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Jane Addams’ and Rev. Edgar Murphy’s Views on Child Labor Reform in 1903

Introduction: At the 1903 annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections held in Atlanta, GA May 6-12, an entire section of presentations was devoted to child labor issues. Miss Jane Addams, Director of Hull-House, Chicago, IL presented the first paper: “Child Labor and Pauperism.”  In the second presentation on child labor Rev. Edgar Gardner Murphy, founder of the Child Labor Committee of Alabama, addressed child labor as a national problem, using the textile factories of the South as a framework for his presentation.
Jane Addams: The presentation by Jane Addams described why child labor had become an issue of consequence for this generation. Excerpts:

“…Each age has of course its own temptations, and above all its own peculiar industrial temptations. When we ask why it is that Child Labor has been given to us to discuss and to rectify rather than to the people who lived before us, we need only remember that for the first time in industrial history the labor of the little child has in many industries become as valuable as that of a man or woman. The old-fashioned weaver was obliged to possess skill and enough strength to pull his beam back and forth. With the invention of machinery the need of skill has been eliminated from many processes; with the application of steam and electricity, strength has also been largely eliminated, so that a little child may mend the thread in a textile mill almost as well and in some respects better than a strong and clumsy man or woman. This is true of many other industries, until it has come about that we are tempted as never before to use the labor of little children and that the temptation to exploit premature labor is peculiar to this industrial epoch…”.

Miss Addams then emphasized how child labor contributed to the development of adults too sick and too disabled to work for wages and support themselves or a family.

“…We know of course, how the hospitals are beginning to look into this matter (illnesses), and how they trace certain diseases to the breakdown of the organs which were subjected to abnormal uses, before they were ready to bear it. I recall a tailor for whom the residents of Hull-House tried to get medical assistance. He died at the age of 33, and his death certificate bore the record of “premature senility” due to the fact that he had run a sewing machine since he was six years old. It is no figment of the imagination to say that the human system breaks down when it is put to monotonous work before it is ready to stand up to that work, and that general debility and many diseases may be traced to premature labor. No horse trainer would permit his colts to be so broken down….

Miss Addams later said:

“…But the pauperization of society itself is the most serious charge. To paraphrase an illustration used by the Webb’s, the factories say to the community; you have educated the children in the public schools, now please give them to me for my factory. I will use them until they begin to demand an adult’s wages and then I will turn them out again. If I have broken them down, the community will take care of them in the poorhouse and hospitals. The community which allows this allows itself to be most unfairly treated….”

Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy: In the second presentation on child labor delivered at the 1903 conference of NCCC, Rev. Edgar Gardner Murphy,  founder of the Child Labor Committee of Alabama, addressed child labor as a national problem. Using the textile factories of the South as a framework for his presentation. He said in his introduction:

“I must begin what I shall try to say to you this evening, with a disclaimer and an explanation. As my disclaimer I would say that I use the word “national” in no political or federal sense. The conditions of industry vary so greatly and so decisively from state to state and from locality to locality that the enactment of a federal child labor law, applicable to all conditions and under all circumstances, would be inadequate if not unfortunate. As my explanation, I would say that I use the word “national” in that geographical sense in which we must all declare, and with all emphasis, that the problem of child labor is a national problem. North and south, it belongs to all of us…”

Speaking to the issue of cotton and the textile factories, Reverend Gardner said:

“…The south has one great characteristic natural product her cotton. In its possession she is without a rival. Her monopoly may be challenged, but her preeminence will remain. Upon the basis of this great and characteristic natural product we are creating a great, characteristic and commanding industry-cotton manufacture. Its successes and its victories are as inevitable as they are desirable. It can have no enemies unless we constitute ourselves its enemies. It can have no perils unless we ourselves found it in embarrassment and league it with disaster. Its growth, its triumphs, its opportunities, its rewards, its infamy or its glory, are a part of the distinctive heritage of our children and of our children’s children. What is the basis of this industry? What shall be its economic and moral character? How are we settling it and founding it? This is the issue, the intimate and inclusive issue, of this question of child labor at the south. I am interested therefore in the question of child labor, not merely because I have photographed children of six and seven years whom I have seen at labor in our factories for twelve and thirteen hours a day, not merely because I have seen them with their little fingers mangled by machinery and their little bodies numb and listless with exhaustion, but because I am not willing that our economic progress should be involved in such conditions; and because as a southern man, born, reared, and educated at the south, I am resolved to take my part, however humbly, in the settling of the industrial character of our greatest industry. For the very reason that I belong to the south, and because I love the south, I do not want her most important and most distinctive industry to stand under any sort of odium, moral or economic. I believe that an intelligent moral interest in the conditions of the factory, and the jealous guarding of its ethical assumptions, will minister not merely to the humanity of its standards and the happiness of its operatives, but to the dignity, currency and value of its properties.

“Why, the man upon the farm does not put the burden of sustained employment upon the immature among his cattle! Shall we be less solicitous of our children? If cotton manufacture is to continue to thrive at the south, it can do so only upon the basis of the intelligence and efficiency of its operatives. Ignorance and helplessness may make the profits of an hour, but the increasing and abiding wealth of a great industry lies only in the hands of knowledge, capacity and skill…”

Editor’s Note: The complete presentations by Jane Addams and Rev. Edgar Murphy are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The website for this resource is:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). Jane Addams’ and Rev. Edgar Murphy’s views on child labor reform in 1903. Retrieved [date accessed] from /programs/hild-labor-reform-views-1903/.


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