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Child labor a hot topic in Pa. in early 1911

Published January 15. 2011 09:00AM

On Nov. 9, 1910, Clinton Weaver of Summit Hill, a 16-year-old laborer at the No. 6 mine, had gone to the top of the shaft to fix some displaced rigging when his clothing got caught in the machinery.

After being freed from the whirling machine, the badly-injured teenager was rushed to the Panther Valley hospital where, within the hour, he died. Death was due to multiple injuries, including fractures to both arms and legs, burns of the chest and abdomen caused by the friction from the spinning machine, as well as numerous cuts and bruises.

That same day Roy Henninger, a 17-year-old laborer at the No. 5 colliery, was also involved in a frightening accident when his right hand was caught in a motor and badly crushed. He too was rushed to the hospital but his injuries were not life-threatening and he survived the close call.

The two accidents within hours of each other not only proved the obvious - that mine work was very hazardous - but it also showed that the younger workers, many in their teens, were subject to as many job dangers as the adults.

Twenty-five years earlier an 1885 Pennsylvania law prohibited boys under 14 and girls of any age from working inside a coal mine.

In 1887, the legislature mandated a minimum age of 12 for any type of employment in coal mines, mills, and factories. In 1895 the General Assembly enacted a Compulsory Education Act, mandating that children between 8 and 13 years old attend school for at least four months per year.

Enforcing the new laws was a problem, especially in the coal region, where some parents even lied about their child's age in order to retain another wage earner for the family.

Factory owners also fought to preserve their young labor force. One owner admitted that "much of the prosperity of Pennsylvania is owing to the fact that it has a lower age limit than any of its neighbors."

Certain industries, such as glass manufacturing, eased up on hiring youngsters, but children continued their work in silk mills and around coal mines.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg were criticized for not passing more stringent measures. One critic pointed out that "year after year the legislature has been begged to raise the age limit for employment to 16 years, and always is the lobby powerful enough to continue its unholy purchase of children's lives for a weekly pittance."

Just two weeks into the new year in 1911, Fred Hall, secretary of the Pennsylvania Child Labor Association, said he was proposing that the state legislature adopt stronger measures to amend the current laws. Hall, a long-time proponent of child labor, had served as secretary of New York's Child Labor Committee where he spearheaded a measure limiting children aged 14-16 to nine hours a day. His proposal received stiff criticism from department store owners.

After coming to Harrisburg, Hall fought to give mine-breaker boys the same protection as the factory children. To fortify his argument, he cited the story of a 9-year-old breaker boy from Scranton whose father had sworn before a justice of the peace that he was 14. Six months later the boy was killed in a machinery accident at the breaker.

Hall argued that the head of the Department of Mines made no effort to improve child labor legislation aside from a clause which covered only bituminous miners.

Hall had public opinion on his side. An appeal by the governor to revise child labor laws sparked a petition drive in the public sector. Over 10,000 petition post cards were signed and delivered to Harrisburg legislators.

Hall's amendments to the child labor laws stated that those under the age of 21 could not serve as night messengers. Also, those under the age of 16 could not work inside coal mines or do factory work at night.

Hall explained his reasoning behind the messenger-service amendment.

"The demand for messengers during the hours of the night is chiefly the demand of the underworld," he stated. "Boys by the score describe with detail the sights and sounds in the houses of ill repute to which they are called. Others whose home influence was strong enough to hold them straight - even under this severe strain and are now grown to manhood - confirm practically all that the boys have told."

He explained that at "the houses of the better class the boy goes little farther than the door, but in others his errand ends only at the room of the dissolute woman herself."

Hall said the companies could not be held responsible for what the young men see and hear. He explained that New York, where he previously served, had enacted similar legislation which forbade messenger work at night up to the age of 21.

"The night messenger boy is a messenger man's job," Hall said. "We believe that Pennsylvania's boys need this same protection and our bill therefore follows the New York law."

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