From colonial times, to the age of Lincoln, to the end of the Second World War, American youth worked for a living.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, parents expected children as young as 6 years old to earn their keep. On farms, they found plenty to do. Boys ground corn and herded animals. Girls milked cows and churned butter. By the time they were 10, boys were planting their own crops and helping to clear land, and girls were spinning yarn and weaving cloth for their families.
City kids worked, too. Whether they liked it or not, 10- to 14-year old boys often left home– and school– to learn a trade, while girls left to work as servants. When the Industrial Revolution began to take off at the end of the 18th century, both found steady work in factories and mills: Employers valued their small hands, nimble fingers, and the fact that youngsters worked cheap. And parents valued the discipline children learned on the job--and the money they brought home.
So there were no objections to young workers, even very young workers, at the time. Children were expected to be useful, and they did not disappoint: By the turn of the 19th century, one out of three factory workers was between 7 and 12 years old. And by 1820, teenage boys and girls dominated the textile work force in Rhode Island. When the industry moved south, following the Civil War, 10- to 13-year old workers found steady jobs. North or South, they often worked long 10 or 12 hour days for wages that were just a fraction of what an adult might earn on the job. Next: Industrialization