As this illustration depicts, in the early 1900s, poor kids often worked long hours in factories under dangerous conditions.

Illustration by Allan Davey

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, W.6-8.3, W.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.9

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.3, Civ.14, Eco.1, Eco.9, His.1, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Power, authority, and governance

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

FLASHBACK

True Teens of History

The Girl Who Spoke Out for Workers’ Rights

In 1912, a courageous teen overcame a personal disaster to join a groundbreaking movement that helped change the lives of American workers

In a split second, Camella Teoli’s life changed forever. It was late in the afternoon. The 12-year-old factory worker had been on her feet for hours changing spools of thread on machines that spun wool into fabric. All day, she’d had to keep her long hair pinned up around the machinery’s whirring belts, gears, and rollers. Finally, tired and uncomfortable, Camella let her hair down. She turned—and suddenly, a spinning roller yanked the end of her brown locks. Before she could even cry out, her hair was sucked into the enormous machine. 

That day in July 1909 had already seemed endless. Like many of the other mill workers at the Washington Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Camella had risen before dawn to get to work by 6 a.m. Hour after hour, the noise of the factory machinery had assaulted her ears. The air in the building was thick with fibers from the fabric being spun there—and she would draw them in with each breath, irritating her lungs.

In a split second, Camella Teoli’s life changed forever. It was late in the afternoon. The 12-year-old factory worker had been on her feet for hours. She had been changing spools of thread on machines that spun wool into fabric. The machinery had whirring belts, gears, and rollers. So all day, she had kept her long hair pinned up. Finally, tired and uncomfortable, Camella let her hair down. She turned. Suddenly, a spinning roller yanked the end of her brown locks. Before she could even cry out, her hair was sucked into the enormous machine.

That day in July 1909 had already seemed endless. Camella was at the Washington Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Like many of the other mill workers, she had risen before dawn to get to work by 6 a.m. Hour after hour, the noise of the factory machinery had assaulted her ears. The air in the building was thick with fibers from the fabric being spun there. And she would draw them in with each breath. They irritated her lungs.

Library of Congress

CHILD LABOR: These young factory workers, photographed in 1909, were so small they had to climb up on their spinning machine.

The work was exhausting and tedious. Sometimes Camella’s thoughts would drift longingly to her time in school. Earlier that year, she’d had to drop out of sixth grade so she could work. Her family was poor and depended on her small wages to survive. But she couldn’t daydream for more than a moment or two; she had to keep up with the machines, which never stopped. If she didn’t, she would be fired. Worse, the machines had no protective guardrails. Making a mistake around them could be dangerous.

Camella found that out the hard way. When the roller caught her hair, the searing pain was almost unbearable. In an instant, nearly 6 inches of her scalp was torn off. The girl was rushed to the hospital, where she remained for months. The hair would never grow back on that part of her head. 

Although it was tragic, the incident would help bring about great change. In 1912, fed up with their low pay and the terrible conditions in the factories, workers in Lawrence, including Camella, went on strike. They refused to work until they won better pay. Their bravery helped put an end to most child labor in the U.S.—and win important rights for American workers.

The work was exhausting and tedious. Sometimes Camella’s thoughts would drift longingly to her time in school. Earlier that year, she had needed to drop out of sixth grade so she could work. Her family was poor and depended on her small wages to survive. But she could not daydream for more than a moment or two. She had to keep up with the machines, which never stopped. If she did not, she would be fired. Worse, the machines had no protective guardrails. Making a mistake around them could be dangerous.

Camella found that out the hard way. When the roller caught her hair, the searing pain was almost unbearable. In an instant, nearly 6 inches of her scalp was torn off. The girl was rushed to the hospital. She stayed there for months. The hair would never grow back on that part of her head.

It was tragic. But the incident would help bring about great change. In 1912, workers in Lawrence, including Camella, went on strike. They were fed up with their low pay and the terrible conditions in the factories. They refused to work until they won better pay. Their bravery helped put an end to most child labor in the U.S. The strikers helped win important rights for American workers.

Immigrants Without Choices

A century ago, Camella’s story was not unique. In those days, American industry was booming thanks to the technology that spurred the Industrial Revolution. But much of that growth was built on the backs of people who toiled for long hours in factories under horrendous conditions. The worst of those places—known as sweatshops—were like jails. Employers often locked workers in during the day to keep them from stealing goods or taking breaks. In the cramped, dirty factories, diseases such as measles spread like wildfire. Workers often didn’t live past age 40. 

But they had few other options. Many of them were part of a wave of immigrants who began coming to the U.S. in the 1880s, fleeing poverty or violence in Eastern and Southern Europe. With little education, most of these immigrants had no choice but to take low-paying, dangerous jobs in their new country.

A century ago, Camella’s story was not unique. In those days, American industry was booming. That was thanks to the technology that spurred the Industrial Revolution. But much of that growth was built on the backs of people who toiled for long hours in factories under horrendous conditions. The worst of those places were known as sweatshops. They were like jails. Employers often locked workers in during the day to keep them from stealing goods or taking breaks. The factories were cramped and dirty. Diseases such as measles spread like wildfire. Workers often did not live past age 40.

But they had few other options. Many of them were part of a wave of immigrants who began coming to the U.S. in the 1880s. They were fleeing poverty or violence in Eastern and Southern Europe. Most of these immigrants had little education. They had no choice but to take low-paying, dangerous jobs in their new country.

Families in Lawrence were so poor that half of the kids in the city had to work.

Many of those jobs were in New England, where Camella lived. The Northeastern region had become the center of U.S. textile manufacturing. Like the Teoli family, which had come from Italy, the workers in the mills there were mostly immigrants. In Lawrence alone, dozens of different languages could be heard on the streets. 

Work in the mills was incredibly hard and paid poorly. For men in Lawrence, the average wage for a 56-hour workweek was $8.50—the equivalent of about $200 today. Women earned less, and children might make as little as 11 cents per hour. Yet families were so poor that half of the kids in the city had to work. Desperate for extra income, Camella’s parents purchased false papers stating that she was 14, the legal working age in Massachusetts.

Many of those jobs were in New England. That is where Camella lived. The Northeastern region had become the center of U.S. textile manufacturing. The workers in the mills there were mostly immigrants. For example, the Teoli family had come from Italy. In Lawrence alone, dozens of different languages could be heard on the streets.

Work in the mills was incredibly hard and paid poorly. For men in Lawrence, the average wage for a 56-hour workweek was $8.50. That is the equivalent of about $200 today. Women earned less. And children might make as little as 11 cents per hour. Yet families were so poor that half of the kids in the city had to work. Desperate for extra income, Camella’s parents purchased false papers saying that she was 14. That was the legal working age in Massachusetts.

Workers Revolt!

Then came the accident, which hit the Teoli family hard. Camella spent nearly four months in the hospital, all that time without pay. Soon after she was released, in late October 1909, she had to get another job.

At the time, Massachusetts officials were growing concerned about conditions in the mills. In late 1911, the legislature passed a law reducing the hours that women and children could work in a week from 56 to 54. In response, mill owners sped up the machines, putting the workers under even more pressure.

Then, on January 11, 1912, a group of women in one of the Lawrence mills opened their paychecks to find the bosses had cut their pay for those two hours. That money would have bought four loaves of bread. Enraged, the women left their machines and walked off the floor. “Short pay! Short pay!” they chanted. 

Their action sent a shock wave through the town. Enough was enough. Within two days, about 25,000 people from the Lawrence mills were on strike.

Then came the accident. It hit the Teoli family hard. Camella spent nearly four months in the hospital. All that time she was without pay. In late October 1909, she was released. Soon after, she had to get another job.

At the time, Massachusetts officials were growing concerned about conditions in the mills. In late 1911, the legislature passed a law reducing the hours that women and children could work in a week from 56 to 54. In response, mill owners sped up the machines. That put the workers under even more pressure.

Then, on January 11, 1912, a group of women in one of the Lawrence mills opened their paychecks to find bad news. Their bosses had cut their pay for those two hours. That money would have bought four loaves of bread. Enraged, the women left their machines. They walked off the floor. “Short pay! Short pay!” they chanted.

Their action sent a shock wave through the town. Enough was enough. Within two days, about 25,000 people from the Lawrence mills were on strike.

Library of Congress

ON STRIKE! Lawrence mill workers march for better pay.

A Workers’ Battle

Lawrence quickly turned into a battleground. Workers set up picket lines in front of factories and marched through town. Militia sent by city authorities clashed with the protesters. Two strikers were killed during these confrontations. 

A national labor union took up the strikers’ cause. The union translated strike leaflets and speeches at rallies into 25 different languages. This was crucial in uniting workers from many cultures, historians say. 

Within weeks, news of the strike had won sympathy for the Lawrence workers around the country. It also caught the attention of officials in Washington, D.C. In late February, Congress announced that it would hold hearings to learn about conditions in the mills. The people of Lawrence were invited to speak.

Lawrence quickly turned into a battleground. Workers set up picket lines in front of factories. They marched through town. Militia sent by city authorities clashed with the protesters. Two strikers were killed during these clashes.

A national labor union took up the strikers’ cause. The union translated strike leaflets and speeches at rallies into 25 different languages. This was crucial in uniting workers from many cultures, historians say.

Within weeks, news of the strike had won sympathy for the Lawrence workers around the country. It also caught the attention of officials in Washington, D.C. In late February, Congress announced that it would hold hearings to learn about conditions in the mills. The people of Lawrence were invited to speak.

Lawmakers Hear the Truth

On March 1, 1912, a thousand people showed up at the Lawrence train station to see 5 adults and 13 children—including Camella—off to Washington to testify before Congress. The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Rules opened its hearings. As one Lawrence worker after another told his or her story, the congressmen couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Were there really people in America who worked under such alarming conditions? 

When Camella, by then 14, spoke, she was so shy that the people in the room had to strain to hear her. Yet her testimony was riveting. Why did she join the strike? she was asked. “Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home,” she replied. When Camella related the terrifying story of how her hair had been sucked into the machine, the congressmen were stunned.

The hearings won additional public support for the workers. U.S. President William Howard Taft even met with the young people in the White House. Finally, on March 12, the mill owners agreed to raise their workers’ pay. The strikers had won! Not only that, but across New England, other textile mills improved wages as well—hoping to avoid a strike like the one in Lawrence.

On March 1, 1912, a thousand people showed up at the Lawrence train station. They went to see 5 adults and 13 children, including Camella, off to Washington to testify before Congress. The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Rules opened its hearings. One Lawrence worker after another told his or her story. The congressmen could not believe what they were hearing. Were there really people in America who worked under such alarming conditions?

Camella spoke. By then she was 14. She was so shy that the people in the room had to strain to hear her. Yet her testimony was riveting. Why did she join the strike? she was asked. “Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home,” she replied. Camella related the terrifying story of how her hair had been sucked into the machine. The congressmen were stunned.

The hearings won additional public support for the workers. U.S. President William Howard Taft even met with the young people in the White House. Finally, on March 12, the mill owners agreed to raise their workers’ pay. The strikers had won! In addition, other textile mills across New England improved wages as well. They were hoping to avoid a strike like the one in Lawrence.

Real Change Comes

The Lawrence mill workers’ strike was a milestone in American labor history. Their victory showed the power of labor unions. It also made the U.S. government ask what it should do to protect workers.

But it didn’t change American factories overnight. Life there continued to be miserable—and dangerous—for many people. Eventually, the strike and other incidents before and after, including the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City (see "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory," below), convinced Americans how desperate the situation was. Real progress finally arrived in 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That landmark legislation capped the legal workweek at 40 hours—and limited how kids could be employed (see “What This Means for You,” below).

The Lawrence mill workers’ strike was a milestone in American labor history. Their victory showed the power of labor unions. It also made the U.S. government ask what it should do to protect workers.

But it did not change American factories overnight. Life there continued to be miserable and dangerous for many people. There had been other incidents before, such as the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City (see "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory," below). There were other incidents after too. Eventually, the strike and these other incidents convinced Americans how desperate the situation was. Real progress finally arrived in 1938. That is when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That landmark legislation capped the legal workweek at 40 hours. It also limited how kids could be employed (see “What This Means for You,” below).

The strike made the government ask what it should do to protect workers.

Young Camella didn’t benefit from those advances. Even after the Lawrence mill owners raised wages and Camella’s father was bringing in higher pay, the family still couldn’t afford for her not to work. So she returned to the factory.

Still, say experts, it was the actions of countless people like her that helped win standards of safety, pay, and dignity in the workplace that many Americans take for granted today. In 1990, long after she had died, Lawrence named a street Camella Teoli Way. “Camella probably never understood her gift to the nation,” wrote a local newspaper columnist. Yet in its way, this small street pays tribute to the achievement of one teenage girl who made her quiet voice count. 

Young Camella did not benefit from those advances. The Lawrence mill owners raised wages and her father was bringing in higher pay. But the family still could not afford for her not to work. So she returned to the factory.

Still, say experts, it was the actions of countless people like her that helped win standards of safety, pay, and dignity in the workplace that many Americans take for granted today. In 1990, long after she had died, Lawrence named a street Camella Teoli Way. “Camella probably never understood her gift to the nation,” wrote a local newspaper columnist. Yet in its way, this small street pays tribute to the achievement of one teenage girl who made her quiet voice count.

Write About It! What rights and protections should be legally guaranteed to workers? Explain your answer using evidence from the text.

You Might Need to Know . . . 

Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

During the Industrial Revolution, centers of production, such as Lawrence, were often gritty and polluted.

Industrial Revolution: A historic period in which power-driven machinery created a boom in large-scale manufacturing. Beginning in the late 19th century, it transformed America into an industrial giant.

Labor Union: A workers’ organization that advocates for better pay and other benefits. Labor unions grew in importance with the need for more factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

Industrial Revolution: A historic period in which power-driven machinery created a boom in large-scale manufacturing. Beginning in the late 19th century, it transformed America into an industrial giant.

Labor Union: A workers’ organization that advocates for better pay and other benefits. Labor unions grew in importance with the need for more factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

What This Means for You . . .

Today, most kids in the U.S. don’t have to work to help their families survive. 

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits people under 14 from working most jobs. It also restricts teens under 16 to eight hours of work per day and requires that they receive the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

But the FLSA does make exceptions. Kids under 16 can work more than eight hours in a business owned by their parents, such as a family farm—if they also continue to go to school. Still, authorities can’t keep track of everyone, especially the children of undocumented immigrants. 

Today, tens of thousands of such teens work unlimited hours in tobacco fields in North Carolina or pick tomatoes in California or oranges in Florida. These kids often work under dangerous conditions for less than the minimum wage. 

Today, most kids in the U.S. don’t have to work to help their families survive. 

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits people under 14 from working most jobs. It also restricts teens under 16 to eight hours of work per day and requires that they receive the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

But the FLSA does make exceptions. Kids under 16 can work more than eight hours in a business owned by their parents, such as a family farm—if they also continue to go to school. Still, authorities can’t keep track of everyone, especially the children of undocumented immigrants. 

Today, tens of thousands of such teens work unlimited hours in tobacco fields in North Carolina or pick tomatoes in California or oranges in Florida. These kids often work under dangerous conditions for less than the minimum wage. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory