War and Social Upheaval: Industrial Revolution--Child Labor


Figure 1.--The popular image of exploited child labor generally is seen in mines and factories. In fact some of the most brutal conditions were in rural areas. Many early laws restrivting child labor dod not cover agricultural workers. This photograph depicts 5-year-old Harold Walker picking cotton in Comanche County, Oklahoma. It was taken in October, 1916, by Lewis Hines who worked as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), documenting working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1921. Children this age by 1916 in America could not be hired for factory or mine work.

Child labor is perhaps the single greatest indictement made on 19th century capitalism. There is no doubt that children, often quite young children, labored under horendous conditions. There are many accounts of this, both contemporary literary works, as well as journalistic and academic accounts document the apauling conditions for children. The one question that is often ignored is whether the conditions under which the children labored in the new factories of the industrial revolution were a decline or improvement in their condition. Most assessments demonstrate that conditions were terrible for the children, but the comparison is usually made with the situation of contemporary middle class children. Rarely do authors address the question of what life was like for children before the industrial revolution. Child labor was clearly not an inovation of the Industrial Revolution. Some authors suggest, however, that the depersonilization resulting from large industrial labor resulted in greater abuses of labor. Increasing condemnation of child labor at the turn of the century was a major suue addressed by the Progressive Movement in America and the Liberal and Socialist Movemets in Europe. This eventualy led to the child labors laws which prevented the most serious abuses of children. Here the socially minded photograhers of the turn of the century played a major in exposing the abuses of the children.

Capitalism

Child labor is perhaps the single greatest indictement made on 19th century capitalism.

Agricultural Workers

The one question that is often ignored is whether the conditions under which the children labored in the new factories of the industrial revolution were a decline or improvement in their condition. Most assessments demonstrate that conditions were terrible for the children, but the comparison is usually made with the situation of contemporary middle class children. Rarely do authors address the question of what life was like for children before the industrial revolution. Child labor was clearly not an inovation of the Industrial Revolution. The tendency is to idealize rural England before and during the Industrial Revolution. Many envisioin the charming drawings of Kate Greenway. While most historians dwell on the low wages of industrial workers, in fact the wages of agricultural workers fell significantly those of industrial urban workers. [Wilson, p. 79.] This was clearly the case as why elase would workers flock to the growing cities.

Child Workers

There is no doubt that children, often quite young children, labored under horendous conditions. There are many accounts of this, both contemporary literary works, as well as journalistic and academic accounts document the apauling conditions for children. Some authors suggest, however, that the depersonilization resulting from large industrial labor resulted in greater abuses of labor.

Education

Compulsory public education even in the 19th century was not yet well stablished in Europe and America. Some progress had been made with public education in America and some European countries like Germany and Swiutzerland. England was especially slow in establishing a system of public education. Many affluent English were not at all convinced as to advisability of educating the working class. Even if school was free, many children could not attend or only attend or a few years. Thus working class children had little change to learn to read and calculate, especially beyond a very elementary level. These children had to work while children of more affluent parents attended school. Here the pattern varied over time an among countries. Affluent parents sent their children to private schools or hired tutors. Other parents sent their children to a wide range of church and state schools. Generally only middle and upperclass children advanced to any form of secondary education. The normal subjects in the 19th century were reading, writing, religion, and English literature. Secondary studies or private schools added Latin and for the more clever Greek. Poor children might attend Sunday classes run by churches. But some children even had to work on Sunday.

The Progressive Movement

Increasing condemnation of child labor at the turn of the century was a major suue addressed by the Progressive Movement in America and the Liberal and Socialist Movemets in Europe. The Progressive Movement was born with the 20th century in America. The Progressives became increasingly influential in both the Democratic and Republican Paries as well as drew support from the populists of the 1890s. The Progressive promoted a broad range of issues aimed at improving social conditions. Issues of concern included sufferage for women, direct elections, political reform, trust busting, and labor lesislation--especially efforts to protect children and women workers. The role of the progressive movement is often misrepresented or poorly understood. Children and women as well as adult men are often depicted as victims of capitalism and ultimatrely rescued by progressive journalists and politocans a well as labor unions. It actuality was much more complicated than this. First, wage rates in America rose steadily during the 19th century as a result of the development and industrialization of the United States. Much of this occurred before the Labor movemrnmt had become a major force. Second, the socialist and labor movements were much stronger in Europe than America , yet conditions were not better for workers in Europe. Rather wage rates in Europe were lower than in America and millions of European worketrs emigrated to America seeking higher paid jobs in American industry. Third, capitalism and industrial development did not create child lasbor. Children commonly worked in agriculturral labor before in the Industrial Revolution. What capitalism did was to increase wealth to the point that children no longer had to work. It was only in the industrialized countries like Europe and America where the problem of child labor could be addressed. In most of the rest of the world, child labor not only continued, but was not seen as a problem. The Progressive Movement helped to highlight the problem of child labor and to mobilize political support to end it. Unfortunately, the Profressive Movement often sas capitalism as the cause of child labor rather than the vehicke which gave society the capabiklity of ending child labor.

Labor Laws

Child labors laws eventually prevented the most serious abuses of children. The effort to achieve those laws was a long, uneven struggle. The process varied from country. In each industrial country the process varied, but in each country industrialist saw any effort to limit their free access to labor, even women, and children, as a moral issue. The British passed three Factory Acts (1833, 44, and 47) which limited the working hours of children in certain circustances. In each instances there was concessions granted factory owners. These laws limited the hours children could be worked. The Factory Act of 1844 regulated the relay system. Some factory owners had avoided limits on the working day for children by developing a relay system. The children might work from 5:00 am to noon and then begin to work again at 1:00 pm under the guise of a new shift. While the 1844 Act regulated this abuse, it granhted factory owners the right to employ children at age 8 insttead of the previous 9 year old limit, his opened up a new supply of potential workers. [Wilson, p. 53.] Child labor laws were passed by states in America. A national law was not passed until 1916, but it was oiverturned by the Supreme Court. It was noy until the New Deal that a Federal Law was passed and sustained.

Photography

Here the socially minded photograhers of the turn of the century played a major in exposing the abuses of the children. One of the most impoprtant in America was Lewis Hine who worked for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), documenting working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1921. One of his often moving photograophs is seen here (figure 1).

Sources

Reed, Lawrence W. "Child labor and the British industrial revolution," Liberty Haven, site accessed August 3, 2003.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians (W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 1993), 724p.






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Created: August 3, 2003
Last updated: 11:16 PM 7/24/2011