Labor History Seminar: Susan Pearson, Northwestern University | Newberry

Labor History Seminar: Susan Pearson, Northwestern University

Friday, March 16, 2012

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm

Room 101

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Labor History Seminar

“Documentary Proof: Evidence of Age and the Campaign Against Child Labor in the United States

Susan Pearson, Northwestern University

Numerical age was at the centerpiece of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century campaign to restrict child labor. But because most states lacked a complete registry of births, there were no external authorities to which state authorities could appeal when they wished to determine a child’s age.  Initially, child labor law enforcement depended entirely on parental affidavits of age.  By the early twentieth century, however, opponents of child labor urged states to require “documentary evidence” of age, preferably in the form of a birth certificate, baptismal registry, or some other non-familial, written proof. Such reformed child labor laws gave the power to validate a child’s age to an overlapping network of state agencies – to state factory inspectors, school districts, and health officers.  Reliance on documentary proof to establish numerical age was, in turn, part of a much larger shift in authority from families to states and from personal, testamentary knowledge to written documents.  Effective child labor law enforcement required changes that were not simply technical and administrative, but also epistemological. 

Commentator: Jan Reiff, University of California, Los Angeles and James Schmidt, Northern Illinois University

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, e-mail the Scholl Center at  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.