, furnaces and forges across the US, as well as encouraging technological innovations in mining, energy consumption and transportation.
However, one of the dark sides of this nation-building industry – the use of ‘breaker boys’ – is truly shocking by today’s standards. Coal breakers were processing plants, primarily in the US state of Pennsylvania, where, between 1800 and the mid-20th century, nearly all the world’s known high-quality anthracite reserves were located. A breaker boy – usually aged between 8 and 12 years – was employed to separate impurities from the coal by hand in the coal breaker. The use of breaker boys began in about 1860. Public condemnation over the practice began in the 1880s, however, this exploitation continued to intensify, with numbers peaking around the early 1900s.
For 10 hours a day, six days a week, breaker boys would sit on wooden seats over chutes and conveyor belts, picking slate and other impurities out of the coal. These children would stop the flow by pressing their feet momentarily into the ‘stream’ moving beneath them before letting the coal move onto the next boy for further processing.
The work was incredibly hazardous. In 1885, sustained public backlash was widespread enough to force the enaction of laws in Pennsylvania that forbade the employment of anyone under the age of 14 from working in the breaker. The law was poorly enforced, however, with many employers forging proof-of-age documentation.
In his report In the Shadow of the Coal Breaker, released in 1909, Secretary for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) Owen R Lovejoy commented on the farcical nature of these early age laws.
“One small borough in the vicinity of Wilkes-Barre yielded in a single afternoon twenty-eight boys wh reluctantly confessed to holding falsified age certificates…One little fellow, who was in terror lest he should give information that would cost him his ‘job’, was just fourteen years old two months ago; nevertheless, he has been working inside the mine a year ‘nippin’ (tending door) after having spent nearly two years in the breaker,” he wrote.
“He had the appearance of an eleven-year-old boy today, being dwarfed and poorly developed.”
Breaker boys were forced to work without gloves so that they could better handle the slick coal but the slate was unforgivably sharp, and they would often leave work with cut and bleeding fingers. Dry coal kicked up so much dust the boys would wear headlamps to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common. Some had fingers amputated by the rapidly moving conveyor belts, while others lost feet or arms as they moved among the machinery and became caught. Many were also crushed to death, and still others were caught by the rush of coal and smothered. Lovejoy provides a detailed and heart-wrenching portrayal of these little coal workers.
“During the first weeks of labour his hands are cut and torn, his nails are broken off, and the pain of handling the sharp stones and slate is intense,” Lovejoy wrote.
“Little Peter had been working during the summer since he was twelve years old, and constantly for two years since he was fourteen. On the second day of March, while working, his arm was caught in the belt of the scraper line of which he was in charge in the breaker, and torn out at the shoulder.”
In The Bitter Cry of Children, published in 1909, author John Spargo described the horrific working conditions of the coal mines in the early 1900s, referring specifically to the plight of the breaker boys.
“According to the census of 1900, there were 25,000 boys under sixteen years of age employed in and around the mines and quarries of the United States,” Spargo wrote.
“In the State of Pennsylvania alone – the State which enslaves more children than any other – there are thousands of little ‘breaker boys’ employed, many of them not more than nine or ten years old.
“From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent backed like old men…I could not do that work and live, but there were boys of ten and twelve
years old doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day,” Spargo wrote.
By 1910, however, the use of breaker boys began to cease due to technological improvements, stricter child labour laws and the enaction of compulsory education laws.
It had largely ended by 1920, due to the efforts of the NCLC and sociologistcum- photographer Lewis W Hine, who educated the public about the practice. His haunting photographs swayed the public in a way the cold, hard statistics had not.
Hine was later approached by the NCLC with an unusual assignment: to take photographs depicting children labouring in sweatshops, coal mines and textile mills, and on farms. Famously untouched, these images were a catalyst for change: outraging the public and shaming the government into action. Often hiding his camera and using deception to gain access, Hine even learned to write with his hand inside his pocket in order to get accurate captions without giving himself away. His photographs provided the NCLC with the leverage it needed to lobby for state and federal laws protecting the rights of children in the workplace.
This would lead to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which was the first major federal child labour law ever enacted in the US. Photo Captions: (Top) Breaker boys working in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania (Lewis W Hine). (Bottom) Breaker boys at Hughestown Borough Coal Co Pittston, Pennsylvania (Lewis W Hine).
By Reuben Adams