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History professor wins Philip Taft award

May 2, 2011
James D. Schmidt

James D. Schmidt

NIU history professor James D. Schmidt has received the 2011 Philip Taft Labor History Book Award for his latest book, “Industrial Violence and the Legal Origins of Child Labor.”

Schmidt received the prestigious annual award from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

“This is really an honor,” Schmidt said. “This award means that more people will read the book and more will be aware of the culture of child labor.”

Schmidt’s research concentrated on the American labor market from 1880 to the 1920s, a time when children as young as 8 swept factory floors and earned pennies a day.

Older children, who were 13 and 14, quit school and earned more. After realizing that working was more lucrative than schooling, they stayed in the labor market, Schmidt said.

“There were laws regulating the employment of children then,” he said. “But kids lied about their ages. The children wanted to work; they needed the money.”

While conducting his research, Schmidt read volumes of court and death records detailing accidents and subsequent lawsuits that were filed after the deaths and injuries.

He concentrated much of his archival research on southern Appalachian states, where employing children was common.

Book cover of "Industrial Violence and the Legal Origins of Child Labor"“This book isn’t solely about the industrial accidents that occurred,” Schmidt said. “It’s about how we industrialized our children in the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. Nonetheless, there are a bunch of horrific stories about children being burned and maimed in the workplace.”

Civil trials and out-of-court settlements resulted in many of those cases.

Schmidt published his first book, “Free to Work: Labor Law, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, 1815-1880,” in 1998. It explains the effects of antebellum labor and social welfare policy on the outcome of emancipation and the development of a capitalist labor market.

“My current book actually connects to my first one in that both look at this country‘s labor force during its industrial period” he said.

He plans to start research on the third book in a year, he said.