*** working boys clothing work area / occupation

Working Boys' Clothing: Working Area/Occupation

child labor
Figure 1.--Here we see two working-class boys about 12 or 13 on South Street below the Manhattan Bridge pier about 1910. Both boys seem to have rather menial jobs connected in some way with the busy area near the river. They wear heavy working boots, above-the-knee knickers with long black stockings, and somewhat discheveled open jackets. The boy on the right wears a jacket without sleeves. Both boys wear woolen caps with bills. Notice the narrow straight ties. The boy on the left has a hole in his stocking just above the left knee. The boy on the right has stockings with a rather lumpy appearance. He seems to be wearing long underwear underneath.

Children through the 19th century were a major part of the work force. They still are in most countries around the world. Children since the dawn of civilization have been 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. For a number of occupations, employetrs actually preferred children. There small size allowed them to do things and fit into areas that adults could not. They had many advantages. They were willing to ework for low wages and were easier to control. In some countries, government officials even conspired to turn over children under their care as virtusal slaves for years. Children have been employed in a wide variety of work areas. Until wll into the 20th century,

Cabin Boys

We suspect that cabin boys or ships' boys may have served on ships in antiquity, but we have no information on this. The infoirmation we have on cabin boys dates from the European maritime outreach and the voyages of discovery. The shiops involved commonly carried boys, including very young boys. At the time boys from common families did not attend school or had very limited schooling. They were essentially boys appreticed to be seamen. Commonly the younger boys seved as servants to the captain and officers, but were given other duties as tey got older or as needed on the ship. Boys employed as servants would catter to the needs of the captain or principal officers, keepng their quaters clean and washing their clothes and serving meals. They would also run errands and other tasks assigned to them. There might be more than on cabin boys on aship, depending on the size. Some very famous sailors began as cabin boys. Perhaps the most famous was American naval hero, John Paul Jones. Very commonly the ship's boy was the son of a family friend or acquaintance of te captain. Ther father would ask or even pay the captain totake his son to sea as part of his preparation to become a seaman. As late as the 18th century, the British Royal Navy commonly accepted boys a young as 9 years old to enlist as cabin boys. The Royal Navy used the term "servants". The Royal Navy rose the minimum age to 13 years (1794). This was just at the time when the Briutish were beginning an unprecendented expansion of the Royal Navy to fight the Napoleonic Wars. As apprentice seamen, they learned the ropes and that included working in the rigging. On mn of war, the boys had their duty stations. The smakler boys woukld serve as powder monkies or carry water to the sailors operating the guns. On merchant vessls, boys in ports of called might be signed o to serve as cabin boys.

Chimely Sweep

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. I believe this was a common practice throughout Europe, but only have information on England. Here it was the punlication of Charles Kingsley's satirical work The Water-Babies (1862-63) in serial form that compelled Parliament 1-year later to outlaw the practice. [Wilson, p. 299.]


American boys used to dream of running away to join the circus. I don't know, but I suspect that this was the case in many other countries as well. In the days before modern mass media, the circus coming tgo town was a major event in the lives of children. All the wonderful animals and thrilling acts caught the imagination of countless boys. I think the same is true of girls as well, but contemporary social values mean that gifrls were much likely to run away from home, or even to think about it. We see many boys in circus performer costumes. Often we do not know if they acrully were performers. In fact we do not kbow how common it was for boys to actually fn away to join the circus. We suspect that most of the children involved were the children of circus people, but here we are only speculating.


Many boys in the 19th and early 20th centuries worked as delivery boys. Shopping especially grocery shopping until after World War II was very different than today. This vried from country. In America seld-service stores were not common. Grocery stores were small and the grocer knew most of his customers. House wives might phone in their order and it would be dispatched by a delivery boy on his bike. Almost always the children involved were girls. A factor here is that cars were not very common so delivering purchases was much more useful than today. The English boys here look to be delivery boys (figure 1).


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. Many Amerucan children worked on the farm both as the children of owners as well share cropers. English children were bith the children of theyeomaney as well as the children on mannor estates. There were also significant differences over time. Here the corn laws played a major role in many countries during the 19th century. The issue of migrant laborers often involving whole familes was a serious problem even in the 20th century. But it was not just the farmer's children that were employed on the farm. In some instances "gangs" of poor children were press ganged into rural labor. Of course there were even slave and serf labor extensibely used into the 1860s--most of whom were employed in agricultural labor. We have only limited information on how fam children dressed. There were vey substantial differences from country to country. By the late 19th century, Levi Straus's overalls were becoming increasingly common on the farm.


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 helpedmake ends meet by doing piece work in their homes and tenaments. Parents were paid by the piece for completing a wide range of work. this was epecially common in te 19th century before the advent of factories. Piece work is especially associated with the garment trade, but was not in the 19th century limited to it. As factories became increasingly important, piece work declined in importance. Even so there were many operations for which machines had not yet been invented. The fact that many families lived in desperate circumstance, meant manufactures could find people illing to perform the needed opearations at low cost. This discouraged the mnufacturers from making substntial investments in expensive machinery. Whole families were involved in piece work before the industial revolution. Gradually in the 19th century it became increasingly an activity perormed by women and children. The children might even be kept home from school to do piece work.

Messenger Boys

European scientists in the early 19th century worked on the science needed to develop a telegraph system. The basic problem wa how to work with a weal electrical signal. A telegraph was of special interest to railroad companies for communicating between stations. Here safety was a primary concern. The first commercial electrical telegraph was constructed in England. Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir William Fothergill Cooke pattened their system in 1937 as an alarm system. They set up a 13-mile system on the Great Western Railway in 1939. David Alter working independently pattented a electrical telegraph system in the United States in 1837. Samuel F.B. Morse patented the system in 1837 and develped what became known as Morse Code to use to send messages. Telegraphic systems soon connected the major cities of Europe and the major cities of Europe. It was the transcontinental telegraph that connected California to the American system that put the Pony Express out of businnes. Connecting Europe and merica acrodd the North Atlantic proved to be a major challenge. Cables were laid in 1857 and 58, but quickly failed. A working transatlantic was finally laid in 1866. In America the telegraph was operated by a private company. In Europe the telegraph was often operated by the country's post office. The telegraph had a basic weakness. That was how to get the message to the addressee. Here a new job was created, commonly filled by boys. Messenger boys were very important before telephones were commonplace. And long-distance telephone calls were very expensive. Thus telegrams were the common way of communicating between cities. This continued until the 1950s.


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. This was true in both Europe and America. Mills before the Civil are were primarily in the north. After the Civil War, especially by the turn of the 20th centurty, mills had shifted to the southern states. This has continued to be the case in the 20th cenury with fabric mills being concentrated in the south. Women and children were especially important to the labor force in fabric mills. Strength was not nearly as important as in steel mills. 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 ans 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 newspapers. We do note boys selling newspapers in American during the late 19th century. We know less about other countries. Selling newspapers was an important source of income for boys from low-income urban families. The boys were called Newsies. This continued until the Depression. I think jobs were so difficult to find during the Depression that men replaced newsboys. Child labor laws also became more strictly enforced. A shift occurred durin the Depression era. Rather than selling newspapers on street corners, boys began increasingly deliveering newspapers door to door. I am not sure about the chronology involved here. We note another shift which began in the 1980s with adults replacing boys with delivering newspapers. We note that immigrants are often involved.


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. A HBC reader reports," I recall doing some messagering work in the early 1970s and having to collect some airline tickets in Bond Street. Waiting at the counter was a boy of about 16 in pageboy rig, probably from a posh hotel. The classic design of uniform, was based on late-Victorian British military uniform. This outfit was adopted all over the world, especially in the United States and is still seen today in especially posh hotels. The same military uniform was also adopted by the Boy's Brigade for their uniform.

Photographic Studios

We note boys working in 19th century photographic studios. An American daguerreotype shows a view of an early studio, e rgink in the 1850s. We see a French steroview studio shop, probably about 1858-60. This shop employed both boys and young women.


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. On large estates boys might work as grooms and stable boys or be assigned other tasks such as assisting the gardner. A few boys in very wealthy families might be employed as liveried footmen.

Shoe Shine Boys

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. Interestingly signing shoes was only seen approprite for boys. This would appear to have been an activity for children that developed throughout Europe.

Shop Boys

We note boys working in a variety of shops. Many may have been appretices, although the formal appretice system had begun to decline by the 19h century. Boys were employed in a wide range of shops, by butchers, chandles, cobblers, printers, tailors, and a wide range of other occupations. The boys clothing of course varied over time and by occupation area as well as from country to country. These boys did a variety of chores such as sweeping up, running errands, and making deliveries, but they also learned skills for their future occupation.


Although their lives are usually thought of as so "glamorous" we usually don't think of it, but child actors are also working people. This is an occupation that has undergone enormous change. Child actors in the Elizabethan age were all boys. The theatrical envirmonent was seen as unsuitable for girls. And women who worked in the theater were seen as imoral. As aesult boys not only played boys, but also girls and young women. With the appearance of photography we see many portrait of boys wearing fanncy costumes. What we have difficulty with is determining if the subjects were child actgors or these are fancy dress costumes. It was popular in the lare-19th century for well to do people to dress up in fancy costumes and have their portraits taken. There were also fancy dress or costume balls. Even as late as the 19th century, the child actor were essentially journeymen who reived little popular attention. And they had no real legal prorection until the passage of the Coogan Law by the state of California (1920s). Jackie Coogan was a popular child star in the silent movies and probably the first child star who made a considerable anount of money. His parents essentially stole all the money he made. We have a few portraits of 19th century child actors. With the invention of the movies and later televusion, we have an enormous archive of child actors in their costumes. The work of child actors until the 1920s was at times as unglamorous as what other working boys had to put up with, although of course much better paid. When the director said to do a scene again and again, far into the night, the child actor was stuck there just like the other actors. And the job could be unpleasant--as having to fall into a fountain again and again. Child labor now now set very stricty standards about working hours and schooling. Another important topic is theatrical troupes. At this time we only have information on English theatrical troupes.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main child labor page]
[Return to the Main activities page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Girls]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: June 12, 2004
Last updated: 3:20 AM 3/11/2010