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A Reformer Describes Child Labor in the Coal Mines

John Spargo's The Bitter Cry of Children, published in 1906, was among the most influential and widely read accounts of child labor written during the Progressive era. Spargo described work at the coal breaker, the area outside the mine where coal was sorted and organized according to its quality, mostly by young children.

Work in the coal breakers is exceedingly hard and dangerous. Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men. When a boy has been working for some time and begins to get round-shouldered, his fellows say that “He’s got his boy to carry round wherever he goes.” . . .

I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day. The gloom of the breaker appalled me. Outside the sun shone brightly, the air was pellucid [clear], and the birds sang in chorus with the trees and the rivers. Within the breaker there was blackness, clouds of deadly dust enfolded everything, the harsh, grinding roar of the machinery and the ceaseless rushing of coal through the chutes filled the ears. I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was [spitting up] some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed.

I could not do that work and live, but there were boys of ten and twelve years of age doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of them had never been inside of a school; few of them could read a child’s primer. True, some of them attended the night schools, but after working ten hours in the breaker the educational results from attending school were practically nil. “We goes fer a good time, an‘ we keeps de guys wot’s dere hoppin’ all de time,” said little Owen Jones, whose work I had been trying to do. . . .

Source | John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of Children (New York: Macmillan, 1906), 163-165; from History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5571
Creator | John Spargo
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | John Spargo, “A Reformer Describes Child Labor in the Coal Mines,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 26, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1998.

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