"You Ought To Be In School!" Child Labor and Compulsory Education

"You Ought To Be In School!" Child Labor and Compulsory Education
Caroline Harrison: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Four to five class periods


During the last two or three decades of the 19th century, the United States transformed itself from an agricultural society to an industrial one.  The work of children was also transformed, from activities that could be done on the farm to help out, to work outside the home in sometimes very dangerous industries.  As the nation gradually substituted the idea that children should be in school for the idea that children should do their part to support the family, child labor came under increasing public scrutiny, and laws making schooling compulsory were entertained.  In 1892, the year of Caroline Harrison's death, one of the first state laws (in Illinois) against child labor was passed (only to be repealed in 1895!). 


Students will trace the parallel development of child labor laws and compulsory schooling laws to understand the reform efforts surrounding child labor.    

Materials Required:

Computers for each student or groups of students. Internet access Public Education timeline link Projector Word processor (or paper and writing utensil)


1.  Using the websites listed below, as well as others found by students, divide students into several groups to research aspects of the history of child labor and compulsory schooling laws.  Each group should take one of the following questions to study:

  • Why were children so often put to work rather than sent to school?
  • Is there any difference in the characteristics of working children and non-working children?
  • What was the prevailing view of childhood in the 19th century and how did it begin to change?
  • What was the role of various reform groups, such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs, in changing people's ideas about child labor?

2   After completing research, students can select from several possible projects:

  • Create a parallel timeline of child labor and compulsory schooling laws
  • Write the story of one particular effort to pass laws again child labor (none of these laws were easily enacted!)
  • Debate the issue:  what were the pros and cons of laboring children?
  • Assume the role of a working child and create an artifact (letter, drawing, diary entry) from the life of such a child
  • Write a story or poem comparing the lives of working and non-working children at the end of the 19th century.

3.   Have students share their impressions, ideas, about the reform effort to take children out of the workplace and put them in school.


Extending the Lesson:

  •  Create a bulletin board with student work on this topic. 
  •  Have students read Oliver Twist, and compare his life with the life of an American counterpart.

Sources & Resources:


This lesson was developed by Dr. Averil McClelland and adapted by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University.