Child Labor In Rhode Island     

                                by Ellen Spilka
The system of child labor in Rhode Island mills began with Samuel Slater’s first employees who were from seven to twelve years old.  By 1830, 55% of the mill workers in Rhode Island were children.

There was a great deal of pious talk and perhaps a sincere belief that working in a mill was good for a child – building character, teaching the value of work, avoiding idleness.  Basically the purpose was profit on the part of the mill owners and the need to survive on the part of families that sent their children into the mills.  Wages were just too low for any family to exist without the children’s meager pay.  It might take five or six children to bring home enough money for the family.

Life in the mills was extremely difficult and unhealthy even for adults.  The work day started before sunrise and ended after sunset.  The air in the mills was full of flying lint particles and it was impossible to avoid breathing these in.  Respiratory disease and early death were common among mill workers.  The mills were cold and drafty in the winter, hot and humid in the summer; dirty, noisy, and uncomfortable at all times.  Corporal punishment by the overseers was a common practice.  The danger of working near machines was always present.  Exhausted, sleepy children often lost fingers, arms, or scalps to the devouring machinery.  

In addition to these, children were growing up illiterate.  Mill children did not attend schools.  Many children in the Blackstone Valley did not know what a school was.

Legislation against child labor was not effective.  In 1910 only 40% of Rhode Island children attended school.  Truancy laws such as this one (click on image to the right to read) posted in The Conant Thread Company were generally ignored.  Parents and mill owners alike found ways around the half-hearted laws.

The American dream of a better life for the children, which drew immigrants to the United States and to the Blackstone Valley, could hardly be found in this mill culture.  It wasn’t until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act that child labor was finally eliminated in the United States.  For one hundred and fifty years, Rhode Island mill owners had gained their profits by the misery of little children.


copyrighted material

photo by Lewis Hines

Click on the poster to read.

photo by Lewis Hines

photo by Lewis Hines