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Children of the 1900s knew all about strikes

Published April 07. 2012 09:01AM

One day in late March of 1912, a small girl walked into the newspaper office in Tamaqua, and asked if she could have a notice posted in the paper in behalf of all the small children in her school.

She handed the reporter a scrap of paper with this brief message: "The scholars of Miss Reif's room are on strike."

It was signed by nine other girls, all between the ages of 8 and 10.

In a visit to the school, the reporter discovered the other side of the story. The girls had not prepared their lessons and were being disciplined by Miss Reif. In protested their punishment to remain after school, the girls announced to all that they would go on strike.

The teacher would have none of it and responded with a stern ultimatum of her own: Finish the lesson or face expulsion.

The girls quickly dropped their protest, and finished their assignment.

That children especially young girls would know how to apply such an adult word like "strike" was not unusual. It was a term they heard used many times at home by their fathers or older brothers who worked in the mines.

In fact, before child labor laws were upgraded in Pennsylvania, girls as young as the young Tamaqua protesters were part of the workforce in many clothing mills. In the early 20th century, many youngsters who weren't in school could be found working all-day shifts just like their mothers or fathers in the mills and coal mines.

Many families relied on the child wage-earners and thus, lied about a child's age in order to get work. Although boys under 12 were not legally allowed to work in the mines, some boys as young as 9 and 10 did.

In December 1906, one Philadelphia newspaper told the story of one small girl who was working in a woolen mill for $3 a week.

"The floors of the woolen mill are always slippery with wool-grease. The child slipped, and thrusting out her arm she was caught in the cogs of an unguarded machine.

"Her right arm was broken in seven places from wrist to shoulder. No automobile was called, as would have been the case if little Edith Vere were to have slipped and hurt her poor head.

"Instead the poor child walked nearly a mile to the nearest hospital. Her arm was so jaggedly chopped up that it didn't mend straight and she is crippled for life."

One writer stated that girls were three times more likely to be injured in the mills than adult women. Robert Hunter, one of the more outspoken critics of youngsters working in the mines, factories and mills, said child labor was synonymous with child slavery.

"For several reasons child labor has become evil," he wrote. "From a national point of view it is a waste of the nation's most valuable asset manhood. To the child, it is ruinous ..."

Children doing adult work were exposed to extremely dangerous conditions. In the mills, their small fingers were used to unjam the machinery or fix broken threads.

A child's work routine was grueling.

For many, the day would started at 6 a.m. and if they were late even by a minute they were docked in pay. After their 12-hour day, many children were too tired to eat when they got home and many slept in the same clothes.

For children working in coal mines, conditions were as bad, if not worse, than the young mill workers. Physicians often found children working the mines malnourished and sleep-depraved. Along with other minor injuries, the breaker boys often suffered curved spines from their hours of bending over without a break.

Here's one writer's description of typical working conditions for a breaker boy in the coal mines:

"In a little room in this big black shed a room not 20 feet square 40 boys are picking their lives away. The floor of the room is an inclined plane, and a stream of coal pours constantly in.

"The work here, in this little black hole, all day and every day, trying to keep cool in the summer, trying to keep warm in the winter, picking away among the black coals, bending over till their little spines are curved, never saying a word all the livelong day.

"These little fellows go to work in this cold, dreary room at 7 in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get one dollar to three dollars a week. Not three boys in this roomful could read or write."

In 1905, Pennsylvania finally "banned the employment of children under the age of 14. Boys and girls aged 14 to 16 could work only if their parents signed their working papers.

Eventually, schools became responsible for children getting work permits, which helped to remedy the problem. In 1915, the Pennsylvania Labor Law set 14 as the minimum working age and required working children to have completed the sixth grade. By 1920, child labor was not eliminated but statistics showed that less than one in seven school-age children in families of mine workers worked to supplement their families' earnings.

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