Date of Award

Fall 2023

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Master of Arts

First Advisor

Lucy Salyer

Second Advisor

Kurk Dorsey

Third Advisor

Michael Leese


This thesis investigates the effectiveness of compulsory public education laws in Manchester, New Hampshire from 1845-1915, drawing on detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis of school attendance records, legislative proceedings, and media coverage. The thesis identifies shifting objectives in the campaigns for compulsory education laws and child labor laws in New Hampshire over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which help to explain lackluster enforcement. Reformers re-defined the perceived problems over time which led to new legislation and changing priorities in enforcement. Initially, reformers focused on “idle children” causing trouble and disrupting society. Then with mass immigration to the cities, people began to worry less about the idle children and more about the uneducated immigrant children. Once most children were off the streets, either in factories or at school, the focus turned to ensure the education of the immigrant children working in the factories by limiting ages and hours of child workers. As the working conditions these children experienced came to light, reformers called for the end of child labor and pushed for compulsory education laws that required a longer school year.Reformers had to contend with the economic imperatives of families and their employers who often frustrated enforcement. Reformers eventually realized that only federal legislation could bring an end to child labor. They soon discovered, however, that there were no quick fixes for ending child labor at the federal level, either, as states continued to differ on the issue and some mounted successful efforts to challenge federal legislation before the Supreme Court. The Manchester, New Hampshire case study provides an excellent opportunity to study the law in action, exploring the multiple factors that shaped the creation and enforcement of child labor and compulsory education at the local, state, and national level.