Poverty and Child Labor in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in New York City

Poverty and Child Labor in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era New York City

John Louis Recchiuti

Why are people poor? What can be done to protect children who are growing up in impoverished households? These were central questions in Progressive Era New York City and across the country as they remain today. In this workshop your group will be assigned a particular perspective on poverty and child labor and develop arguments championing that perspective. You may find the perspective you are asked to argue to be precisely the opposite of your own view on the subject. The goal is to build-out elements in the debate so that we can gain insight into the public policy challenges surrounding poverty in turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City. Your final product will be testimony before “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth.” Your group’s testimony should be based on material provided in this package and any additional sources you wish to consult.

Group Perspectives:

  • Group 1: ”The Undeserving Poor and the Deserving Poor”
  • Group 2: Family, Faith, Education, and Work — “No government assistance!”
  • Group 3: Our Responsibility as Consumers
  • Group 4: The Need for Mothers’ Pensions
  • Group 5: State Governments are the proper venue for laws against child labor and for child education.
  • Group 6: Federal Child Labor Laws must be Passed
Working at Home. National Child Labor Committee

Background: New York City History

Source: J. Recchiuti (2007). Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive-Era Reform in New York City. University of Pennsylvania Press.

At the turn of the twentieth century New York City had evolved from its early seventeenth century beginnings as a Dutch harbor-colony into an international center of finance, commerce, manufacture, and culture – competing on the world stage with London, Paris, and Berlin. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. The Statue of Liberty, arrived from Paris, was installed in 1886. The Washington Arch at Washington Square Park went up in 1889. Carnegie Hall opened in 1893. The first subway line opened in 1904. And, the city rose vertically: the 1902 21-story steel-framed Flatiron Building was eclipsed in 1913 by the 60-story Woolworth Building. Henry Frick, Henry Phipps, the Vanderbilts, and Andrew Carnegie built mansions along Fifth Avenue. While, at the same time, many New Yorkers lived in squalor. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers lived in ill-lighted, overcrowded tenements, many without running water, flush toilets, or electricity.

New York City was, in these years, the world’s largest port, and served as the point of entry for many of the nation’s eighteen million immigrants in the quarter century before the First World War. By 1910, 87 percent of the 4,767,000 people in Greater New York were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

In today’s Gotham there are few factories, but in the early 1900s there were 30,000 manufacturers in the City, employing more than 600,000 workers, and New York City ranked first in the nation’s industrial output. The Lower East Side, around Rivington Street, was an immigrant hub, its immigrant population in the late 1880s and early 1890s mainly Germans, Poles, Russian Jews, and Rumanians. A young woman, Helen Moore, a volunteer among the poor, wrote in 1893 of “fermenting garbage in the gutter and the smell of stale beer” and “a long panorama of heart-rending sights”:

“Every window opens into a room crowded with scantily-clothed, dull-faced men and women sewing upon heavy woollen coats and trousers. They pant for air, the perspiration that drops from their foreheads is like life-blood, but they toil on steadily, wearily…. From a political, sanitary, and educational point of view it [the Tenth Ward] is the worst ward in the city, and social statistics offer no parallel in any city.”

The Lower East Side was, the urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson notes, “The most crowded neighborhood in the world.” It had only private charity — often from churches and synagogues – and some municipal sponsored free coal for heat. (Federal veterans’ pensions did supply aid for that fraction of the population who had served the Union army in the Civil War, but most of the city did not qualify.) In the long tradition of private or county-sponsored relief, places of confinement, such as prisons, orphanages, asylums, and almshouses sheltered those in need and in distress.

A. Poverty in the City

In 1910 in New York City, tens of thousands of children labored for pennies an hour in many the c. 12,000 tenement sweat-shops licensed by the state. “Our little kindergarten children at Greenwich House (located near Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan),” Mary Simkhovitch, the settlement’s founder and head resident, wrote, “go home from school to help make artificial flowers and as late as eleven o’clock at night we have found their baby fingers still fashioning the gay petals.”  

Around the country, “Boys of 10 years were common in the blinding dust of coal breakers, picking slate with torn and bleeding fingers, or sweltering all night in the glare of the white-hot furnace of the glasshouse; the incarceration of little 10-year-old girls in the dust-laden cotton mills of the South or the silk mills of Pennsylvania for 12 hours a day was looked upon with approval or indifference; tobacco and cigarette factories, canneries, sweatshops, the street trades, and the night messenger service all took unchallenged too from schoolhouse, playground, or cradle.”

In 1904 Columbia University professor Henry Seager wrote, “It might be thought that considerations of common humanity would lead employers of children to fix hours and other conditions of employment that would not be injurious to them.” “Unfortunately,” “this is not the case,” he wrote. It was a “cruelty,” he said, “not only of employers, but even of [the children’s] own parents.”

B. Corruption

New York City’s government was corrupt. Tammany Hall battled with reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Tammany Hall was not vanquished until 1966). In a memorable example of corruption in city government a student in the Manhattan-based “Training School for Public Service” (founded in 1911) recounted his first assignment at the School: 

“That assignment was to go to the City Hall and attend the meeting of the City Council; I was told to walk in and take my seat at the press table. I was a complete stranger in New York and had some difficulty in finding the City Hall and where the council met. The only thing the council did that morning was to discuss some routine matters and pass one resolution appropriating $25,000 for the paving of a certain street. I returned to the office of the [Training School] and handed in my report, thinking that the task was ended. The next morning my assignment was to locate that street and to see if it needed paving. The street was more difficult to find than the City Hall but I finally located it over on the east side. I found that it had never been paved. I made this report in writing, feeling that my task was ended. The next morning my assignment was to go to the city clerk’s office and search the records to see if the street had ever been paved before. I discovered that the street every year for 25 years had been paved.” 

C. Children in the City

As in today’s New York City, children in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a broad range of experiences, experiences that often depended on their socio-economic class. Edwin Seligman, future Columbia professor of economics, was born and raised in Manhattan—the child of a wealthy German-Jewish family. Seligman was tutored as a child by the children’s author Horatio Alger, famous for his rags-to-riches stories–in which a poor but honest, industrious, and frugal lad finds himself, by dint of pluck and not a little luck, happy, married, and wealthy by story’s end. Seligman’s own family history, and his childhood experiences in New York City, in many ways mirrored Horatio Alger’s stories of childhood flourishing.

But in that same city, and in these same years, on streets near Greenwich Village, the social settlement activist Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch wrote (in November 1903): ”A neighbor’s child was burned to death alone in a tenement house. A man was stabbed on election night by a drunken comrade. On Cornelia Street…the [Irish and Italian] Jones Street boys are fighting the colored boys nightly with one or two really serious results.” And, a “Jewish girl, sixteen years old,” was told by an employment agent that “she was going to a restaurant to work for two dollars a week and tips,” discovered that she was to be sent to a brothel instead. The girl was saved when an unidentified “assistant” paid ten dollars to the agency for her release.

“CHILD LABOR IN NEW YORK,” New York Times, January 12, 1903, pg. 8. A petition with numerous signers, many of them persons of experience and authority in such matters, has been submitted to the Legislature for amendments to the laws regulating child labor and providing for compulsory education. The chief complaint brought forward by the petitioners is that the two laws do not agree, and the discrepancies interfere with the enforcement of each. The compulsory education law, for instance, requires as to children of twelve years of age merely that they shall attend school eighty days. The child labor law requires that children shall not work until they are fourteen years of age. If the former law required compulsory schooling until fourteen, the enforcement of the latter, it is believed, would be much more practicable. On the other hand, an amendment to the school law requiring school attendance at an age earlier than eight, as at preset, would also help. Amendments are also proposed prohibiting vacation work for children of twelve, making the ten-hour limit strict without reference to shorter hours on Saturdays, including street work in the occupations forbidden under fourteen, requiring a child’s name when employed to appear on a pay roll, and requiring a certificate of ability to read and write as a condition of lawful employment. These, as we understand them, are the points made in the petition, but that document is loosely drawn and not easily interpreted. Probably amendments are needed to the laws. These should be carefully studied and collated by a competent lawyer, and such recommendations should be made perfectly clear to the Legislature.

Group 1:”The Undeserving Poor and the Deserving Poor”

Josephine Shaw Lowell

You are assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth.” Your group will explain its view that government does harm if it gets involved in aiding poor men and women whose poverty arises because they are “indolent” (lazy). Your group will refer to these men and women as “the undeserving poor.” You will report to the “Commission” as Mrs. Lowell and members of her Charity Organization Society of the late 1800s. You believe the “Undeserving Poor” must be offered jobs and not given “alms” (money). The poor need to learn the discipline of work, and private organizations such as the Charity Organization Society can help them get in the habit of work. Children who watch their parents work hard and take moral responsibility for their lives are likely themselves also to become responsible, hardworking citizens. Society needs to teach the underserving poor to take responsibility for their own lives. They must overcome their indolence, alcoholism, or drug dependency. The undeserving poor need to get a job!

Josephine Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society (COS) in the late nineteenth century. The COS sent “friendly visitors” into New York City’s poor neighborhoods. “Friendly visitors” used questionnaires to determine whether a poor man or woman deserved Charity Organization Society support. “Friendly visitors” went into apartments of the poor and asked questions. If the poor person was judged “undeserving” (that is, undeserving of being given money by the COS—for example, the “friendly visitor” might see evidence of alcohol or abuse) then the poor person would be refused alms.

Josephine Lowell said “recipients of alms become dependent, lose their energy, are rendered incapable of self-support, and what they receive in return for their lost character is quite inadequate to supply their needs; thus they are kept on the verge almost of death by the very persons who think they are relieving them.” 

Josephine Lowell continued “It is the greatest wrong that can be done to him to undermine the character of a poor man–for it is his all”; “almsgiving and dolegiving are hurtful–therefore they are not charitable”; “the proof that dolegiving and almsgiving do break down independence, do destroy energy, do undermine character, may be found in the growing ranks of pauperism in every city, in the fact that the larger the funds given in relief in any community, the more pressing is the demand for them, and in the experience and testimony of all practical workers among the poor.” (NOTE the importance of this last sentence: Lowell is arguing that when we as a society give out money to those who won’t work—as ‘welfare’ or alms—we find that more and more (and ever more) money is demanded by them. 

Lowell did fault “the pressure of the unjust social laws and legislative enactments which produce hardship and cause more people to become idlers than would otherwise be the case,” but, “the usual cause of poverty,” she wrote, “is to be found in some deficiency–moral, mental, or physical–in the person who suffers.”

The Charity Organization Society’s “Friendly Visitors” assessed the worthiness of each individual poor person who applied to it for aid, and also lectured the poor–and tried to find them jobs. The COS even hired many of the poor. Women deemed employable were sent to wash and iron at a Charity Organization Society laundry that opened in 1889 at 589 Park Avenue and moved to the Society’s Industrial Building at 516 West 28th Street in 1900. By the early 1900s the laundry was training eighty or ninety women a month. The system began first “over steaming wash-tubs, advances them to starching and ironing, and graduates them with a recommendation after thorough instruction in the ironing of filmy lace curtains and finest linen.”

The Charity Organization Society also opened a wood yard in 1884 on East 24th Street, where young men were sent to test their willingness to work. The Society sold tickets to the charitable for them to offer to street beggars in lieu of cash–each ticket entitled its bearer to a day’s work in the wood yard. Beggars who showed themselves willing to work were placed–as jobs became available–as domestic servants, factory workers, janitors and furnace men, messengers and delivery boys, porters, watchmen, drivers, dishwashers, bootblacks, and the like. The Charity Organization Society functioned, in this way, as an employment agency.

The Charity Organization Society did not content itself with its private activities but took public action against what it perceived as New York City’s indiscriminate charity. When the city persisted in distributing free coal to the poor (a practice it had begun in 1875), the COS lobbied legislators and the practice stopped. It even urged the municipal government to follow the European practice of giving lengthy prison sentences to vagrants and street beggars. And, when, in 1904, “a flurry of excitement over children who go breakfastless to school” created a movement to provide “free meals” at public expense, the Charity Organization Society opposed it in hearings before the city’s special committee of the Board of Education. 

Two years later, another proposal was offered to “give eye-glasses to all for whom they were prescribed” among the city’s school children, and the Society took a stand against it as “’certainly unnecessary’“ “in view of the admitted ability of parents in the very great majority of all cases to take care of their own children.” Although, the COS was stern but not heartless: it would “supply the needs of any child” whose family was truly unable to feed them or buy eyeglasses. (And, to be fair to Lowell, by the end of the century she was, increasingly asserting the need for some government assistance to the poor.)

Group 2: Family, Faith, Education, and Work — “No government assistance!”

John W. Burgess

You are assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” from the following perspective. You will explain the view held by Columbia University political scientist John W. Burgess that poverty will best be addressed and curtailed through faith, family, education, and individual moral responsibility.  John W. Burgess was a political conservative who believed, as he wrote in 1912: ”We dare not call anything progress . . . which contemplates . . . the expansion of governmental power.” He argued that “improvement and development of — the system of popular education, — revival of the influence of religion, –the restoration of a better family life, producing a more enlightened individual conscience and a more general conscientiousness would … be the truer way, the American way, the real progressive way of overcoming the claimed failure of our system.” In his writings, Burgess advocated government by the elite. “It is difficult to see why the most advantageous political system, for the present, would not be a democratic state with an aristocratic government, provided only the aristocracy be that of real merit, and not of artificial qualities. If this be not the real principle of the republican form of government then I must confess that I do not know what its principle is.”

Burgess also held racist ideas. He believed “Teutonic nations are particularly endowed with the capacity for establishing national states . . . they are intrusted [sic], in the general economy of history, with the mission of conducting the political civilization of the modern world.” In a book on Reconstruction after the Civil War he wrote “black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.”

Group 3: Our Responsibility as Consumers

Florence Kelley

Your Group is assigned to give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth,” from the perspective that each of us as consumers can end poverty by buying goods and services made by workers being paid a living wage. This means buying from stores, farms, and manufacturers that pay a living (good/high) wage to employees — and from employers who do not hire children. If we will each buy goods and services made by workers (especially unionized workers) we can, by our individual shopping habits, reduce poverty among the working class–and end child labor (because working adults will be earning a living wage and will be able to afford to send their kids to school instead of into the factories to earn money to supplement parents’ low wages). Your group will argue from the perspective of Florence Kelley’s National Consumers’ League headquartered in New York City.

Under Kelley’s leadership the Consumers’ League worked against industrial sweatshops and against sweated labor in tenements, it sought an end to child labor, and to excessive hours and night work for women. In 1904 the League published a “Standard Child Labor Law” intended as a model for uniform laws across the country. A “Consumers’ League label” was affixed to articles “made under conditions approved by the League” and the League published a “White List” (the reverse of a blacklist) of recommended retail stores, where working conditions were, by League standards, fair. Kelley also championed state and federal minimum wage laws, and laws to regulate hours of labor, but she urged that we, individually, as consumers must also do our part by buying goods made by workers paid a living wage.

In 1907, Florence Kelly argued “An association of persons who in making their purchases strives to further the welfare of those who make or distribute the things bought. The act of shopping seems to many trivial and entirely personal, while in reality it exerts a far reaching, oft-repeated influence for good or evil.” Kelley also wrote “the interest of the community demands that all workers should receive, not the lowest wages, but fair living wages . . . Responsibility for debilitating workplace conditions “rests with the consumers who persist in buying in the cheapest markets regardless of how cheapness is brought about.” 

Frances Perkins, secretary of the New York branch of the Consumers’ League and later United States Secretary of Labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration), wrote “The Consumers’ League is an organization of persons who wish to improve the industrial conditions by utilizing the shopping power, the buying power of the consumers, who are banded together, that is, by pledging themselves in their shopping to do their buying in such a way as to improve conditions, rather than make them worse.” 

According to Florence Kelley pensions would “lift the burden from the widowed mother by giving her, as her right and not as the dole of a private charity…an allowance out of public funds on condition that she stay in her home and keep her children at home and in school.” Jean M. Gordon, a National Child Labor Committee member, wrote in The Child Labor Bulletin: “I contend it is just as much the duty of the State to pension dependent mothers as dependent veterans. Certainly the mother does as much for the country in rearing her children as the veterans did in killing her sons!”

Group 4: The Need for Mothers’ Pensions

“Public aid would have to be administered with intelligence and care,” Mary Simkhovitch wrote in an essay, “Women’s Invasion of the Industrial Field.” “But the difficulty of developing the technique of such a plan is not to be compared with the difficulty the state will meet through the inadequate care of families.”

Your group will give testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” explaining that mothers in single-headed households (households in which a father is not present) must be provided with money from New York City and New York State so that these mothers can feed, clothe, and shelter their children. In the early twentieth century the term “pension” was used in the context of giving people state tax dollars — there were, for example, Civil War Pensions in which former Union soldiers from the Civil War were given old age pensions. Your group will urge the Commission to create a system of Mothers’ Pensions (money the state will give single moms to help them raise their children). Your positions is that private charity organizations alone simply cannot feed and clothe all needy children.

Group 5: State Governments are the proper venue for laws against child labor and for child education.

Edgar Gardner Murphy

In your testimony to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth,” you will argue that individual states, not the federal government, must pass laws to regulate child labor. You are in agreement with Edgar Murphy and his allies that child labor laws are the responsibility of individual state governments only. Edgar Murphy’s argument was grounded in federalism. Federalism is the view that powers not granted by the Constitution to the Federal government are powers that are retained by individual state governments. Since the regulation of child labor was not listed in the U.S. Constitution as a power of the Federal government, Child Labor must fall under the regulatory power of individual State governments.

Edgar Murphy was an Episcopal minister from the South and the first secretary of the National Child Labor Committee. In 1903, Murphy wrote “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.” 

Murphy claimed he was “interested 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 . . . I am resolved to take my part, however humbly, in the settling of the industrial character of our greatest industry . . . 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.”

Group 6: Federal Child Labor Laws must be Passed

Samuel McCune Lindsay

Your group will testify to “The New York City Commission on Poverty and Youth” that a Federal Child Labor law is needed. You will advise the Commission to support passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill, a 1916 bill that would regulate child labor from the federal level by forbidding the interstate shipment of products of child labor. 

Samuel McCune Lindsay, Professor of Social Legislation at Columbia University argued at the 1911 National Child Labor Committee conference: ”Is it not our duty to seek for greater uniformity in the protection of working children, so that the children of all states may enjoy the same rights to a normal childhood, to life, education and leisure, to a time for play, a chance to grow and an opportunity to develop their best abilities whether they are raised in Alabama or Pennsylvania, in Georgia or Massachusetts, in Texas or Ohio? It is precisely to promote and secure this equality of opportunity for all American children that we are organized as a National Child Labor Committee [and therefore a FEDERAL LAW making child labor illegal is needed].”

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