Kids at Work

Children working as part of a threshing crewAt one time many young people in the United States and in Iowa worked long hours in dark factories, on cold streets and in dangerous mines. At the time some employers said, "Why hire a man for a dollar when you get a kid for a dime?"

Idleness Is Not Good

In the late 19th century many people thought that idleness was not good for children. They thought if children were not in school, they should be at work. Iowa children worked in coal mines, button and candy making factories, laundries, department stores and other types of shops. Boys sold newspapers on the streets of Des Moines and other cities. Girls worked as domestic servants—washing, cleaning, cooking and caring for children. Both boys and girls worked endless hours on Iowa farms.

Rural Kids Work Hard

Rural families sometimes hired out kids to neighbors who needed laborers. Only older boys usually inherited land or money from parents, so the other children in the family needed to make their own way in the world. Girls cooked, cleaned and took care of children. They also emptied chamber pots, did laundry, tended gardens and canned fruits and vegetables. Girls received little pay for all this work—about $1.50 a week at the turn of the century.

Hired boys (also known as "plowboys") in rural Iowa also received low wages. Boys chopped wood, hauled water, sorted seed and took care of livestock. They sometimes worked beside their employer, planting, plowing and hoeing. At haying time they would pitch hay until every muscle ached. Still, they hoped to save enough money to buy their own farm someday.

Kids in Town Work Hard

In Iowa towns and cities kids had to work to help out the family too. Some had jobs that did not pay wages. Many kids walked along railroad tracks and picked up coal for the family fireplace. Others sorted through garbage piles looking for stuff to fix up or sell.

Other jobs paid cash. Boys as young as seven years old could sell papers on street corners. Young girls might sell candy or magazines. Older children worked as delivery boys, clerks, cigar rollers and soda jerks.

Children often worked the same hours as adults and in the same kinds of jobs. For many bosses, kids were good employees. They were readily available, and they worked cheaper than adults. In 1892 workers at the Lansing Lumber Company in Lansing, Iowa, worked 11-hour days for the following pay:

20 boys 50-60 cents each per day
12 girls 75-85 cents/day
12 boys 75 cents/day
117 men $1.25/day
10 men $1.40-1.50/day

Son husking corn with fatherWorking Their Way Through School

Some kids worked to put themselves through school. Frank Wilson, a 12-year-old who lived near Sioux City, hated farming. He wanted to go to high school instead. He arranged to work as a hired hand for a town family so he wouldn't have to ride his bicycle 20 miles a day to school. To pay for books, he took an extra job at a boarding house. He made beds every morning and waited tables every evening. Frank even found time to write a high school news column for the Sioux City Journal.

Kids Help Support the Family

Others, however, were not as lucky as Frank. They worked to earn money so their families could survive. Odessa Booker, the daughter of a coal miner in Buxton, Iowa, peddled fresh vegetables around her town for a quarter per basket. Odessa's brothers started working around the mines when they were ten years old. By the age of 16, they worked underground with their father. All the Booker children gave their money to their parents. Because they started work so early in life, they didn't graduate from high school.

Factory work, although dangerous, employed thousands of Iowa kids in the early 20th century. Children routinely lost limbs and fingers to the whirring machinery. The 1902 Factory Act prohibited all children under the age of 16 from cleaning machines in motion, but allowed most kids to continue working—if they signed a paper that said employers were not responsible for injuries. By 1915, a stricter set of laws made it illegal for most kids to skip school in order to work. It prohibited children under 14 to work in amusement places, and kids under 16 could not work in mines, bowling alleys or at dangerous occupations. The children working in agriculture and in street trades—such as selling newspapers—were not protected by these laws. Safety conditions were not much improved, but younger children were barred from factory work.

Adapted from original articles written by Chris Annicella and Bridgett M. Williams, The Goldfinch 10, No. 3 (Feb. 1989), and 17, No. 4 (Summer 1996). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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