National Child Labor Committee

In 1902 an Episcopalian minister, the Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy, founded the Alabama Child Labor Committee. The next year representatives of thirty-two New York City settlement houses formed the New York Child Labor Committee. These groups collaborated on August 15, 1904, to establish the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), which was incorporated in 1907 with a board that included prominent Progressive reformers such as JANE ADDAMS, Florence Kelley, Edward T. Devine, and Lillian Wald. From that point on, the NCLC led the national child labor reform movement.

Children had always worked in America. In 1790, Rhode Island's Samuel Slater hired nine children ages seven through twelve to work in the nation's first factory. According to the 1870 U.S. Census, about one in every eight children in America worked for wages. In 1900 this ratio was one in six, and the proportion continued to grow through 1910. While children working in agriculture seemed consistent with America's past history, to many Americans youngsters laboring for meager wages in industry seemed brutal and cruel.

From 1908 through 1921, the NCLC sought to mine such sympathies. It paid the photographer LEWIS HINE to take pictures of child laborers that would pull at the nation's heartstrings. At the same time the NCLC organized state-centered campaigns. Alexander McKelway acted as the NCLC's chief investigator for the southern United States, and Owen Lovejoy oversaw the organization's efforts in the northern states. The NCLC also called for the establishment of a federal children's bureau that would investigate and report on the circumstances of all American children. President William Howard Taft signed the act establishing the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU on April 9, 1912. In a symbolic gesture, he handed the signature pen to the NCLC's Alexander McKelway. Over the next three decades the NCLC worked closely with the U.S. Children's Bureau to promote child labor reforms at both the state and federal levels.

The effort faced strong opposition from manufacturers and newspaper editors. In addition, many working-class parents saw little advantage to keeping their children in school instead of the workplace. Despite such resistance, in 1916 the NCLC convinced Congress to pass the Keating-Owen Act. This legislation used the federal government's authority over interstate commerce to regulate child labor. Just before the act was to go into effect, however, the U.S. Supreme Court praised the law's intent, but declared its method unconstitutional (HAMMER V. DAGENHART, 1918). The NCLC then switched its strategy to passage of a federal constitutional amendment. In 1924, Congress agreed, but by 1932 only six states had voted for ratification, while twenty-four had rejected the measure.

From 1910 to 1930 passage of various local and state compulsory school attendance laws contributed to a decline in the percentage of wage-earning children, despite the federal amendment's dismal progress. The onset of the GREAT DEPRESSION temporarily reversed this downward trend. Pressured by child welfare advocates and labor unions, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration included child labor regulations in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which set up the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA was shortlived, however, for the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional on May 27, 1935, thereby leaving the United States again without federal restrictions on child labor.

Nevertheless, the NCLC continued to lobby for ratification of the 1924 Child Labor Amendment. Sensing a new attitude in the Supreme Court, advocates included child labor regulations in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This New Deal legislation prohibited the employment of those under fourteen years of age and placed restrictions on young workers ages fourteen through seventeen. In February 1941, in the case of United States v. Darby, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its earlier stance by upholding the right of Congress to regulate child labor through the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. The NCLC understood, however, that even with this support the 1938 law did not protect all children. Since the 1930s the group has continued to lobby to prevent the exploitation of children in the workplace in the United States and around the world.

See also: Child Labor in the West; Work and Poverty.


Bremner, Robert H., et al. 1974. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, vols. II and III. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lindenmeyer, Kriste. 1997. "A Right to Childhood": The U.S. Children's Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912–1946. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Trattner, Walter I. 1970. Crusade for Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.


National Child Labor Committee. 2003. "NCLC Fact Sheet." Available from (NCLC Papers [1904–1953] are housed in the Library of Congress).