November 7, 1918: One Woman’s Effect on Child Labor Laws
We know that a century ago that the combination of World War I and the Spanish influenza upended normal patterns of life in New Orleans, but what many may not realize that it also led to a significant decrease in child attendance at school. Early in October 1918 the schools closed down for fear of the disease spreading, causing many students to obtain work permits, accelerating a trend towards child labor. In 1914 the number of children who obtained permits for the first time was 1,950. By 1918 the number had grown to 3,450 (A History of Compulsory School Attendance and Visiting Teacher Services in Louisiana).
Martha D. Gould was an influential factory inspector concern for children’s education. She was worried that children who have obtained a working permit will not return to schools after the schools reopen. Gould worked hard to try and push the age of work from fourteen to sixteen, including corresponding with several establishment to gain support. One of the establishments Gould wrote to was D.H. Holmes Co. an established department store; in response to her letter D.H. Holmes Co. expressed their support for Child Labor Law saying, “We have always entertained the opinion that a child of fourteen years of age cannot deliver efficient service. We would be glad, almost, to see the law raised from fourteen to sixteen years of age, as a boy or girl of sixteen years is a great deal more efficient than a child of fourteen, provided those years have been put to advantage in school” (NO_Holmes). Gould argued for the stricter child labor laws since earlier in 1918 the US Supreme Court struck down efforts to federally regulate child labor laws. New Orleans had also had a rough history with child labor laws, taking three tries to pass a compulsory attendance law that said that children ages eight to twelve must attend school for ninety days a year. Gould had a unique perspective as a factory inspector: being able to see the conditions and effects working had on children (Child Wages in the Cotton Mills: Our Modern Feudalism).
Factory inspectors had a great deal of power in 1918 because they were capable of shutting down an operation if they deemed it too dangerous. Factory inspectors were also mostly women, because of the war. The importance of this is it put women in greater positions of power allowing them to start demanding greater equal rights. Martha’s efforts helped pass Act 27 stating that children seven through fourteen must attend school for a hundred and forty days (Child Labor in America: A History). The importance of this is still felt today in the education system which has made significant progress since 1918 but needs even more work.