Prior to 1860 hours of labor for children in industry were reduced in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to ten a day. The age limit differed in these different states. At the same time laws were also passed in these states and in Connecticut requiring a certain amount of schooling. Usually the law required three months out of twelve, but varied in different states in regard to length of time required and the age of the child. At first there was no provision for the enforcement of these laws, no factory inspection, and no requirement as to proof of a child's age was made. Consequently the laws amounted to very little.
Gradually, however, there has developed a sentiment for better conditions, which has slowly increased inspection and regulation, vitalized compulsory education, and changed the attitude of legislators towards these things. It was not until 1898, however, that the first law placing the age limit for child labor at fourteen years was passed, and even that limit has not yet been reached by many states.
There have been a number of forces working to bring about this legislation and to improve methods of inspection and enforcement. Great numbers of statistics have been collected to show the effects of long hours, poor wages, and unsanitary conditions, and volumes have been written on the subject. Public lectures, free literature, and various methods of interesting the general public have been tried, and yet progress is slow. General enlightenment in regard to sanitation and hygiene has carried a demand for better conditions in all public places. The development of the educational system, with its compulsory education laws and its truant officers, has taken many children from the factory. Changed methods in the schools, the introduction of new subjects, as manual training, have given an added interest and kept the children in the schools for a longer time. It has been found that factory laws do little good unless there is factory inspection also, and this has been greatly increased.
Not all betterment of conditions has come from the outside, however. In many cases, realizing that better work results from good conditions, the factory owners themselves have improved their work rooms, provided good homes, libraries, gymnasiums, club houses, and other comforts for their employees, expressing at the same time a sense of their responsibility toward those less fortunate than themselves.
Conditions of factories, child labor, low wages, long hours, and bad moral influence are deplored by most enlightened people, but deploring bad conditions does not remedy them. In recent years many organizations have sprung up for united effort of one sort or another to bring about certain ends. One of the most potent agencies for improvement in working conditions has been the National Consumers' League. The outgrowth of the formation in New York, in 1890, of a group of intelligent women who sought to reform conditions in retail stores has become a nation-wide movement working in many fields. In 1898 the organization was incorporated as the New York City Consumers' League. In 1899 the National Consumers' League was founded, and it was incorporated in 1902. The purpose of the League is to educate the consumer to find out the conditions under which the product is manufactured in order that he or she may be protected, and at the same time that the conditions of working women and other employees may be improved.
To many people the problem of buying means merely getting the worth of one's money in the thing purchased. This money's worth may be in wearing quality, in color, design, texture, in fashion or fad, according to the needs and the demands of the individual buyer. The knowledge that diseases may be carried through ready-made clothing has put another responsibility upon the family provider, who must now see to it that she does not buy tuberculosis, smallpox, or any other dread disease along with the garment she purchases. The laws of economics teach that demand determines supply, that each person who buys does just so much towards setting the standards for good or poor supply. The manufacturer must meet the public demand, not only in kind of material, but in price. In the effort to produce cheap material, cheap labor is employed, conditions of work are poor, and work is sent out to places where it may be done more cheaply. The buyer can insist that what she buys is not contaminated with disease germs and does not represent the life blood of the poor. The intelligent women of the future must realize this responsibility.
The New York Consumers' League, with this truth in mind, began its work, not with the factory, the center of production, but with the retail store, the center of distribution. The store was more within reach of the shopping public. From the store the League went to the factory.
The National Consumers' League has expanded from year to year. The field covered by its efforts has increased. It has endeavored to improve conditions in stores, tailors' shops, ready-made clothing and other factories; has worked for pure food laws, for sanitary handling of goods, for child labor legislation, for laws regulating women's labor, for the abolition of sweat shops, and for many other things. An organization of this sort, which has no direct power to make laws, must work in a scientific way to accomplish any great results. Investigation of conditions and the accumulation of facts are first necessary; after this, intelligent interpretation of these facts, publication of results, and the arousing of public interest aid in bringing about legislation.
When the Consumers' League began its work there were in many states laws regulating factories and other industries, but these laws were often inadequate and were not enforced. The lack of factory inspection so evident today was much more evident fifteen years ago. While some states were enacting excellent laws, many had done nothing at all.