A 104-year-old employment certificate is one of two family papers providing evidence of the short life of my grandmother’s sister, Florence Mahoney. The other is her baptismal certificate.
That Florence existed is not in dispute. She was baptized in 1902 at New York City’s Church of St. Teresa, appears misnamed in the 1905 New York state census, correctly named in the 1910 federal census, and misnamed and misgendered in the 1915 New York state census. My grandmother spoke of her sister, who died in 1918 at age sixteen.
The family’s decision to preserve those two documents speaks to their importance. They represent the beginning and the beginning of the end of Florence’s life. No death certificate was passed down.
Florence was fifteen when New York City’s health department issued her Employment Certificate in 1917. The certificate is a printed form. Information specific to Florence was added by hand.
The certificate’s front references the labor laws under which the record was issued, certifies that Florence provided the department with required documentation, and gave her description. The certificate was valid until Florence turned sixteen, unless revoked sooner. Her employer was to keep the record on file until employment was terminated, at which time she or her parent could request its return.
The back of the record bore a notice to employers. Children working in factories were not permitted to work before 8AM or after 5PM, and those working in mercantile establishments could not work before 8AM or after 6PM. A child was prohibited from working more than eight hours a day, and more than six days a week. Children were not allowed in certain occupations, as listed in Section 93 of Labor Laws.
- Place of Birth: New York City
- Date of Birth: Jan 18, 1902
- Color of Hair: Blonde
- Color of eyes: Blue
- Height: 5 feet 1-3/4 inches
- Weight: 91-1/2 lbs.
- Sex: Female
Florence signed the certificate and gave her address as 6911-5th Ave [Brooklyn].
The certificate allowed Florence to obtain employment. Family tradition about her short career is that she worked in a factory, where there were windows, high up. The windows were left open, and cold air blew down on Florence while she worked. She became sick from the exposure and died from pneumonia. Her sister recalled her death as just before Easter, but it was two weeks after the holiday.
What the certificate does not tell is how petite Florence obtained permission to work in the job that her family was certain led to her death. For that, a review of laws cited on the certificate is needed. An additional option exists beyond the statutes. The book, Administration of Child Labor Laws, Part 2, Employment-Certificate System, New York, is not the law, but it describes the process under which Florence obtained her certificate. The description for Manhattan is the most detailed of New York City’s boroughs; the system was uniform in the boroughs, with some differences in “office detail.”
Florence went to the department of health with a parent. Had she not the procedure involved additional steps. She brought evidence of her age and a school record, which a clerk examined. Since Florence proceeded, her school record was satisfactory. The interviewer who started the application form was to stamp the type of evidence presented on it, but Florence’s certificate bears no such stamp. Her parent swore an oath as to her age and that they were her parent. The child and parent were to sign the document. Only Florence signed; the record has no blank for a parent’s signature. Her birth and education records were attached to the form, and Florence took them to a physician in an examining room. Her certificate is evidence that she passed the examination. The physician was to sign the certificate and a physical examination form, but Florence’s certificate has no blank for a physician’s signature. Florence took her employment certificate and physical examination form to a chief clerk. The clerk added Florence’s height and weight from her physical examination record to the employment certificate, and then recited a sentence from a Third Reader, which Florence had to write correctly within three attempts. Florence passed this requirement because the clerk, William Rosenblum, stamped the certificate with a number and signed it. The Department of Health provided the Department of Education’s Bureau of Attendance with the names of children granted employment certificates. Florence’s certificate allowed her to join thousands of New York City children in the workforce.
Florence’s motivation for seeking employment was not preserved in stories. That decision, made by a young girl looking forward to a better future, denied her of that future in six short months. Perhaps the hope and loss that her work certificate represented contributed to its preservation. It is unclear if the record was returned when she turned sixteen, or if her family requested it when she fell ill and could not return to her job.
That certificate, sitting over a hundred years later in my closed file cabinet drawer, had a story to tell. It was the very paper that Florence carried along each step in the process to obtain it, and the certificate that she handed to her first employer, who was likely her last.
Other child labor titles, including a similar book about Connecticut’s child labor employment certificate system, are linked on the Law: Special Topics page.