Working Boys' Clothing

Figure 1.--These boy coal workers were posed in Ewen Breaker of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, South Pittston, Pennsylvania. The photograph was taken in January, 1911, by Lewis Hine who worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Hine documented working and living conditions of children in the United States during 1908-1921. Note that many of the boys are wearing long pants, despite their. A photoigraph taken at a school with boys of comparable ages would show most wearing kneepants or knickers.

Much of HBC deals with middle class and affluent children and the often stylish clothes they wore. These styles are the ones that often reflected the tempor of the times. HBC would be remiss, however without addressing the clothes worn by the children even in the early 20th century which had to work on the farm and in mills, mines and factories in often dreadful conditions. The styles of clothes were very simple and changed relatively little, but any assessment of boyhood clothes has to address these gutsy children who marched off to work because their families could not afford to feed them and send them to school. The photographic record here played an important role in addressing the pattern of exploitation to which these children were subjected.


Children were an integral part of the work throughout history. Their work was necessary to support families who often existed on the narrow edge of survival. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote "... the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." [Hobbes] It is only with the industrial Revolution that child labor became a societal issue. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to work. It was the natural order of society. In fact, children by a very young age were considered small adults. Play was considered wasteful and discouraged. At about the same time that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, French authors like Rosseau began to promote the idea that childhood was special time of life. And during the Victorian Era this premise became widely adopted by the the middle class. Children began to be treated as a special class. A plethora of toys and books appeared for children. Yet we have the idea that industrial development created child labor. A range of factors explain this idea. First, Charles Dickens focused on child labor in his books like Oliver Twist and David Cooperfield. These were very influential books in Victorian society. Second, Karl Marx's influential writing focused on the industrial economy. Three, photography developed in the 19th century and by the turn-of the 20th century could be easily publiched providing hear-breaking images of the exploitation of children. What the images do not show, however, is the number of children who for the first time were experience comfortable childhoods and obtaining good educations. It was the wealth generated by industrial development that was making that possible. Rarely addressed by authors like Dickens and Marx or recorded by photographers was the experiences of children in rural areas or in pre-industrial societies. The often overlooked fact is the number of families and children lifted from poverty by industrial development. And industrial society for the forst time had the economic capability to deal with child labor. There were differences among countries as to how quickly and effectively different countries addressed the porioblem. Some countries offered free public education in the early or mid-19th century. Other countries like England did not have state sponsored free education until the late 19th century. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, countries began passing laws requiring school attendance and limiting child labor. The chronology and provisions of the laws varied greatly from country to country. Photographic evidence is limited in the early years of photography. because photography was only developed in the mid-19th centuy and few early photographrs were intereted in photographing poor children working with factories. In addition, taking phoographs outside the studio was very complicatd. Only with the development of more easily used films and cameras beginning in 1900 do we begin to get sunstantial numbers of photographs of child workers. The photographic evidence was a not inconsequential factor in generating public support for legislation to protct these children.


Modern readers in assessing these HBC pages about working children will see them as the experience of an unfortunate minority of children. In fact until the 19th century, working was the norm for children. It was the fortunate few who experienced anyhing like that of modern children. Curiouly the photographic images show children that are working in factories and mines created in the industrial revolution. It was this same industrial revolution that created the wealth and sizeable middle-class that invented childhhod

Working Conditions

The very limited wages of industrial workers forced parents to sell their children for often trifling amounts to mines or other institutions where they were were forced to work in terrible, often degrading conditions. They were often poorly fed and clothed. Some children were forced to work 16 or even more a day. Large numbers of these children died before reaching age 10.

Economic Value

There were many jobs that children were not capable of performing. Jobs requiring strenth and physical endurance could not be performed by young children. Also there were jobs that required skill and training, skills which children di not yet have. There were, however, jobs for which children were especially suited. Children were often given dirty unpleasant jobs that adults were more likely to avoid. Also the younger children were small, this permitted them to crawl through the narrow tunnels or crevices in mines. They could also crawl under the engines and other machinery in factories to lubricate and service them.


Many people played an important role in exposing the evils of child labor in industrial societies. We are most familar with the Americans, but assume that there were similar individuals in Europe as well. Child labor abuses were exposed by journalists labeled "Mudrakers" by President Roosevelt. Perhaps no invidual played a more important role in mobilizing public opiion in America than Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant. American photographers also recorded images of the children, providing images at just the same time that the technology for publishing photographic imagdes became faeasible and these images had an enormous impact on public opinion.


HBC does not yet have detailed information on the child labor pattern by country, but has begun to address the topic. Here the countries we are most familiar with are England and America. England as far as we know was the first country to address the problm of child labor. This is understandable as it was in England that the Industrial Revolution began. Charles Dickens had a major role in prmoting the movement to limit child labor. Parlimentary investigations led to laws limiting child labor. Developments in France and Germany are also very important, but we have little information at this time. . We have some limited country information in the various wotk area sections. We will eventually cross reference these on the country pages.

Work Area/Occupation

Children have been employed in a wide variety of work areas. Until wll into the 20th century, children were an important part of the work force. Children have been most commonly used as agricultural labor. They have until the 20th century been an important part of the industrial work force as well. Although their lives are usually thought of as so "glamorous" we usually don't think of it, child actors are also working people. In fact before the so-called "Jackie Coogan" laws, some child actors' work was at times as unglamorous as what other working boys had to put up with, although of course much better paid. Through the first half of the 19th century, English home owners cleaned their chimneys by hiring chimney sweep to bring small children to go up the chimeys to clean out the soot. Chimey sweeps either used theirown children or hired or bought boys from poor families. Children has since the earliest days of agriculture been employed by their parents. It is one reason why rural families are so large, the children are a valuable source of labor. This pattern continued into the 19th century, although there were very significant differences fom country to country. Children have been employed in a wide variety of factories. Textile mills were one of the most significant employers of children. There were, however, many other industries in which children were employed. As this time we have only limited informaion as to the types of factories in which children were employed. Most of the available images show the boys wearing either overalls or kneepants. Althoough not often thought of as a place of child labor, this was often the case for children, especially before the industrial revolution. Many families helped make ends meet by doing piece work in their homes and tenaments. A mill is a factory for certain kinds of manufacture, including fabrric, flour, steel, and other products. One of the most important products was fabric. Cloth and fabric mills were an important part of the initial phase of the industrial revolution. Women and children could be hired at lower wages and their small hands were helpful in operating the machinery. Until after the turn of the century, few laws or labor unions existed to protect workers and ensure safe working conditions. Perhaps the most horific working conditions faced by children were those that te children working in coal mines endured. Women an children were often preferred because they would work for less money and were more compliant. They could also work in smaller areas and reach into the smallest crevices. The condition of the breaker boys was especially heart rending. Photographs suggest that the children employed in mines were boys, but in the early 19th century before the development of photography, girl may have also been employed. One of the areas in which boys are most accociated with his newsboys. Here with rare exceptions only boys were involved. I am not sure just when boys began selling newspapoers. We do note boys selling newspapers in American during the late 19th century. We know less about other countries. Pageboys need to be mentioned here. HBC has only limited information. Boys in England would enroll at age 14 (school leaving age in Britain pre-1944) working in hotels and on ships and also as pages/message boys for private companies. Girls in the 19th and early 20th century were commonly employed in the middle and upper-class homes as servants. They worked as maids and in the kitchen helping with the menial chores around the home. Some in wealthy homes would bevome hand maidens to the ladies of the house. This work was especially common before girls began attending state schools regularly and while alternative jobs for women were very limited. It was much less common for boys to be employed as servants in homes, in part because they were generally more difficult to control. We believe that this activity began much later than some of the other child labor activities. I could be wrong about this, but it stikes me that boys began to more commonly become shoe shine boys or boot blacks as child labor laws began to close off industrial jobs for children. Also urbanization is a factor. Until streets were paved and sidewalks built it seems rather pointless to have your shoes shined on the street.

Forced Labor: Slavery and Serfdom

While child laborers were paid very low wages, they did recive wages. They also had some alternatives, although poverty often restricted those option. There were many children many children that had no options at all. There were the slave children in America and other countries and the serf children in Russia. Both slavey and serfdom were institutions that lasted into the 19th century and the consequences of these institution still persist today. Disgracefully, child slavery still exists in the 20th century.


A variety of factors affected which children worked. The most sigbificant was of course social class. Most of the children that worked were children from poor families that had to work. Their parents could not afford to send them to school and often needed their maeger earnings just to provide meer sustance. There were, however, other factors sych as demographics. Rural children were needed to work on the farm. Urban children were more likely to be sent to school. A major factor in the United States was race. Note that in images of child labor during the late 19th and early 20th cednturies, black children (especially the boys) are almost always only seen as agricultural labor.


Information on how working children dressed is very limited. One of the principal sources of information here are available images of the children. We have some paintings from the 19th century of working children, but the number of such images is very limited. Photographic evidence, as explained above, come from a very limited time period. Most photographs of working children were taken after the turn of the 20th century. Some notable photograohes were interested in documenting social conditions. As a result, we note that many images ahow boys wearing overalls. Kneepants with long sockings are also common, but it appears to have been more common for working boys to wear long trousers than boys in general. Children in southern states might go barefoot during the summer.


The two fabrics most associated with working children are probably corduroy and denim.


Many reports of child laborers report on the wages that the childrn received. The actual hourly wages are difficult to assess because of the impact of inflation. Readers may want to consult an inflation calcuator to get an idea of what these wages meant in current terms. Even after correcting for inflation, the very low wages are quite startling.

Charity Institutions

As badly off as the working children discussed often were, there was another class of children in even more desperatre conditions. There were families where the adults were often unable to support themselves, let alone the children. Victorian England had a relief system for these families--the work house. Most viewed these work houses with dread. Some children were actually abandoned by their parents. In some cases the parents died. More commonly if the father died or run away, it was very difficult for a single mother to support herself, let alone her children. Street children were a terrible problem in England and other Europdean countries, here institutions like orphanages and the ragged school were created woth the intentions of meeting their needs.

Street Children

Street children were a problem during the Victorian era and even the early 20th century. They are still a problem in many developing countries. We see quite a number of street scenes showing children who you would think shoild be in school. We are nure just who these children are. Of course the photographs could have been taken after school or on saturday or sunday. We suspect that compulsory attendenance laws were often not strictly enforced. These could be street children or children not well cared for by their parents. They may have been children who survived by running errands. Many may have wanted jobsm but were unable to find them or were prevented by child labor laws. We begin seeing photographs of these children in the late-19th century.


Addams, Jane. Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909).

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan (1651).

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives (1892). There are several chapters on children.

Riis, Jacob. Children of the Poor (1892).

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (1994).

Nasaw, David. Children of the City: At Work and at Play (1985).


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Created: March 4, 2000
Last updated: 12:26 AM 4/28/2014