Child Labor on the Farm

I am a little boy ten years old. I go to school when we have school, but we haven’t got any school now. It will begin soon. I helped to farm last spring; I plowed with three horses and helped cultivate corn and make hay. …I have to feed nine calves and my little brother and I carry in the fuel.

—Bryan Echtemkardt, Knox County, Nebraska, 1907

Nebraska Farmer cover

Nebraska Farmer, May 6, 1911. The caption, taken from the saying "As the twig is bent, the tree's inclined," emphasizes the character-building aspect of farm chores.

What was it like to grow up on a Nebraska farm a century ago? Was it a wholesome childhood shaped by character-building chores and responsibilities, or was it a life of dangerous drudgery?

A lot depended upon the particular farm or family in question. As Pamela Riney-Kehrberg writes, “Children’s responsibilities ranged from simple daily chores, requiring only an hour or two, to being the family’s primary farmers or housekeepers.” Riney-Kehrberg looks at the lives of Nebraska farm kids in “‘But What Kind of Work Do the Rest of You Do?’ Child Labor on Nebraska Farms, 1870-1920” (Nebraska History, Summer 2001), one of a growing collection of full-text online articles that we’re providing free of charge.

The author writes:

In a nation where childhood, in the ideal, was increasingly defined by school and play, farm families continued to be highly integrated and interdependent units. Their success depended upon the work of children who remained tied economically to the family until they were twenty-one years old or married. Moreover, for the children-and their families-to be successful, children had to cultivate habits of independence and initiative from a very early age, and take on the work habits of adults well before their twentieth year.

People still argue about childhood today: Are today’s kids given enough responsibility? Do parents involve them in too many activities? Are part-time jobs a good idea for teens? And why are today’s kids so much worse than the kids of [insert your generation here]?

This article won’t resolve those questions, but offers a fascinating historical perspective.

—David Bristow, Associate Director / Publications

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