Newsies; Photo by Lewis W. Hine

Prior to the 19th century the developmental stage of adolescence did not exist. Children typically had no education; they learned everything from their family members and went to work on the family farm as soon as they were physically capable of contributing to the manual labor. Once these children reached puberty they were considered to have reached adulthood. Therefore it was expected and common that people would start families during their early teenage years (Youth Literacy Canada).

Child Coal Miners

During the Industrial Revolution more families started moving into industrial cities. Since there was no longer a farm to work on children were sent to work in factories.  Even up until the 1900’s one in six children, ranging in ages 10 to 15, were sent to work outside of the home. The state of Massachusetts passed the first child labor law in 1823. The law prohibited children who were under the age of 15 from working in factories (Linehan, 2010).

During the mid-1800’s education reformers began to persuade Americans about the importance of education as a means of both personal fulfillment and societal advancement. With this push on behalf of the educational reformers, minimum wages were established, but most importantly a minimum attendance requirements for schooling were instituted. However, despite these efforts, these laws were enforced insufficiently (Yellowitz, 2010).

Between the periods of 1890-1920, throughout the United States, various states began to pass attendance laws, requiring not only primary school attendance but also secondary school attendance. In 1890 the percentage of 14 to 17 year olds attending high school was 6%, however in 1920 this changed drastically. By the 1920’s 30% of this age demographic were enrolled in high school (Arnett & Taber, 1994).

This change in educational enrollment contributed to the development of what became known as “The Age of Adolescence.” There was a much more distinct division between adolescence, noted as a time of continuing education and adulthood that was a time initiated with the completion of schooling (Arnett & Taber, 1994).

Table is adapted from Jeffrey Jensen Arnett & Susan Taber (1994)


Video on U.S Child Labor, 1908 – 1920

Created by Lisa Feeley, Amanda Halliburton and Bethany Mastrorilli   __________________________________________________________________________


(2007, October 13) U.S. child labor 1908 -1920 [Video File]. Retrieved from

Arnett, J.J., & Taber, S. (1994). Adolescence terminable and interminable: When does adolescence end? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 23(5), 517-537.

Linehan, E. (2010, July 3). A Brief History of Child Labor in America. Retrieved from

Yellowitz, I. (2010). Child Labor. Retrieved from

Youth Literacy Canada. Invention of the Adolescent. Retrieved                               from

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