Child Labor: Chronology

child labor doffer boys
Figure 1.--Here we see Doffer boys at Bibb Mill No. 1 in Macon, Georgia during 1909. Notice the variety of caps and the lint on their caps. That means they were breathing in air loaded with cotton fibers all the time they were at work. Photographer: Lewis W. Hine.

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.


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Created: 3:29 PM 7/5/2010
Last updated: 6:43 PM 7/9/2010