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The First Minimum Wage

By Christine M. Kreiser 
Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: June 02, 2014 
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Yvette Frappier, 14, learns the skill of drawing in--threading a loom to create patterns in finished cloth--at the King Philip Mill, Fall River, Mass., June 1916. (Library of Congress)
Yvette Frappier, 14, learns the skill of drawing in--threading a loom to create patterns in finished cloth--at the King Philip Mill, Fall River, Mass., June 1916. (Library of Congress)

There were 350,000 working women in Massachusetts in 1911 when social reformers urged the state legislature to investigate the issue of low wages. Many women, especially those in the booming textile industry, earned between $5 and $7 a week for working more than 50 hours. The actual cost of living, however, was approximately $10 a week for a woman living on her own and $8 for a woman living at home. Reformers worried that women would be forced to work even longer hours or, worse, resort to prostitution. "We pay in the most valuable asset society can have…the physical ruin of those girls who should be fit to be mothers of efficient American citizens," wrote wage proponent H. LaRue Brown. In 1912 Massachusetts passed the nation's first minimum wage law, applicable only to women and children under 18, but it had little effect. It set no standard wage, instead establishing a panel to study complaints about low pay. Employers who paid wages "inadequate to supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health" were reprimanded by having their names published in local newspapers. Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia enacted minimum wage laws over the next decade; a 1923 Supreme Court decision, Adkins v. Children's Hospital, ruled the minimum wage unconstitutional. The court reversed its decision in 1937, and in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act set a federal minimum wage at 25 cents an hour—$11 for a 44-hour workweek.

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In January 1912, the Massachusetts Commission on Minimum Wage Boards found that the weekly cost of living for "a woman of average ability, initiative and intelligence" was $10.60.

$3……………for rent and car fares
$4…………………………… for food
$.55……………………… for laundry
$1.92…………………… for clothing
$.42………. for dental/medical care
$.54………………….. for recreation
$.10……………………… for church
$.07……………….. for newspapers

Women led a massive textile workers' strike in 1912 in Lawrence, Mass. 35 % of the city's residents worked in the mills, including 50 % of all children between 14 and 18

36 % of mill workers died before age 25, yet 52 % of all city wages were earned there

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