Child labor in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution

Following up on our earlier post on child labor in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, we consider how any child who worked 12-hour days 6 days a week experiencing ungodly levels of air and noise pollution; financial, physical, and often sexual exploitation; fatigue, hunger, and illness or injury lived to tell the tale. What got children through this sort of life?

One leavening factor was that the child usually worked alongside family members. This meant the child worker could share food with someone, had company, and knew someone at work spoke and understood her language if she hadn’t learned English yet.  Another was that, as we described in the first post, most of these children expected to work like adults, and were proud of their ability to contribute to the family economy. They weren’t snatched from a happy childhood of school and play and thrown into the factory; they were born to work and in some sense could not fully miss what they never had.

But the most important factor in America was that child laborers and their families believed their days in the factory might be numbered—in America, land of opportunity, one could reasonably hope to work one’s way up from the factory floor. If a boy worked hard, learned English, and stayed alive, he could become the floor manager or boss. If he was really sharp, he could become a white-collar assistant manager. A girl hoped to work only until she got married—if she was smart and lucky, she might marry an overseer and retire to a life of non-factory work (working from home as a seamstress, laundress, or hat-maker, for example). If she was very lucky, she could marry one of those white-collar managers and never work again.

The promise of rising up, even entering the middle class, white-collar world after a relatively brief if truly hellish few years on the factory floor drove many child workers, and gave them the mental fortitude to make it through the factory work day. This was their parents’ hope, too. And even if a child worker never progressed past overseer, his own children might do better, and then a grandchild might end up going to school and being a doctor or lawyer. That was the promise that didn’t exist for most immigrants in their “old country”. American exacted a toll, but it offered a payoff.

Even children who labored without hope of their own advancement did it for a sibling; stories abound of siblings working slavishly to pay for one smart, usually younger brother to go to school and even college. If that one brother made it, he could relieve the sufferings of his whole family. Many a young girl worked tirelessly to give her brother a better life, and dreamed of the day his success would allow her retirement from the machine floor.

So there was a powerful psychological impetus for many of the children who worked in factories during this period, namely the belief that it would pay off one day and they would no longer have to work so hard, even if it was a brother or son who eventually made a life of relative leisure possible. That was the promise of America.

As we turn our throughts back to today’s child laborers, most of whom are basically enslaved in cotton fields or gold mines, we see there is no promise of a payoff of any kind motivating their labor—just fear and hopelessness. One story about the children who are enslaved to work in “fair trade” cotton fields in Burkina Faso we heard today actually made the claim that the farmers there who beat children almost to death for not picking enough cotton don’t know that that is wrong because “no one has told them it’s wrong”. We think Clarisse Kambire, shown here, knows that it’s wrong:

Clarisse Kambire
Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, poses for a photograph in the room where she sleeps in Benvar, Burkina Faso, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. In Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair traden cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And so we will state that it’s impossible that any adult could “not understand” the injustice of child labor, the inhumanity of child slave labor, and the crime of beating child workers. Bosses and plantation farmers in the U.S. in the 1800s knew it was wrong to exploit children; they just also knew that no one would stop them from exploiting those children, and therefore they did it. Everyone, everywhere, knows that this is wrong.  More power to those who are working around the world, and in the U.S., to try to stop child labor once and for all.

Why was there child labor in America?

The stories in the news recently on child labor in gold mines in Mali remind us that, although it has been outlawed in many countries, child labor is not a thing of the past. We are shocked here in the U.S. to read about six year-olds being forced to work in factories, or in gold mines, using mercury and other poisons, and wonder how anyone could do that to children. We are shocked and dismayed to read about child labor in our own country—not just the child labor that continues today, under the radar, but more particularly the fully sanctioned, completely legal exploitation of young children that fueled our Industrial Revolution in the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

Photos of child labor in American factories like this one are typical, yet still powerfully able to stir one’s revulsion:

child labor

We’re all pretty familiar with the dangers children like these faced, from the machines they basically stood inside of to run to their overseers, who were free to exercise brutality without qualm. What’s less clear, and not very often explored, is how and why the parents of these children let them work in these terrible conditions, and how any child survived the experience physically or emotionally.

If we look at child workers in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., we see that they were predominately urban, and that the majority of urban child workers were immigrants or children of immigrants. There was child labor in textile mills in rural towns, of course, and black children were forced to work as sharecroppers, putting in 12-hour days with their parents. In all of these cases, children worked for one simple reason: they had to. For their families to survive financially, everyone who was able had to work. Women went back to work one or two days after giving birth. Men worked when they were fatally ill or injured. And children worked when they should have been in school, or playing. They all did this because, whether they were immigrants who had spent their last dime (as it were) getting to America and paying rent on a tenement apartment, or whether they were the children of former slaves who had their freedom but nothing else (no land, no money, no education or opportunity for any of these), or whether they were poor rural whites in much the same position as black sharecroppers, these people were on the brink of annihilation. They were in debt, one step away from deportation, the poorhouse, the orphanage, or worse. Everyone had to work to give the family the smallest scrap of security, the flimsiest safety net.

The way to the 12-hour factory day for 7 year-olds was paved with precedent. Children (except for wealthy children)  had always worked. Most Americans were farmers, and so children worked on the family farm. This was hard work with long hours, but it was overseen by caring parents who had every incentive of love and practicality to keep their children safe, and not force them to do jobs that were too hard for them. The whole family worked long hours together, and shared in the wealth they created. This was true of most immigrant families in their homelands, too.

As the Industrial Revolution developed, the ratio of urban to rural families shifted very significantly very quickly, but what did not change was the tradition of children working. Now children in large numbers worked in shops or on the streets as bootblacks, cart vendors, newsboys, gutter cleaners, etc. They worked in the first sweatshops—family apartments where everyone sewed, made shoes, or did laundry, etc.,  for 10 hours a day, six days a week. And, eventually, they worked in factories, sometimes the same factories as their parents.

Labor unrest helped this process along, as factory owners looked for workers who could not organize labor unions and strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. Immigrants who didn’t speak English and/or had no experience with democracy were a good choice, but these men were quickly educated in both once in America. Children, on the other hand, were ideal: they had no legal rights, they didn’t have to be paid even half what an adult earned, and their wages could be given directly to their parents, thus preventing children from understanding what their labor was worth. Children could also be horribly abused without any legal repercussions (see children having no legal rights), and they were small enough to reach into (running) machinery to fix small pieces. In short, children were ideal factory workers, and the tradition of children working eased the transition from family farm work to factory labor.

Next time: how child laborers in the U.S. coped