The rise of modern America is frequently noted as beginning at the turn of the twentieth century (meaning 1900). What seemed to turn then, though, began in the previous century with increased productivity in all areas thanks primarily to industrialization and technology.
While farm production increased, the population surged toward urban areas. Millions of people from the countryside moved into cities, as did most immigrants, who at that time came primarily from southern and eastern Europe. In a span of just fifty years, city populations grew from around 6 to 44 million people.
As cities grew, how people got goods changed. Larger department stores with less expensive products as well mail-order catalogs took the place of small stores. Consumerism grew with the availability of goods. Suburbs developed as travel into cities became easier thanks to trains. Buildings began to grow up as space became more dear.
The roles and lives of women changed tremendously. Young working-class women filled jobs in factories; many of those factories would be considered sweatshops by today’s standards. More women’s colleges opened around the turn of the century. The “New Woman,” as she was labeled, often had a college education and wanted more independence and options.
As the North industrialized in the first half of the 19th century, factories and mines hired young workers for a variety of tasks. According to the 1900 census, of the children ages ten to fifteen 18 percent were employed: 1,264,000 boys and 486,000 girls. Most worked on family farms. Every decade following 1870, the number of children in the workforce increased, with the percentage not dropping until the 1920s. Especially in textile mills, children were often hired together with both parents and could be hired for only $2 a week. Their parents could both work in the mill and watch their children at the same time. Children were useful for fixing machinery and squeezing into small spaces. Many families in mill towns depended on the children’s labor to make enough money for necessities.
After many failed attempts, a federal law that restricts the employment and abuse of child workers was passed in 1938. It is this law and its provisions that set limits on potentially dangerous jobs and set the age of workers at 18 to encourage schooling. Children 14-16 have limited hours and restrictions on the type of work.