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National Child Labor Committee (NCLC)

Children Helped Their Parents to Make Meager Family Wages Prior to the Federal Law, in The Long Road: Fortieth Anniversary Report of the NCLC, National Child Labor Committee, [1944].
Children "Helped" Their Parents to Make Meager Family Wages Prior to the Federal Law, in The Long Road: Fortieth Anniversary Report of the NCLC, National Child Labor Committee, [1944], Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard College Library.

One of the defining characteristics of the Progressive Era was the desire of reformers to protect children from laboring in industries with unsafe working conditions for children. Their desire to regulate child labor stemmed from new social science research suggesting that protecting children would benefit society by safeguarding the country's future human resources.

In 1902, the Association of Neighborhood Workers, an organization of settlement workers in New York, founded the Child Labor Committee to campaign for legislation to regulate child labor in New York. Led by Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and Jane Addams, the Child Labor Committee eventually grew into the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904.

The NCLC attracted wide support from many of the diverse groups that supported the progressive reform movement, including social workers, academics, businessmen, and political reformers. The committee was comprised of the presidents of Vanderbilt and Harvard University, the publishers of The New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution, the Catholic Cardinal of Baltimore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, the president of the General Association of Women's Clubs, labor union presidents, and settlement house workers. Though the committee had many New Yorkers, it had southern members who counteracted perceptions that the NCLC was simply a group of northern agitators. This regional balance was exemplified by the fact that its two principal investigators, Owen R. Lovejoy and Alexander McKelway, had experience working in northern and southern labor campaigns, respectively.

Beginning with the NCLC's first campaigns against child labor in the coal and glass industries, it harnessed the power of propaganda to influence public opinion. In 1907, for instance, the NCLC launched a National Child Labor Day, through which it encouraged clerical action against child labor. Lovejoy and McKelway also wrote voluminous reports detailing their investigations of industrial exploitation of children. Finally, the NCLC hired photographer Lewis Hine in 1908 to document child labor abuses in order to help turn public opinion against child labor.

At the same time it was launching its national campaign in 1907, however, the NCLC became riven by internal conflict over the proper role of the federal government in regulating child labor. The Supreme Court had repeatedly struck down federal legislation restricting child labor, but some northern reformers argued that child labor was a national problem that would only be abolished through federal action. The different factions of the NCLC reached a truce, however, by agreeing to lobby for the creation of a federal Children's Bureau to investigate child labor, which was created in 1912 by President Taft. In the 1920s, the NCLC unsuccessfully lobbied for a constitutional amendment to empower the federal government to ban child labor. The National Child Labor Committee continues to promote the principles of its founders to uphold the general practice that underage children should not be full-time workers.

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