As industrialization took off in the late 19th century, so did the demand for young workers: The number of workers under age 15 almost doubled between 1880 and 1910 – from about 1.1 million to almost 2 million (Table 1).
Opportunities for work opened every day. In department stores, boys and girls carried money, goods, and messages between adult clerks and cashiers. In tenement houses they worked with their parents, stripping tobacco for cigars, fashioning artificial flowers, or sewing clothes. Young boys sold newspapers on the street, delivered telegrams, or polished boots late into the night. Older boys played a vital role in the glass-making industry. Employed as helpers (or “dogs” ) to adult glass blowers, they worked long hours around blazing hot ovens, manipulating molds, reheating almost-finished bottles, or rushing red-hot glass to finishers. The faster "dogs" worked, the more the glass blowers got paid, so boys knew better than to waste time.
In coal mining regions, boys grew up with the industry. Around age 10, they started as breaker boys, picking slate out of newly mined coal. Next they went into the mine to work as “nippers,” who opened and closed the heavy doors that sealed off the mine shafts. As they grew older and faster, they found work as “spraggers,” boys who controlled the speed of the cars that carried the coal out of the mine: Because these cars ran by gravity and had no brakes, spraggers ran alongside the cars, jabbing sticks (or “sprags”) into the spokes of the wheel – a demanding, dangerous, yet exciting job. The oldest boys worked as mule drivers, a job that allowed them to move around the mine. Starting out with a single mule, they delivered empty cars to the miners, and then hauled away cars loaded with coal. When they were able to handle six mules, young drivers earned a “man’s wage,” and the respect that went with it. Next: Reform Movements