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European Industrialization

European Industrialization

It is tempting to assume that the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was a disaster for children. There are the familiar images of child workers struggling in the mills, of wretched street urchins in the slums, and of poor Oliver Twist half starving on gruel in the workhouse. Yet even in the British case this was a very partial reflection of reality. The young factory operative or the slum child was the exception rather than the rule during the nineteenth century. In the first place, industrialization was a slow and protracted process that affected different regions of Europe in a number of ways. During the first half of the nineteenth century, a core of western European nations began to industrialize, with Britain leading the way, followed by Switzerland, Belgium, France and Germany. This left a huge periphery of backward regions which had barely begun the process. Similarly, the massive urbanization characteristic of modern society only began in earnest around the middle of the nineteenth century in most of Europe, the exceptionally precocious British case apart. Even within the more developed western "core," important regional differences were much in evidence. The most spectacular forms of industrial development were confined to a handful of well-known localities around Manchester, Birmingham (both in England), Liège (Belgium), Mulhouse (France), Elberfeld (Germany), Brno (Austria-Hungary), and so on. This meant that in Britain, and more so in continental Europe, small islands of modern industry were surrounded by a large sea of "pre-industrial" forms.

Second, industrialization brought benefits as well as misery to the people of Europe, though how this panned out for individuals depended on such influences as class, gender, and region. If the factories and sweatshops blighted the existence of some young people, the wealth they created would eventually release many others from the need to work at all. Mass immigration to the towns may have swamped basic facilities such as housing and schools for a while, but in the long term urban civilization proved favorable to medical, educational, and cultural advances. In short, any account of the impact of industrialization on children in Europe must take account of continuity as well as change, of material and cultural advance as well as poverty, and, bearing in mind the massive social inequalities persisting through the period, of winners as well as losers.

Work, Play, and Education

People in the West now take it for granted that the children should be free from adult responsibilitiesnotably the need to earn a livingso that they can develop a healthy body, complete their education, and have time for play. However, this type of "long" childhood, quarantined from much of what goes on in the world, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Until mass schooling began to make an impact during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most young people in Europe gradually moved into the world of adults at an early stage in their lives. They helped with little tasks around the farm, the workshop, or the home, and learned their trade, and the values that went with it, on the job, by means of a formal or informal apprenticeship. This latter approach was not without its advantages, avoiding the more modern tendency to infantilize the young. It certainly involved a very different balance in everyday life between time spent at work and time passed on the school benches.

Children in preindustrial Europe gradually drifted into work from around the age of seven or eight. Much of their labor was casual and undemanding, for they were not strong enough to take on most of the tasks required on a farm or in a workshop. It was only when they reached their teens that they began the more serious business of an apprenticeship in a trade or work beside adults. In the meantime, they often occupied themselves with simple but time-consuming jobs, such as caring for younger siblings or running errands, which released adults for more productive labor. Girls in particular looked after younger children for their mothers or earned a few pence minding a baby for another family. On the farms children helped by picking stones from fields, scaring birds from crops, minding pigs and sheep, and similar work appropriate to their size and experience. In the towns they might start work in some of the lighter trades, such as making clothes, manufacturing nails, or doing deliveries. Many also tried their luck on the streets, sweeping crossings for pedestrians, performing tricks, or cleaning shoes. Some of this work required long, lonely hours out in the fields or


on the streets, not to mention facing rain, mist, and cold winds during the winter. Tiennon, hero of the peasant novel The Life of a Simple Man (1904), recalled time hanging heavily as he watched his flock in the Bourbonnais region of France during the early nineteenth century:

Sometimes fear and sadness overtook me, and I started to cry, to cry without reason, for hours on end. A sudden rustling in the woods, the scampering of a mouse in the grass, the unfamiliar shriek of a bird, that was enough during these hours of anxiety to make me burst into tears.

At the same time, it was often possible to lighten the load by combining work with play. The young shepherds, for example, could amuse themselves carving wood or joining with others to play games.

Authorities in early modern Europe were generally worried more by the lack of work for poor women and children than by any abuses of their labor. They therefore welcomed the first signs of industrialization: the spread of industry in the countryside, notably in the northwestern parts of the continent. These new "protoindustrial" forms brought a grueling round of agricultural and industrial work unknown in earlier centuries that bore down on children as on the rest of the family. During the early nineteenth century, for example, among the handloom weaving families of the Saxon Oberlausitz, young children wound bobbins and prepared spools, while adolescents of both sexes learned to weave. Besides handloom weaving, village children were employed in large numbers by protoindustries in hand spinning, hosiery, embroidery, lace making, braiding straw, and metalworking. The early textile mills of the late eighteenth century were a further boon for governments saddled with large numbers of orphans by war and revolution. Robert Owen employed around 500 parish apprentices in his famous cotton mill at New Lanark in Scotland. Although the early spinning machinery was specifically designed for use by young people, most factory children continued with the traditional role of helping adults. Best known are the little piecers working beside the mule-spinners in the textile mills, the trappers operating ventilation shafts in the mines, and the carriers of bottles for glass blowers. The French example shows child labor concentrated in a small number of industries during the 1840s, above all in textiles, mining, metalworking, and food production (see Table 1).

Overall, industrialization may have drawn more children into the labor force, though historians argue whether in the British case the maximum level of participation occurred during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with protoindustrialization, or during the 1830s and 1840s, with the spread of the factory system. It may also have required a more intensive work regime in terms of working hours and effort, at least for that minority employed in the mills and "sweatshops." Children like those in the cotton mills of Ghent, in Belgium, who worked from dawn until 10:00 p.m. in winter, and from 5:00 a. until 8:00. in summer, would have had little time for leisure. As one young Londoner lamented, there was "never no time to play."

Yet it is easy to exaggerate the misery involved. Historians frequently note that children might start work in the mills "as young as seven or eight"but the majority probably waited until they were closer to ten or twelve, and even later in a heavy industry like iron- and steel-making. To take the best-documented case, the British census of 1851 recorded that only 3.5 percent of children aged 5 to 9 had an occupation. Even in the next age group, 10 to 14 years, no more than 30 percent was gainfully employed (37 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls). If the new industrial system sucked in child labor during the early stages, it also spewed it out later. The reasons for the decline in child labor in Western Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century remain controversial, but it was not necessarily due entirely to intervention by the state. Historian Clark Nardinelli has pointed out that the proportion of children among workers in the British silk industry fell during the 1840s and 1850s, even though they were not covered by factory legislation at this period. New technologies were one influence, such as the self-acting mule in the spinning industry, which largely made it possible to dispense with the piecers (though not all employers chose to do so, notably in Lancashire). At the same time, rising wages may have allowed working-class parents more leeway for keeping their offspring in school.

The favoring of work at the expense of leisure during the opening phase of industrialization is unlikely to have created a vacuum in popular leisure activities. Some of the old holidays and festivals persisted; children had the run of the fields or streets around their homes; and even on the factory floor child workers had some scope for "larking about." Witness the two French girls revealed to have been dancing together in a mill at Saint-Pierre-les-Calais during the 1850s, until they suffered broken arms when their skirts became caught up in the machinery. Doubtless it was children from well-off backgrounds who principally benefited from innovations such as board games and jigsaw puzzles, not to mention visits to zoos, circuses, and puppet shows. Even so, the capacity of industrial centers such as Nuremberg in Germany and the Black Country in England to churn out cheap wooden and metal toys ensured a certain democratization in this sphere. There was, in addition, a section of the market catering for popular tastes by the late nineteenth century, with "penny dreadfuls" and romans à quatre sous to read, and "penny gaffs" and music halls to visit. By this time young people in the towns would scorn their country cousins for their unfashionable clothing and traditional dances, preferring the varied delights of a consumer-oriented urban culture.

In terms of drawing children into the schools, industrialization emerged as an ambiguous influence. On the one hand, during its early stages the rapid movement of population into the new industrial areas played havoc with the school system, depressing levels of literacy in areas such as Lancashire or Flanders. Certain trades were particularly associated with illiteracy, notably coal mining and construction. In northern Europe Protestant churches took the lead in encouraging education during the early modern period; they were joined in this aim in the late eighteenth century by reformers promoting a national system of education. Prussia, hardly a leading industrial power during the early nineteenth century, led the way: by the late 1830s, an estimated 80 percent of children aged six to fourteen were attending the elementary schools. On the other hand, the more progressive industrial employers tended to insist on some schooling for their employees, even if it was more to instill religious and moral values than to promote learning. Skilled craftsmen, retailers, and at the very least a new elite of foremen, technicians, and clerks in the factories depended more on literacy than did peasants and farm laborers. The atmosphere in the towns was more favorable to education than that of the villages, given the more vigorous political and intellectual life. By the time education was made compulsory in Britain and France during the 1880s, most children were probably receiving some elementary education. Yet the pressures of poverty and parental indifference meant that, even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many children in Western Europe still had to combine work with school. Aurelia Roth, for example, complained from Bohemia that with her long hours spent grinding glass, "I didn't get much time to learn, and still less to play, but it hurt me the most if I had to skip school." Nonetheless, at this time children in Western Europe were a dwindling force on the shop floor; the only problem was the need to enforce more regular attendance at school among the poor.

The "Middle-Class" Family and a New Ideal of Childhood

Industrialization made an impact on the family, as surely as on the workshop. During the early modern period, particularly in northwest Europe, many families had routinely sent off their sons and daughters to a boarding school or to another family. A spell as a farm servant or an apprentice was a common experience for young people between leaving home and getting married. An unfortunate minority was separated from their parents from a very tender age, as young as seven, but most could afford to wait until some point in their teens before going off into service. With the coming of protoindustrialization to the countryside, families in the affected areas chose to keep their young people at home, given the wide variety of tasks that needed to be performed on the farm and in the workshop. Similarly, working-class families in nineteenth-century mill towns had their sons and daughters living with them well past childhood, as the pioneering study of Preston (Lancashire, England) by Michael Anderson has revealed. The exceptions, until the early twentieth century, were the young women living away from home as domestic servants in the big cities. Even so, the general drift was for young people to live at home until they married.

There was in addition a long-term change in the function of the family during the period of industrialization. With the rise of specialized institutions, such as factories, schools, and hospitals, the family began to lose some its earlier roles. Rather than a unit of production, education, and so on, it became above all a source of emotional support for its members. Nowhere was this more the case than among the new "middling strata" which flourished during the nineteenth century, from the wealthy bankers and industrialists at the top to the shopkeepers and master artisans at the bottom. Aristocratic parents had a tendency to distance themselves from their children: Talleyrand, born into a noble family in France in 1754, noted that neither of his parents ever showed him any affection, for "paternal care had not yet come into fashion." Peasant and working-class parents were often too hard-pressed by work and insecurity to be able to pay much attention to their offspring. Hence it was among the affluent professional and business groups that domesticity flourished, and, as Philippe Ariès has put it, the family organized itself around the child. It was above all mothers who were supposed to devote themselves to their families: breast-feeding their infants, teaching them sound religious and moral values, and cosseting them in a nursery far removed from the harsh realities of adult life. This was the milieu which proved most receptive to new ideas on the nature of childhood emerging from leading figures in the Enlightenment and the Romantic Movement.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the thinker usually credited with challenging the Christian tradition of original sin with the contrary notion of original innocence in the child. His Émile (1762) was not entirely original in its ideas, but its witty and engaging style of writing ensured a ready reception in educated circles. Rousseau asserted that the child was born innocent, but became stifled by all the prejudices and authority of society. His advice was to respect childhood, and "leave nature to act for a long time before you get involved with acting in its place." The Romantics went even further in idealizing childhood. The German Jean Paul Richter, for example, suggested in his Levana (1807) that children were "messengers from paradise." Most influential of all on nineteenth-century conceptions of childhood was the poet William Wordsworth, and his Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood (1807). Lines such as "Heaven lies about us in our infancy!" echoed down the years, as later writers quoted, plagiarized, or adapted them for their own purposes. As Peter Coveney observed, in the Machine Age the child could symbolize Imagination and Sensibility. Yet it required a wealthy, urbanized society to accept the view that children were essentially innocent, vulnerable, and asexual. The way was open for a range of philanthropic and legislative initiatives to protect children from the dangers they were perceived to face.

Philanthropy, the State, and Child Welfare

The nineteenth century brought a series of private charitable initiatives and government regulations to improve child welfare. Most directly linked to industrialization were the campaigns to eliminate the abuse of child labor. The motives of the reformers were a combination of humanitarianism and more mercenary considerations. Thus the textile magnates of the Société Industrielle de Mulhouse, in Alsace, who campaigned for a law on child labor from the 1830s onwards by petitioning the government, had their eyes firmly set on their own profits as well as on the health and morality of their employees. The British pioneered such legislation in 1802 with an act protecting apprentices in the new cotton mills. Subsequently they and their continental neighbors proceeded by a process of trial and error, gradually extending the scope of factory legislation and tightening the systems of enforcement. In Britain Althorp's Act of 1833 replaced an earlier one of 1819 by introducing the first viable inspection system, while the 1867 Factory Extension Act finally reached out beyond the factory system. Both Prussia and France experimented with child labor laws around 1840, but neither had an effective means of enforcement. The former produced a more comprehensive system in 1853, the latter in 1874. All such legislation aimed to regulate child labor rather than abolish it, setting minimum ages for working, grading hours according to age, banning night work, and insisting on some schooling. It doubtless curbed some of the worst abuses, though it also had the perverse effect of driving some children into small, unregulated workshops.

The nineteenth century also transformed the relationship between the state and the family. In the French case, a group dominated by doctors and administrators launched the challenge to the traditional authority of the head of the household. Appalled by the waste of infant life around them, and the high cost of supporting single mothers, they founded societies for the protection of children during the 1860s and a series of laws that shifted control from cases of "morally deficient" parents to philanthropists and magistrates. The 1889 Roussel law on the divestiture of paternal authority, for example, allowed courts to deprive parents of their rights on the grounds of drunkenness, scandalous behavior, or physical abuse. In Germany zealous Protestants took charge of the reform process, placing what were known as "wayward" children in a Rettunghaus, or House of Salvation. As in France, because private initiatives were all too easily thwarted, the reformers turned to the state for support. A Prussian law of 1878 made possible the placing of juvenile delinquents in a Rettunghaus. Similarly, in Britain, reformers like Mary Carpenter blamed parents for crime and vagrancy among children, and in the 1850s responded with industrial and reformatory schools. Later in the century, the Cruelty to Children Act of 1889 permitted the courts to take into care children who had been abused or neglected by their parents. The good intentions of these reformers need not be doubted, though in retrospect one can discern a desire to refashion poor, working-class families in their own middle-class image.

Finally, the spread of industrialization coincided with that of mass schooling, at the expense of informal methods of education in the family or the local community. Various German states attempted to make elementary schooling compulsory during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but there were simply too few teachers and school buildings available for such measures to have any chance of success. They did at least enjoy a considerable lead over surrounding parts of the continent where schools were few and far between, notably in Scandinavia, Ireland, Southern Italy, and Eastern Europe. Other nations gradually took the path pioneered by the Germans, taking over responsibility for education from the churches, and making schooling both free and compulsory. In Britain and France, for example, this latter shift occurred during the 1880s. The social inequalities that had always marked access to education were far from eliminated by the early twentieth century, but at least the widespread illiteracy of the past disappeared. Compulsory education had long-term significance for children. More than any factory legislation, which was always difficult to enforce, it ended most forms of child labor (part-time work excepted). It also made everyone familiar with the notion of an age-graded society, with children starting school at the same age, and working their way up the system year by year. A "long" childhood had come to replace the gradual transition into adulthood by the early twentieth century.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Education, Europe; Social Welfare; Street Games; Theories of Childhood; Work and Poverty.


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Colin Heywood

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