From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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September 6, 1880

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At this time a large number of working-class families were living on the edge of poverty. And poverty was defined as being unable to provide food, clothing, shelter and fuel for one's self and one's family. Employment was often erratic with seasonal and occupational or industrial fluctuations common. Heads of households had no guarantees of regular annual incomes and even when steady wages were achieved they were usually insufficient to support families decently. Consequently wives and children often were required to work in order to sustain the family. Although women earned less than men and children were paid less than women, the combined income of all members able to work could be enough to set the family unit above the poverty line.

Between 1867 and 1899 Horatio Alger, Jr., wrote 135 dime novels for young boys. These concerned young men who by hard work and perseverance fought all obstacles to rise from poverty to riches. This formula had been true for a few men such as Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould. But they had been rare exceptions. In some instances unskilled laborers' sons became skilled workers but it was exceedingly rare for them to achieve middle-class status or better.

By state law in 1879 boys under the age of twelve and all females were prohibited from working in coal mines. After the local ordinance in question was subjected to several amendments, including one which made it not apply to children of widows, it was rejected by the city council and placed on file.

Points to Consider

Why was this proposed ordinance prohibiting the employment of children under age twelve?

How did poor families with children support themselves at this time?

How many hours a week could a fifteen-year-old child have been expected to work in 1880?

What kind of a future could a fully employed twelve-year-old have faced.

See Related Document:

6, 31 and 33

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