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  • Emmanuel Mehr

The Regulation of Child Labor in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Baltimore

BHW 49: January 6, 2024

A sepia-toned photograph of two white children in working clothes taking a break from working jobs as child laborers. They look tired.
Figure 1. Marie (right) and Albert (left) Kawalski, two child laborers in Baltimore, July 1909 [1].

In 1892, it its first annual report, Maryland’s Bureau of Industrial Statistics (BIS) declared: “The employment of children in factories and workshops has for many years been the subject of much comment . . . [it] has been one of the most generally debated subjects now before the public.” [2] The BIS conducted its child labor reform efforts roughly simultaneously and sometimes in conjunction with its sweatshop reform efforts, emphasized in last week’s feature article. Unlike the predominantly clothing industry sweatshops, child labor was prominent across most Baltimore industries. Children certainly worked in garment manufacturing and sweatshops, but they also worked numerously in mills, canneries, domestic work, and other industries. [3] Three fascinating themes emerge from examining BIS child labor investigations and policy recommendations in the two decades following the bureau’s initial 1892 report. Firstly, the increased mechanization of industry in this period led directly to an increase in child labor. Secondly, children and parents actively resisted government attempts to regulate child labor, particularly by lying about age and forging age-supporting documents. Finally, the importance of an education was a key point of emphasis for anti-child labor reformers, who often sought to use it to culturally suppress immigrants.

From the start of its child labor reform work, the BIS responded to letters urging action addressing industry mechanization leading to child labor replacing adult labor. The bureau took an intriguing position on which instrument of capitalism was doing the labor replacement. It noted: “The introduction of a machine very often will enable a manufacturer to employ a mere child to attend it. As this appears to be the history of most of the labor-saving devices, it will be seen at a glance that what displaces this particular labor is not the child employed, but the machine.” [4] From this perspective, the machine rendered the required labor less skilled, making the theoretically unskilled labor capabilities of a child newly sufficient. It is the technologically innovative machine that drives the transformation of the industrial capitalist relationship. As historical geographer Sherry H. Olson points out in the Baltimore context, with mechanization, “boys and women were more numerous and remained at the lowest wage level.” She continues, “The boys were no longer apprentices who could expect promotion in the firm.” [5] While there was a numerical increase in jobs available to children, the devaluation of their labor capabilities eliminated opportunities for advancement. In the industrial economy of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States, the profit-motive was the primary driver behind increased utilization of child labor.

The BIS also noted that the age-based resistance of children and parents to efforts to regulate child labor made such policy enforcement nearly impracticable. The bureau’s first annual report stressed, “when children became acquainted with the [minimum age requirement] rule they were liable, in their anxiety to secure employment, to misrepresent their age; but this of course the employers were not responsible for and could not guard against.” [6] It was not in the employer’s interest to increase their reasons for turning away a potentially profitable employee by rigorously questioning their age. By 1907, the BIS declared that an enforceable child labor regulation law was finally in effect. It argued that the 1894 legislation prohibiting employment of a child under the age of twelve “remained a dead-letter upon the statute books, as no provision was made for its enforcement.” However, the bureau took credit for the 1906 “Child-Labor Law” and celebrated its provision “prohibiting the employment of all children between the ages of 12 and 16 years of age.” [7] By 1909, the BIS further celebrated the 1906 law by citing the great effectiveness of its enforcement. That year’s annual report stated, “The results accomplished have been most gratifying . . . only 4 arrests were made during the year for violations of the Child-Labor Law, as compared with 9 in 1908 and 42 in 1907.” [8] Reformers then shifted their attention to raising the minimum working age from twelve to fourteen, achieving this legislative feat in 1912. [9]

Another fascinating way the BIS approached child labor regulation in Maryland relates to the nature of a free and democratic society such as the United States. Describing the difficulties of enforcing age-based employment restriction, its first annual report argued, “Under a strong centralized government involving minute inspection and close surveillance, such laws may be strictly enforced; but in democratic communities any attempt to enforce them results in deceit and falsehood.” [10] These reformers believed that minimum working age could only be fully enforced in an autocratic surveillance state. Enforcement was particularly difficult due to the prominence of workers taking manufacturing projects home to complete missed quotas. There was not much stopping these “home workers” from allocating assistance with such projects to their children as chores, so long as the children possessed the sufficient skills. [11] After hours home-working was most prominent in garment manufacturing, which remained the city’s largest industry well into the twentieth century. [12] Garment production maintained what historian Jo Ann E. Argersinger astutely deems a “family culture of work.” [13] In Baltimore and elsewhere, this culture meant members of the family or household were expected to regularly contribute to shared economic success through their labor.

As policymakers strengthened Baltimore’s age-based child labor legislation, parents ramped up resistance by falsifying birth and baptismal documents. The BIS uncovered many of these falsification schemes by cross-referencing submitted records with official copies from church registries, physicians, or health departments. [14] By 1915, the bureau included notable examples of forged age documents in its reports, placed side by side with the verified copies. These “exhibits” showed how parents tried to smudge the ink of numerical digits to change recorded birth years, among other methods. [15] Physical birth documents themselves were relatively new in Maryland at this time. Official recording of births across the state started gradually around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1913, reformers lamented that “Compulsory birth registration is of so recent date in Baltimore City and in the State of Maryland that the public birth records can be relied on to supply the desired information in only a very small per cent of the applicants.” [16] Parental commitment to forging false records exacerbated these already significant document-focused enforcement difficulties for child labor law enforcement.

One of the primary motivations behind BIS efforts to regulate child labor was the desire to ensure a functional minimum of American-style education in children before their departure from school into the workforce. As scholars Brian Gratton and Jon Moen argue, reformers prioritized substantial education and “Children whose parents failed to honor this notion were to be prohibited by the state from working and placed in schools where they would not only be educated but also learn how to be American.” [17] Child labor reform based on education culturally targeted immigrant families and children, harnessing schools to suppress home cultures. Since child labor posed a threat to this assimilation process, its regulation gained additional social urgency. The child labor law enforcement apparatus enforced educational requirements through its permit system. Maryland’s 1906 child labor law not only raised the minimum age, but it also required “all children between the ages of 12 and 16 years to secure a certificate to the effect that they were able to read and write simple sentences in the English language.” [18] In this 1906 law’s first year of enforcement, 19,923 child working certificates were issued. At least 3,906 were rejected, presumably many for not meeting the educational requirements.

Attempts to regulate child labor in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Baltimore sought to address complaints of children replacing adult workers, while parents sought to resist minimum work ages, and reformers emphasized the assimilationist importance of education. Maryland’s BIS achieved significant child labor legislation by 1906, but continued resistance greatly hindered enforcement. Parents falsified proof of age documents and implicitly argued that it should be up to them, not the state, to determine the extent of their child’s education. Children resisted when they lied about their age or went along with parental document manipulation. Defiance of age-based child labor regulation greatly inhibited reformer efforts to use mandatory education to culturally suppress immigrants. By the 1920s and 1930s, as Maryland’s child labor legislation became increasingly restrictive, many children and their families turned to migratory labor arrangements. Numerous Baltimorean families traveled seasonally to work as fruit pickers in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. Then, in the fall, migratory Baltimoreans often worked in the seafood canneries in Florida and Louisiana. [19] As this example shows, resistance to child labor restriction in Maryland became increasingly pragmatic with stricter legislation. Strikingly, much of this evasion was driven by economic necessity in the strict capitalist economy of the United States. It seems families persisted in having their children contribute economically because it was the only way for them to survive.


[1] Lewis Wickes Hine, “Marie and Albert Kawalski. 615 S. Bond St.,” photograph (Baltimore, MD, July 1909), National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress,

[2] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, First Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1892 (Baltimore: Wm. J. C. Dulany Co., 1893), 180,

[3] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1903 (Baltimore: Wm. J. C. Dulany Co., 1904), 102,

[4] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, First Annual Report, 181-182.

[5] Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 175,

[6] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, First Annual Report, 181.

[7] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Sixteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1907 (Baltimore: Geo. W. King Printing Co., 1908), 14-15,

[8] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1909 (Baltimore: Geo. W. King Printing Co., 1910), 14,

[9] See Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1911 (Baltimore: King Brothers, 1912), 14,; Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1913 (Baltimore: Thomas & Evans Printing Co., 1914), 12,

[10] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, First Annual Report, 184-185.

[11] Harry A. Corbin, The Men’s Clothing Industry: Colonial Through Modern Times (New York: Fairchild, 1970), 66-67,

[12] Edward K. Muller and Paul A. Groves, “The Changing Location of the Clothing Industry: A Link to the Social Geography of Baltimore in the Nineteenth Century,” Maryland Historical Magazine 71, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 404,

[13] Jo Ann E. Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 16,

[14] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1915 (Baltimore: King Brothers, 1916), 19,

[15] For examples, see: Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report, 20-33.

[16] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, 1913 (Baltimore: Thomas & Evans Printing Co., 1914), 12,

[17] Brian Gratton and Jon Moen, “Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 3 (Winter 2004): 356,

[18] Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Maryland, Sixteenth Annual Report, 15.

[19] Hugh D. Hindman, Child Labor: An American History (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), 251-252,


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