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This Week In Illinois History: Eight-Hour Workdays… For Children (May 15, 1903)

Library of Congress (LC-DIG-nclc-01345)

On May 15, 1903, Illinois established the nation’s first eight-hour workday … for children. The new law also established that children could not work more than 48 hours a week.

Before this, factories worked children 12 to 14 hours a day and used them to crawl into hazardous machinery because of their small size. Labor unions, progressive politicians, school officials, the press, even some business leaders tried to change the laws to protect children, but they were up against wealthy, powerful business leaders and politicians who profited off child labor.

After decades of fighting and failure, women took charge. In the late 1800s, Jane Addams, the women’s rights advocate and founder of Hull House, joined several female reformers to launch their own child welfare movement. They recruited women and mothers from all walks of life and lobbied educators, politicians and judges to regulate child labor.

They wanted children out of the factories and in the schools. They argued that if children were not educated and properly socialized, American society would deteriorate.

They finally succeeded with the Child Labor Act of 1903. The Illinois bill established work hours, eliminated child labor at night and required child workers to provide proof that they attended school. The United States finally restricted child labor with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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