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St. Louis children during the late 1800s, early 1900s lived tough lives

Historian Bonnie Stepenoff discussed risk many St. Louis children faced in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio

Many are familiar with “Little Boy Blue,” a poem by Eugene Field that paints the sad picture of the little toy dog and the little toy soldier waiting decades for the toddler who had kissed them goodnight to return.

The death of children in the late 1800 and early 1900s was not uncommon, even in middle class families such as Field’s, due to lack of knowledge about contagious diseases and certain kinds of infections, historian Bonnie Stepenoff told host Don Marsh on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“Most families across the whole spectrum shared that experience of losing someone at a very early age,” she said.

But in families living in poverty, children were at much greater risk.

“For many children, their lives were not protected, not sheltered at all. They didn’t have toys and were thought of as young workers. The age of 8 was commonly thought of as proper working age for children,” Stepenoff said. “But, there were some that were sent out as early as 4 or 5 years-old.”

Stepenoff cited a Saint Louis University study from 1912 which surveyed 500 newspaper boys in St. Louis. While most of them were 11 or 12, there were some that were as young as 4.

“In the dead of winter, they would be standing out there,” she said. “They had the advantage in being sympathetic so people would buy papers from them.”

However, child labor was not limited to newspaper sales. Children in St. Louis worked in factories, breweries and ship yards.

City children fared far worse than those living on farms, Stepenoff explained. “There it was customary for boys to help the father, the girls to help the mother at home,” she said. “In cities, it’s a different thing to send your child out to work in a factory than to have them at home working with their parents.”

Stepenoff will share more of her research about the state of children in the late 1800s and early 1900s in a talk Saturday afternoon at the Field House Museum titled “Little Boy Blue and Dangerous Streets.”

Related Event
What: Little Boy Blue and the Dangerous Streets
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, July 7, 2018
Where: Field House Museum (634 S. Broadway, St. Louis, MO 63102)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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