Child Labor in New York City Tenements

Mary Van Kleeck Charities and the Commons 18 January 18, 1908
The following brief report gives the results of a joint investigation made during the months from October, 1906, to April, 1907, into the labor of children in manufacture in tenement houses in New York City. The National Consumers' League and the Consumers' League of New York City, the National and New York Child Labor Committees, and the College Settlements Association co-operated in the undertaking.

In the most thickly populated districts of New York City, especially south of Fourteenth street, little children are often seen on the streets carrying large bundles of unfinished garments, or boxes containing materials for making artificial flowers. This work is given out by manufacturers or contractors to be finished in tenement homes, where the labor of children of any age may be utilized. For the laws of New York state, prohibiting the employment of children under fourteen years of age in factories, stores, or other specified work-places, have never been extended to home workrooms. In this fact is presented a child labor problem,-as yet scarcely touched,-namely: How to prevent employment of young children in home work in manufacture?

So difficult has been the problem of regulating by law the conditions of employment in home workrooms, that advance in measures to protect children against premature toil in factories has had no parallel in provisions designed to regulate manufacture in tenement homes. Between these two systems of manufacture,-one carried on in factories and the other in the homes of the workers,-there are, therefore, some striking contrasts in the law. No maker of artificial flowers can employ in his factory any child under fourteen years of age, but he may give out work to an Italian family, in whose tenement rooms flowers are made by six children, aged two and one- half, five, eight, ten, fourteen and sixteen years. In another family Angelo, aged fourteen years, cannot work legally in a factory until he reaches a higher grade in school, nor can he work at home during hours when school is in session, but his little sister Maria, aged three years, because she is not old enough to go to school and because the home work law contains no prohibition of child labor, may help her mother pull bastings and sew on buttons. A public school teacher notices that Eva and Mary R., aged eleven and ten years, are pale and under-nourished, but although the compulsory education law supports her in requiring their attendance in school during school hours, she cannot prevent their making flowers at home from three o'clock until nine or ten at night. Many good citizens would demand the prosecution of a manufacturer who employed in his factory Tony aged four years, Maria aged nine, Rose aged ten, Lousia aged eleven, and Josephine aged thirteen years. For such an offense the employer might be fined $100 for each child under fourteen years of age found at work in his factory. Yet public has not raised an effective protest against the same employer when he turns these children's home into a branch of his factory and gives them work in which event the smallest child in the family joins through long hours under a necessity as imperious in its demand for the constant work and attention of the child as would be the commands of a foreman in a factory.

In brief, the law which regulates home work manufacture in New York City, contains no provisions to prevent the employment of children nor to restrict the working hours of minors or women. It provides merely that work on certain specified articles (forty-one in number) given out by manufacturers or contractors, nay not be carried on in a tenement living room, unless the owner of the house has first obtained a license from the New York State Department of Labor. Any articles not named in the law may legally be manufactured in unlicensed houses.

That the law in New York state does not protect more effectively these child workers in tenement homes, is due not to a lack of opposition to premature employment of children,. but to the impossibility of dealing with the problem merely as a child labor question apart from deep-rooted evils essential to the "sweating system," of which home work is an important part. The evils of the system,-intense competition among unskilled workers in a crowded district, low wages, unrestricted hours of work, irregularity of employment, and utilization of child labor,-are the very conditions which make the system possible and profitable to the employer. Any effective attempt to improve conditions must therefore be an attack upon the sweating system. The manufacturer or contractor, whose employees work in their home, escapes responsibility entailed by the presence of workers in his factory. He saves costs of rent, heat, and light; avoids the necessity of keeping the force together and giving them regular employment when work is slack. And by turning the workers' homes into branches of the factory, he escapes in them the necessity of observing the factory laws. Instead of the manifold restrictions which apply to employees working in the factory, he is here responsible only for keeping a list of his home workers and he may not send any goods, which are named in the home work law into a tenement which has not been licensed.


The salient features of child labor in home work in New York City may best be illustrated by describing conditions of work of a few of the children so employed, indicating the baffling nature of the problem and at the same time disclosing the serious defect in the present law already described,-its failure to prevent child labor.

If fifty of these children could be gathered together to tell their stories, they would be found to illustrate very distinct conditions under which work is carried on in tenement homes. There is the child of the very poor family who, for various reasons, has fallen below the level of economic independence, and is receiving partial support from a relief society. Another child belongs to a family whose earnings form employment outside the home are entirely adequate for support, but who because of the custom of the neighborhood and a desire to earn a little extra money, take work from a factory to be done at home by members who would otherwise be non- wage earners, the mother and the younger children. In other cases supplementary income derived from home work enables wage earners in outside employments to work with less regularity or to underbid their competitors.

Aside from differences in family circumstances, the children's employment varies greatly in regularity. One child goes every day to school and works only when school is not in session. Another, although of school age, has been kept at home more or less regularly throughout the day, to make flowers or pull bastings. Others, ever since their arrival in the United States, have succeeded in escaping the truant officer, to add their daily earnings to the family income. And although living in the most crowded districts of New York City have never learned to speak or write the English language. Finally there are those who. although they take little part in work brought from the factories, nevertheless bear the burden of the home work system by being compelled to care for younger children or do house work while the mother sews or makes flowers or engages in some other of the numerous varieties of work carried on in tenement homes.

The children are found to illustrate also various phases of the law's application, according to their relation to compulsory education on the one hand and the attempted regulation of home work on the other. This relation of the child to the law demands especial emphasis as illustrating concretely the scope of present regulations.


To a casual visitor, the brightest side of home work would appear in the tenements on Sullivan, Thompson, Macdougal, Houston, and neighboring streets, among makers of artificial flowers. Many houses are "new law" tenements, in which provision has been made for light and air. In many of them there is full compliance with the provisions of the home work law. It is therefore a neighborhood which illustrates well the limitations of the licensing system.

So general is the custom of home work in this district that as one mounts the stairs in any one of these houses one finds on every floor, and in almost every apartment, families of flower-makers.

On the top floor of a licensed house on Sullivan street two children, Angelina aged eleven years, and Katharine aged eight years, were at work helping an older sister make roses at eight cents a gross. The apartment was clean and light and the family prosperous, with an income of at least $20 a week from sources other than home work,-the wages of the father and two brothers/ The older sister aged eighteen years, worked at home rather than in a factory so that she might help her mother with housework. So small was the pay for flowers that she forced her two younger sisters to work steadily after school hours until eight o'clock at night, in order that together they might earn eighty cents a day, the wages paid for making, counting and bunching 1,440 small roses. At the neighboring school it was found that both Angelina and Katherine attended regularly, but that their marks in "proficiency" were lower than their marks in "effort and deportment." Of Katharine, the younger, the teacher said, "The child is very sleepy during school hours." Yet the children were obeying the compulsory education law, and their work was done in a clean house where the required framed license hung in the hallway. No statute was therefore violated by their employment.

On the same floor where Katharine and Angelina lived, four other children, Vito, aged fourteen years, Karie aged twelve, Jennie nine, and Antoinette seven, were at work making "June buds" at eight cents a gross. Their total earnings combined with the wages of their mother and older sister were between fifty and sixty cents a day. On the next floor below, Michael aged thirteen years, and his mother were making paper flowers. Across the hall, Maggie aged sixteen years, Angelina aged fourteen, Josephine aged eight, Tony aged six, and Frank aged four, were at work on a more complicated kind of rose for which the employer paid twenty-five cents a gross. But this work brought no higher wages than cheaper grades of flowers, since to make three and one-half gross in a day the family must work until 9 P.M. One child, Josephine who was often kept at home to help in flower making, had been absent from school one day in three through the autumn when the flower season was at its height. Nearby was a family who made black violets at five cents a gross,-Antoinette, aged eight years, and Mary aged thirteen, helping after school. When the materials come from the factory the petals stick together and must be separated before they are pasted on the stems. This work was done by Lucy aged six years who, a visitor reported, "is not very well, so the mother does not send her to kindergarten. She works almost all day or else cares for the baby."

In the same house were several other children who made roses or violets or other flowers, of cheap grade: John B. aged thirteen years; Jennie V. aged thirteen; Jasmine aged fourteen, and James D. aged six, who lived in the rear apartment of the first floor, where high buildings nearby shut out the light so that it is necessary to keep gas burning in the rooms where work is done. Also Celia aged fourteen years, Julia aged ten, and Josie aged six, who lived in the front apartment on the first floor, were helping their mother make violets at three and one- half cents a gross. They worked until 9 P.M. to finish between 1440 and 1700 flowers in a day, for which they were paid thirty-five or forty cents.

In no case was the manufacturing violating the labor law in employing these children. Not only were these cases of child labor quite permissible under the present attempted legal regulation of home work, but even an increased stringency in those sanitary requirements which are the essential feature of the present law would probably not affect in any way this house or the work of these children, since sanitary conditions were satisfactory.

The licensing system does not re-enforce the compulsory education law. If Farah M., an Italian child aged ten years had not lived in a licensed tenement it would not have been so difficult for the school authorities to compel her parents to send her to school. After sixty days' absence and four fruitless visits from a truant officer she was found still working at home, sewing buttons on corduroy trousers. The framed certificate in the hall showed that the house was licensed, an for this reason it was not possible to re-enforce the compulsory education law by preventing the child's employment at home. The family was very poor, there were four children younger than Sarah, and the father, an unskilled day laborer, was out of work. The possibility of working at home without any interference by the inspectors of the Labor Department, placed a premium upon the child's truancy. The aid of a relief society was finally secured on the ground that a family who were obliged to depend upon the work of a child of ten years, were evidently not self-supporting and should be aided on condition that the child be sent to school as the law requires. But even after this, the society reported that it would be necessary to watch the family. For it was the busy season in the clothing trade, the time when every member of the homeworkers' households is pressed into service to fill the contractors' orders.


Although the present provisions of the home work law are intended to prevent manufacture in apartments where there is disease, by requiring immediate action by the State Department of Labor and the city Department of Health, the licensing system does not guard sufficiently against work where disease exists. After a house has been properly licensed, some member of a family of workers may be afflicted with tuberculosis, and the fact may not be reported either to the Board of Health or the Department of Labor. To guard against the danger of manufacturing articles under such conditions, would require constant watching of the shifting population of a New York City tenement. It is hardly to be expected that among the great crowds of possible home workers peopling a city block, each family can be watched by the over- burdened Labor Department upon which devolves, besides the work of factory inspection, the task of examining regularly more than 5,000 licensed tenements in Greater New York, and of detecting any work carried on illegally among the far greater number of unlicensed houses.

The possibility of homework in an apartment where there is disease, and the employment of children under these unhealthy conditions, is illustrated by an Italian family referred to a relief society in the autumn of 1906. The house had been licensed in the preceding year, when the sanitary conditions presumably were satisfactory to the Department of Health, the Tenement House Department, and the Department of Labor, and there must have been no evidence of disease among the tenants. Yet in 1906 it was found that for weeks a family living in the house had been finishing clothing in the room where the oldest daughter, Vincenza, aged sixteen years, lay dying of tuberculosis.

A visitor of the relief society found Rosina aged thirteen years, helping her mother and father in the work of finishing trousers. Since the arrival of the family in the United States seven years before, neither Rosina nor Vincenza had attended school, and neither could read or write. With the father ill of tuberculosis, Vincenza no longer able to work, and four younger children, aged eleven, seven, five and two years, to be cared for. Rosina, who had helped to support the family since she was six years old, was now the chief wage earner. Her brother, Giuseppe, aged eleven years helped in the sewing after school hours. But at the price of four cents a pair, for "felling" seams, finishing linings, and sewing buttons trousers, all the workers in the family,-father, mother and two children, by united effort, could not earn more than four or five dollars a week.

When the relief society aided the family, Vincenza was sent to a hospital, and Rosina for the first time in her life began to go to school. But she continued to sew at home after school hours. A later entry in the society's records reports that "Rosina and Giuseppe were busy at work finishing. Rosina said that she went to school regularly all day sessions, and that she and her brother helped at finishing after school."

All that the law could do for Rosina was to add school work to the ceaseless toil in which she had spent her days since early childhood. In her work at home from the time she was six years old for a manufacturer of clothing no provision of the labor law was violated. After her eighth birthday, her work at home, in that it prevented her attending school, caused a violation of the compulsory education law. But the work in itself, so long as the family lived in a licensed tenement, was never at any time illegal until Vincenza developed tuberculosis. Nor was this and the danger to the public health from the presence of a communicable disease in the home workroom prevented by the Department of Labor or the Board of Health.

Where, however, disease is detected in the homes of workers, the action of these two departments is swift and as effective as possible under present conditions.

A widow and four children were living in a rear tenement on Chrystie street where they rented two rooms at nine dollars a month. The house is an old one, with old fashioned worn-out wooden stairs and sinks from which water frequently overflows on the stair landings. Three of the children in the family referred to,-Messina aged eleven years, Mary aged nine, and Ida aged six, helped their mother in finishing overcoats of good quality well lined with black satin. The children were under-nourished and undeveloped, entirely unfit physically for any work, especially sewing heavy cloth overcoats. The rooms in which they lived were very dirty, and the family owned only one bed. At night they used the cloth overcoats for covering.

The case was brought to the notice of the Department of Labor, by a relief society, who aided the family for some years. Angelo, the oldest boy, had been examined by a physician, who reported that he had scabies(itch), a disease liable to attack all the members of the family at any time. The physician recommended that all the clothing be burned and the rooms thoroughly cleaned.

When the State Department of Labor was notified inspectors "tagged" all goods in process of manufacture throughout the house, refused a license and forbade further work until sanitary conditions should be improved and the disease cured. Ten days later the mother tried to bring home more work, but the landlord (who in case any tenant disobeyed the orders of the Department of Labor would have been liable to prosecutions as though he himself had been engaged in this unlawful manufacture), refused to allow her to do any more sewing in her home, and shortly afterwards told her that she must move, in order that the house might be licensed. After their dispossession, the landlord succeeded in obtaining the license permitting work in the house. When last they were heard from, some months later, they were still engaged in home work in another house to which they had moved, described by the Department of Labor as old ramshackle building in a most dilapidated and dirty condition.

All that can now be done is to report the conditions there to the Health Department. All that we could do in the matter of the former dwelling was to delay issuing the license until the objectionable family moved, which we did.

The presence of a contagious, infectious, or communicable disease, or the existence of unclean or unsanitary conditions is sufficient ground for forbidding home work. But if no such unhealthy or unsanitary conditions exist, and if the tenement is properly licensed, the fact that three sickly children, aged eleven, nine and six years, are at work, is the concern of no official department, a violation of no law.


Since it is the theory of the licensing system that no home work is to be permitted in any tenement until the Department of Labor is convinced that the premises are sanitary, it is clear that the existence of work in unlicensed tenements is evidence of failure in the law's enforcement. The day after Christmas, 1906, three child workers, Vito aged thirteen years, Maggie aged eleven, and Billy aged nine, were visited in a tenement on James street. Vito had just brought from a nearby shop ten dozen pairs of boys' trousers to be finished for the wage of four cents a dozen. The father, a plasterer, who can earn $1.75 a day, was idle, depending for a while on the earnings of his wife and children, whose wages were higher during holidays than when school attendance interrupted their work. The family, consisting of father, mother and six children, of whom the youngest were aged six years, three and one, lived in two rooms for which they paid $11 a month. Home work was a regular means of supplementing the father's irregular earnings, and it was the habit of the family to take work as often as possible from the contractor, whose shop was within a block of their home. Yet the house in which they lived had never been licensed by the Department of Labor, and landlord, contractor, and worker were all breaking the labor law. That any possibility of prosecution was remote from the minds of the workers was indicated by the fact that although the visitors were strangers, the family made no attempt to conceal the work.

Just across the street from Sarah M., whose work at home during school hours has been described, lived another child who had been a truant from the same school. On September 16,1903, she had been admitted to the 3-A grade, but she was kept at home so often to help her mother "finish" clothing, that on April 27, 1905, she was still enrolled in the same grade which she had entered nearly two school years before. The truant officer was sent to visit the family and his report, entered in the school records, read: "Kept at home by mother." When the child had been absent a year and six months, a private organization made further efforts to compel her parents to send her to school, but after searching for the passport to prove her age, it was found that she had just passed her fourteenth birthday and was beyond the jurisdiction of the compulsory education law.

During this time, no one had attempted to compel the child's return to school, by preventing effectively the work which was the most important cause of her absence. In this case the labor law might have re-enforced the compulsory education law, because the house in which the child lived had not been licensed. Owing, however, to the fact that compliance with the legal provision requiring the display of a license in a conspicuous place in the hall, has not been demanded, private individuals and organizations cannot co-operate effectively in enforcing the law, without consulting the records of the Department of Labor. It is therefore difficult for anyone who is not an inspector of the department to detect violations.

Moreover, in the case of this child, the aid of the labor law would have been only temporary for the permit was withheld merely pending application by the owner of the house. An official "notice to apply" had been sent to him, and the speedy possession of a license would allow tenants, including their children, to engage in home-work.

The lack of private co-operation in reporting to the Labor Department the addresses of unlicensed houses where home work is found, is illustrated in the story of two families whose children were truants because of home work. The fact that the Labor Department had refused to license the house in which they were working, was not used by anyone as a means of preventing the children's employment. Nor was this fact known until investigators who were especially interested in the operation of the home work law visited the family and afterwards consulted the records of the Labor Department.

In the meantime, it had required the combined efforts of a settlement, a relief society, and school officers, to keep these children in school even for a few days. Nellie aged six years, Josephine aged eleven, and Josie aged nine, worked all day long, often until 10 o'clock at night "finishing" coats at four to six cents apiece. The two families who lived together numbered eleven, Giuseppina, Nellie and their father and mother and four younger children. The two men worked only at rare intervals, and depended upon the women and children to support the families. They refused therefore to let the children go to school, even long enough to learn to read and write. Compliance with the law was finally secured by means of court summons against the parents for truancy of their children. But after this had been accomplished, the children were still compelled to work at home continuously during hours when school was not in session.

One other phase of home work needs illustration: namely, the kinds of manufacture which are legal even though carried on in unlicensed houses. In a tenement which the Department of Labor had refused to license, two Italian boys, Mario aged twelve years, and Louis aged nine, were found sewing by hand the small tapes under the buttons and buttonholes for fine kid gloves. The mother was a widow with four children, aged fourteen, twelve, nine and five years. They lived in one small room, for which they paid a rent of $7.00. Their combined earnings from home work were not more than sixty cents a day, and they were aided necessarily by a relief society. Since the Department of Labor had found the house unworthy of a license, the tenants could not legally make flowers or finish clothing, or produce thirty-nine other articles specified in the statute; but because gloves are not named in the home work law their manufacture in tenement homes is neither prevented nor regulated.

In the same way, Bessie S. aged seven and one-half years, who helped to make silk tassels; Harry, Elise and Charles R., aged thirteen, eight and six years, who carded buttons at five cents a gross; and Mary and Jennie M. aged eleven and nine years, who fastened cords to pencils for souvenir cards at forty cents a thousand, were all legally employed at home out of school hours, although no one of them lived in a licensed tenement.

In these descriptions of children's employment, the twofold aspect of home work in its relation to child labor is illustrated. In one group are the children whose work at home is legal because they live in licensed houses or because they are at work on articles not named in the home work law; in the other are those whose employment is illegal, not because they are children, but because the tenements in which they live do not fulfill the sanitary requirements necessary for a license. The problem is complicated by the vast extent of the home work system in New York City.


To count the number of homeworkers has proved as baffling a task as to attempt to regulate their conditions of employment. There are no official figures showing the number of children employed in homework in New York City, nor has it been known in recent years how many adults are at work in licensed houses. There are, however, certain data by which the extent of the system is indicated. Between 1899 when the provision for issuing licenses to families went into force, and 1904, when the law was amended to provide for licensing houses rather than individual apartments, the records of the Department of Labor showed each year the total number of licenses in force and the number of persons thus authorized to work. Since 1904, the official reports state the number of tenement houses which have been licensed by the department, but the number of workers must be inferred from records in previous years.

With these figures as a basis it is illuminating to combine the results of special investigation, such as the report on home work of the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1902; the Department of Labor's special inquiry into the employment of children in licensed houses on certain specified streets in March, 1907, and the present investigation.

The facts contained in the annual report of the New York Department of Labor, 1902, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics made a special investigation of more than 1,000 home workers in New York City indicate the wide extent of the system at the time when the licensing provision had been in force three years. Says the report:

It appears that in New York City 16,068 family workrooms were licensed in 1901, and that 27,019 persons were authorized to work therein. These numbers have since been slightly increased (1902) but may still be regarded as sufficiently representative for use in this connection. The important fact to be noted is that seven-ninths of all the licensed homeworkers in New York City are women, and that six-sevenths of these women work on clothing, nearly all of whom are "home finishers." There were also among the female home-workers somewhat more than one thousand makers of neckwear and nearly a thousand makers of artificial flowers.

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