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September2007
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Weekday Warriors, a.k.a. The Labor Movement

During the late 19th century, the United States saw a rise in industrialization, with machines replacing the work of skilled craftsmen. Although not quite the Terminator's Judgment Day, as workers were still needed to operate the machines, the new status quo certainly changed the way people worked. In earlier days, skilled laborers had the satisfaction of seeing their work from beginning to end—from the first stitch or screw to the last—leading to a sense of accomplishment. Mechanization subdivided laborers' tasks down to small, repetitive, often singular tasks, with the pace of work becoming faster and workday hours much longer.

Triumph of labor. Lithograph by Joseph Roos & Co., 1878 Seven-year old Rosie, a regular oyster shucker. 1913

As a result, the idea of labor organizations became more and more attractive. Although such unions would not gain equal ground with businesses and industries until the 1930s, during the late 19th century, they were able to organize strikes and other events that brought their grievances over working conditions and wages to light.

As part of its Pictorial Americana presentation, the Prints and Photographs Division features images from its collections related to labor history, such as labor organizations, including various depictions of unions and strike scenes, and industry, featuring images of different work disciplines.

The "Life of the People" exhibition features items from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein collection of American prints and drawings documenting the conditions of working people. The section on "Capital and Labor" highlights the division between industrialists and their disadvantaged workers.

Skilled craftsmen weren't the only ones to labor behind a machine. Children often tended them as well, from as young as age 5, especially in the textile industry. In 1870, the first time the census reported child laborers, there were 750,000 workers age 15 or under, not including family farms or businesses. In the United States, numerous organizations worked to eliminate child labor, including the National Child Labor Committee, launched in 1904 by social workers. Not until 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act, did any attempt at child labor legislation succeed. This act requires employers to pay child laborers the minimum wage and also sets the minimum age at 16, or 18 if the occupation is hazardous.

The Library is home to the National Child Labor Committee Collection which documents working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1924. Click the "Arrangement and Access" link to view more than 5,100 photographic prints in subject areas such as agriculture, coal mines and mills.


A. Triumph of labor. Lithograph by Joseph Roos & Co., 1878. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-5811 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: PC/US - 1878.R781, no. 1 (B size) [P&P]

B. Seven-year old Rosie, a regular oyster shucker. 1913. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-nclc-01014 (color digital file from b&w original print); Call No.: LOT 7476, no. 3304[P&P]