Child Labor in City Streets

Child Labor in City Streets

Edward Nicholas Clopper
Edward Nicholas Clopper

Author: Clopper, Edward Nicholas, 1879-1953
Child labor
Child Labor in City Streets


New York
All rights reserved

MACMILLAN & CO., Limited
Copyright, 1912,
Set up and electrotyped. Published September, 1912. Reprinted January, 1913.
Norwood Press
J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.


This volume is devoted to the discussion of a neglected form of child labor. Just why the newsboy, bootblack and peddler should have been ignored in the general movement for child welfare is hard to understand. Perhaps it is due to “the illusion of the near.” Street workers have always been far more conspicuous than any other child laborers, and it seems that this very proximity has been their misfortune. If we could have focused our attention upon them as we did upon children in factories, they would have been banished from the streets long ago. But they were too close to us. We could not get a comprehensive view and saw only what we happened to want at the moment—their paltry little stock in trade. Now that we are getting a broader sense of social responsibility, we are beginning to realize how blind and inconsiderate we have been in our treatment of them.
The first five chapters of the book review present conditions and discuss causes, the next two deal with effects, and the final ones are concerned with the remedy. The scope has been made as broad as possible. All forms of street work that engage any considerable number of children have been described at length, and opinions and findings of others have been freely quoted. I have attempted to show the bad results of the policy of laissez-faire as applied to this problem. Simply because these little boys and girls have been ministering to its wants, the public has given them scarcely a passing thought. It has been so convenient to have a newspaper or a shoe brush thrust at one, it has not occurred to us that, for the sake of the children, such work would better be done by other means. Although good examples have been set by European cities, we have not introduced any innovations to clear the streets of working children.
The free rein at present given to child labor in our city streets is productive of nothing but harmful results, and it is high time that a determined stand was taken for the rights of children so exposed. A few feeble efforts at regulation have been made in some parts of this country, but this is an evil that requires prohibition rather than regulation. There is no valid reason why just as efficient service in streets could not be rendered by adults. Certainly it would be far more suitable and humane to reserve such work for old men and women who need outdoor life and are physically unable to earn their living in other ways. We could buy our newspaper from a crippled adult at a stand just as easily as we get it now from an urchin who shivers on the street corner. It is only a question of habit, and we ought to be glad of the change for the good of all concerned.
E. N. C.
Cincinnati, 1912.


I. The Problem of the Street-working Child—Public Apathy—Relation to Other Problems 1
II. Extent to which Children engage in Street Activities in America and Europe 24
III. Newspaper Sellers 52
IV. Bootblacks, Peddlers and Market Children 83
V. Messengers, Errand and Delivery Children 101
VI. Effects of Street Work upon Children 128
VII. Relation of Street Work to Delinquency 159
VIII. The Struggle for Regulation in the United States 189
IX. Development of Street Trades Regulation in Europe 214
  Conclusion 243
  Bibliography 245
  Appendices 255
  Index 277


The efforts which have so far been made in the United States to solve the child labor problem have been directed almost exclusively toward improvement of conditions in mines and manufacturing and mercantile establishments. This singling out of one phase of the problem for correction was due to the uneducated state of public opinion which made necessary a long and determined campaign along one line, vividly portraying the wrongs of children in this one form of exploitation, before general interest could be aroused. Within very recent years this campaign has met with signal success, and many states have granted a goodly measure of protection to the children of their working classes as far as the factory, the store and the mine are concerned. The time has now come for attention to be directed toward the premature employment of children in work other than that connected with mining and manufacturing, for there are other phases of this problem which involve large numbers of children and which, up to the present, have received but little thought from students of labor conditions. The three most important of these other phases are the employment of children in agricultural work, in home industries and in street occupations. This volume will deal with the last-named phase—with the economic activities of children in the streets and public places of our cities, their effects and the remedies they demand.
The street occupations in which children commonly engage are: newspaper selling, peddling, bootblacking, messenger service, delivery service, running errands and the tending of market stands. The first three are known as street “trades,” owing to the popular fallacy that the children who follow them are little “merchants,” and are therefore entitled to the dignity of separate classification. Careful usage would confine this term to newsboys, peddlers and bootblacks who work independently of any employer. Many children are employed by other persons to sell newspapers, peddle goods and polish shoes, and such children technically are street traders no more than those who run errands, carry messages or deliver parcels. Consequently the term “street trades” is limited in its application, and by no means embraces all the economic activities of children in our streets and public places.
Wisconsin has written into her laws a definition of street trading, declaring that it is “any business or occupation in which any street, alley, court, square or other public place is used for the sale, display or offering for sale of any articles, goods or merchandise.”[1] This covers neither bootblacking nor the delivery of newspapers.
In Great Britain the expression “street trading” has been officially defined as including: “the hawking of newspapers, matches, flowers, and other articles; playing, singing, or performing for profit; plying for hire in carrying luggage or messages; shoe blacking, or any other like occupations carried on in streets or public places.”[2]
Street traders and street employees may be classified by occupation as follows:—

Street Traders
(Working for Themselves)
Street Employees
(Working for Others)
Newspaper sellers
Bootblacks (on street)
Newspaper sellers (on salary)
Peddlers (on salary)
Bootblacks (in stands)
Market stand tenders
Errand children
Delivery children

This classification is based upon the well-known economic distinction between profits and wages. It is unfortunate that this distinction has been applied to juvenile street workers, for it has operated to the great disadvantage of the “traders.” This class has been practically ignored in the general movement for child welfare, on the ground that these little laborers were in business for themselves, and therefore should not be disturbed. Recently the conviction has been dawning upon observant people that, in the case of young children at least, the effects of work on an independent basis, particularly in city streets, are just as bad and perhaps even worse than work under the direction of employers. The mute appeal of the street-working child for protection has at last reached the heart of the welfare movement, and the first feeble efforts in his behalf are now being put forth, regardless of whether he toils for profits or for wages.
This alleged distinction between street trading and street employment should be clearly understood, as any movement designed to remedy present conditions must be sufficiently comprehensive to avoid the great mistake of protecting one class and ignoring the other. On the one hand there is said to be an army of little independent “merchants” conducting business affairs of their own, while on the other there is an array of juvenile employees performing the tasks set them by their masters. For purposes of regulation this distinction is hairsplitting, narrow-minded and unjust, as it has been made to defeat in part the beneficent aim of the great campaign for child welfare, but nevertheless it must be reckoned with. Children under fourteen years of age at work in factories and mines are often properly called “slaves,” and their plight is regarded with pity coupled with a clarion cry for their emancipation. But tiny workers in the streets are referred to approvingly as “little merchants” and are freely patronized even by the avowed friends of children, who thereby contribute their moral support toward continuing these conditions and maintaining this absurd fiction of our merchant babyhood. As an instance of this remarkable attitude, there was proudly printed in the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times of April 11, 1910, the picture of a four-year-old child who had been a newsboy in an Ohio town since the age of thirty months, and this was described as a most worthy achievement!
That the term “child labor,” whose meaning has so long been popularly restricted to the employment of children in factories, mills, mines and stores, is properly applicable to the activities of children in all kinds of work for profit, is now virtually recognized by a few states which prohibit employment of children under fourteen years of age “in any gainful occupation.” But unfortunately the courts have rigidly construed the word “employ” to mean the purchasing of the services of one person by another, hence newsboys, peddlers, bootblacks and others who work on their own account, do not enjoy the protection of such a statute because they are not “employed.” Under this interpretation a fatal loophole is afforded through which thousands of boys and girls escape the spirit of the law which seeks to prevent their labor rather than their mere employment. It is for this reason that, in states having otherwise excellent provisions for the conservation of childhood, we see little children freely exploiting themselves on city streets. This situation has been calmly accepted without protest by the general public, for, while the people condemn child labor in factories, they tolerate and even approve of it on the street. They labor under the delusion that merely because a few of our successful business men were newsboys in the past, these little “merchants” of the street are receiving valuable training in business methods and will later develop into leaders in the affairs of men. A glaring example of this attitude was given by a monthly magazine[3] which fondly referred to newsboys as “the enterprising young merchants from whose ranks will be recruited the coming statesmen, soldiers, financiers, merchants and manufacturers of our land.”
It is extremely unfortunate that this narrow conception has prevailed, as it raises the tremendous obstacle of popular prejudice which must be broken down before these child street workers can receive their share of justice at the hands of the law. The only fair and logical method of approach toward a solution of the child labor problem in all its phases is to take high ground and view the subject broadly in the light of what is for the best interests of children in general.
The state recognizes the need of an intelligent citizenship and accordingly provides a system of public schools, requiring the attendance of all children up to the age of fourteen years. In order that nothing shall interfere with the operation of this plan for general education, the state forbids the employment of children of school age. In respect of both these mandates, the state has really assumed the guardianship of the child; it has accepted the principle that the child is the ward of the state and has based its action on this principle. A guardian should be ever mindful of the welfare of his wards, and so, to be consistent, the state should carefully shield its children from all forms of exploitation as well as from other abuses.
However, in the matter of the regulation of child labor, a curious anomaly has arisen—no one may employ a child under fourteen years in a factory for even one hour a day without being liable to prosecution for disobeying the law of the state, because such work might interfere with the child’s growth and education; all of which is right and indorsed by public opinion, but—merely because a child is working independently of any employer, he is allowed to sell newspapers, peddle chewing gum and black boots for any number of hours, providing he attends school during school hours! Could anything be more inconsistent? To this extent the state, as a guardian, has neglected the welfare of its ward.
This lack of consideration for street workers was emphasized in a British government report a number of years ago. Referring to the statutory provisions for preventing overwork by children in factories, workshops and mines, the report declared: “But the labour of children for wages outside these cases is totally unregulated, although many of them work longer than the factory hours allowed for children of the same age, and are at the same time undergoing compulsory educational training, which makes a considerable demand on their energies. We think this is inconsistent. In the interests of their health and education, it seems only reasonable that remedies which have proved so valuable in the case of factory children should in some form be extended to cover the whole field of child labour.”[4]
To insure a good yield, a field requires cultivation as well as planting; to effect a cure, a patient requires nursing as well as prescription. So with the aim of the state—to insure a strong, intelligent citizenship, its children must be cared for, as well as provided with schools. If a patient is not nursed while the physician is absent, his treatment is of little avail; if children are not protected out of school hours, the purpose of the school is defeated. No manufacturer would allow his machinery to run, unwatched, outside regular work hours, for he knows how disastrous would be the consequences; yet this is precisely what the state is doing by ignoring the activities of children in our city streets—the delicate machinery of their minds and bodies is allowed to run wild out of schools hours, and the state seems to think nothing will happen! These thoughts impel us to the conclusion that the state must watch over the child at least until he has reached the age limit for school attendance, and in the matter of labor regulation its care must not be confined to the prevention of one form of exploitation while other forms, equally injurious, are permitted to flourish unchecked.
Legislation regulating street trading by children in this country is now in the stage corresponding to that of the English factory acts in the early part of the nineteenth century,—the first meager restrictions are being tried. Several of the street occupations, viz. messenger service, delivery service and errand running, are ordinarily included among those prohibited to children under fourteen years by state child labor laws, because to engage in such work children have to be employed by other persons. These occupations are covered by the provision common to such laws which forbids employment of such children “in the distribution or transmission of merchandise or messages.” The street “trades” of newspaper selling, peddling and bootblacking are, as yet, almost untouched by legislation in the United States, for there exist only a very few state laws and city ordinances relative to this matter, and these of the most primitive kind. The public does not yet realize the injustice of permitting young children to engage, uncontrolled, in the various street-trading activities. It was slow to appreciate the dangers involved in the unrestricted employment of children in factories, mills and mines, but when the awakening finally came, the demand for reform was insistent. This gradual development of a sentiment favoring regulation characterizes also the problem of street employment; the present stage is that of calm indifference, ruffled only by occasional misgivings. Even this is an encouraging sign, inasmuch as the factory agitation passed through the same experience, and emerged triumphant, crystallized in statute form.
It is hard to understand how the public conscience can reconcile itself to the chasm between the age limit of fourteen years for messenger service and freedom from all restraint in newspaper selling—both essentially street occupations. Child labor laws are framed in accordance with public sentiment, hence the people by legislative omission practically indorse street trading by little children while condemning their employment in other kinds of work. Thus the state virtually assumes the untenable position that it is right to allow a child of tender years to labor in the streets as a newsboy without any oversight or care whatever, and that it is wrong for him to work in the same field as a messenger, or an errand boy, or a delivery boy, although such occupations are subject to some degree of supervision by older persons. In other words, it is held that little children are capable of self-control in some street occupations, but not able to withstand the dangers of other similar street work, even under the control of adults! After having described the conditions prevailing in Philadelphia among newsboys, Mr. Scott Nearing says: “There are many causes leading up to this condition. Beneath all others lies the fundamental one—the lack of public sentiment in favor of protecting these children. Closely alli

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