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Child Labor

Children working on a Kansas beet farmIn the rough early days of Kansas’ history every member of a family had to band together to survive in the harsh environment. Many of the first generations to grow up in Kansas went without proper schools or even any education at all. Instead children shared work responsibilities on the farm with their parents. They would work every day from sun up to sun down, despite their young age. Some were even hired out to work for other farmers to earn extra income for the family. For some adolescent boys the chance was given to learn a trade. They would leave their families often times to work as apprentices with skilled workers.

However as the years passed and families became more established and comfortable in their farms and lives, children’s working was reduced, and the first schools began to be built. Many children would attend school in the months when farms weren’t planting or harvesting, leaving little time for school.

During the Industrial Age workers were employed in factories. Using machinery, children could take over tasks that adults had done before. Children could be paid less however, which made them preferable to hire. Many children were sent to the factory to help support their families. The workday was long the jobs were often unsafe and unhealthy for young workers. Due to their small size children could often reach parts in machines adults couldn’t. This could be tragic however, as many children were injured doing such things. Toward the end of the 19th century the Kansas Legislature passed a law that restricted children from working as an acrobat, circus rider, ropewalker, beggar, or street musician.

By 1900 more than 10 percent of Kansas children between the ages of 10 and 15 went to work each day. Most worked in agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic service. Kansas law required that all children between the ages of eight and 14 had to go to school for at least 12 weeks a year. Work often prevented children from attending school.

Letter from Sabetha mother wanting her child to be able to workKansas' first major child law in 1905 restricted children under 14 from working in factories, meatpacking houses, or mines. This law impacted nearly 2,000 Kansas children. The law was revised in 1909 to help with enforcement.  In some hazardous jobs, children had to be 16 years old. Employers were required to obtain a certificate from school to document the age of a child worker. It took another 12 years until a national child labor law was passed in 1917. There was objection from some when this law passed as is shown in this letter from a Sabetha mother who feels it is important for her son to learn the value of work.

In the modern era there are strict restrictions on child labor. While some high schoolers may wish to find an after school job, or neighborhood children mow their neighbors grass for extra money, children can no longer be worked like adults. School now is a priority for all children, enforced by law. Child labor has come a long way from those early settlers days.


Portions from The Kansas Journey.

Entry: Child Labor

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.