The Child Labor Movement's Night Messenger Service Campaign: Rights and Reform in the Progressive Era

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The Progressive Era is known for the democratization and expansion of government and the professionalization of occupations. The campaign to regulate child labor in the night messenger service (NMS) exemplifies the symbiosis and clash of these progressive forces. Specifically, this study analyzes how NMS reformers adopted rhetorics of social science, moral citizenship, and rights to define social problems and to expand the power of states over childhood.

To this end, this study examines the NMS campaign’s discourse between 1909 and 1915 to demonstrate the ways in which reformers used technical arguments to renegotiate the process of reform and to realign the rights of children, parents, and states. These chapters follow the evolution of this campaign as it defined the NMS problem through its investigative reports, constructed the American public as under threat in its public appeals, and realigned the rights of adolescents within the states during its legislative process. As part of their technical arguments, campaigners identified experts as the instigators of reform, constructed the American public as an educated but inactive moral ideal, and established the leaders of the newly-formed child labor organizations as the undisputed managers of legislative initiatives. In so doing, the NMS campaigners helped establish the legitimacy and centrality of child welfare organizations within reform. In the NMS campaign model, technical expertise was necessary to collect research and guide a legislative campaign. As the American people were not experts, campaigners simply called on the general public to be vigilant and responsive to the directives of reformers.

In the process, this study looks at the ways in which this reform campaign renegotiated the boundaries of adolescence in the Progressive Era. NMS campaigners sketched the independence of these adolescent laborers as a threat to the good of the community, and on the basis of that threat, reformers successfully lobbied to place the work of adolescents under the authority of the state. The NMS legislation positioned state governments rather than the family as the primary overseer of an adolescent’s labor and moral education and redefined the confines of adolescent labor in terms of age, time, and space.