Legislative Branch

Kids at Work: Congress and Child Labor

Guiding Question:

What perspectives on child labor are represented in early twentieth-century photos, letters, and petitions? What is the role of Congress in addressing it?


This lesson uses primary sources to engage students in studying the Progressive Era issue of child labor. It features photographs taken by Lewis Hine for the Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau and photos submitted as evidence to Congress.  Students analyze petitions and letters sent to Congress and then discuss whether Congress should change regulating child labor from a state to a Federal responsibility.


4 photographs

4 documents

2 worksheets

Recommended Levels:

Grades 7 - 9


U.S. History or Civics

Time Required:

60 minutes

Learning Activities:

Activity 1: Analyzing Photographs
Work individually or in a small group to study the photographs of kids at work that are listed below. Record your responses on Worksheet 1, and prepare to share your responses with the full class.

  • “Photograph of newsboys selling near the Capitol building,” 04/10/1912, NAID 306628 
  • "Photograph of Wilbur H. Woodward, Western Union Messenger 236, is One of the Youngsters on the Border Line. He is 15 Years Old and Works until 8 P.M. Only,” 04/11/1912, NAID 306621 
  • “Lincoln Cotton Mills, Evansville, Ind. Girls at weaving machines; warpers. Evansville, Ind.,” 10/1908, NAID 523100
  • “Doffers in Cherryville Mfg. Co., N.C. Plenty of others. Cherryville, N.C.,” 11/10/1909; Record Group 102, Records of the Children’s Bureau, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. NAID 523108

Activity 2: Analyzing Letters and Petitions Sent to Congress about Child Labor in 1916
Work individually or in a small group to study the following Senate records reflecting opinions expressed during the 1916 debate over the Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill. Record your answers on Worksheet 2, and prepare to share your responses with the full class.

  • Letter from Suzanne Heber, 2/25/1916, NAID 5685996
  • Letter from James W. Houston and others, 7/20/1916, NAID 5685986
  • Letter from Marshall Dilling Opposing Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill, 3/20/1916, NAID 5685999
  • Letter from Operatives of Cherokee Falls Manufacturing Company Cotton Mill in Opposition to Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill, 1/18/1916, NAID 5685991

Activity 3: Discussing the Sources
Use the answers you recorded to contribute to a whole class discussion of the following questions:

  • Why did the writer support or oppose child labor legislation?
  • What points did you find persuasive?
  • To what extent did the account of child labor presented in these documents confirm or contest images of child labor presented in the Lewis Hine photos?

Activity 4: Reflection 
As a class, discuss the following reflection questions:

  • If you were a member of Congress would this evidence persuade you that child labor should be regulated by the Federal Government?    
  • To what extent and in what conditions should Americans under age 18 be allowed to work today, and which level of government (state or federal) should regulate their working conditions?