Child Labor

views updated Jun 11 2018


Colin Heywood

Child labor is a subject that stirs the passions. People in present-day Europe react with indignation to reports of those few children still working in "sweatshops" in their own societies, not to mention the millions employed in the poorer countries of the world. They have come to regard the widespread employment of children in the past as shameful. The climbing boy suffocating up a chimney, or the little mill hand working to the relentless pace of a machine, have become stock images of the industrial revolution. Yet such hostility to child labor is a comparatively recent phenomenon. During the early modern period, the majority of families sought work for their children as a matter of routine. Indeed, the authorities worried more about "the sins of sloth and idleness" among the young than about excessive work. It was the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that brought profound changes to the role of children in modern society. In Europe, as in America, child labor legislation and compulsory education ensured that children would be dependent on their parents and to some extent sheltered from the world of adults. In the much-quoted words of Viviana A. Zelizer, children became economically "worthless" but emotionally "priceless."

The first historians to investigate child labor generally focused on the passing of the Factory Acts in England. They adopted a simple challenge and response model, in which the unprecedented "exploitation" of child labor in the factories and workshops provoked the state to intervene. As Hugh Cunningham has pointed out, their story could be dressed up in the form of a romance, with gallant figures such as Lord Shaftesbury rescuing poor factory children from the clutches of cruel employers. Such a heavy focus on the benevolent influence of the state on child labor was not to everyone's taste, however. There was always a critique from the political right, which emphasized the material and moral progress brought by the factory system and the disadvantages of state intervention for child workers, notably a loss of training and skill. Various historians since the 1960s have argued that rising real wages rather than Factory Acts were the main influence on the long-term decline of child labor. Others have noted that certain groups of employers and workers were more receptive to curbs on child labor than others, thus reinforcing considerable regional disparities in the age structure of the labor force. Others again have charted the changing cultural context in which ideals of childhood were defined and redefined. Finally, Myron Weiner has asserted that it was compulsory school attendance rather than factory legislation that finally eliminated children from the workshops, the former being more readily enforced than the latter. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the historical literature remains skewed toward industrial and urban child labor, and toward Britain and other nations that industrialized early.

When discussing the history of child labor, it is difficult to avoid the influence of contemporary experiences in a modern, bureaucratized society. The temptation is to ask at what age children started work, as if starting work were the same as starting school in the modern era, and whether they were employed or unemployed, categories most adults would apply to themselves. The answers are likely to be misleading, unless one makes considerable allowance for the peculiar nature of children's work in the past. Children's entry into the labor force was staggered over several years, according to personal circumstances and the availability of work in each locality. Some had full-time employment outside the home, but the majority probably worked without wages in a family unit or took on little tasks, such as caring for siblings, that released adults for productive labor. The shift from childhood into youth also proceeded imperceptibly. Definitions of "children" in the labor force varied considerably in different national contexts: most historians have taken fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen to be the upper age limit.


Despite the grisly images that loom large in textbooks, much of the work done by children in the past was casual and undemanding. Children gradually drifted into the labor force, mopping up a host of little tasks that were appropriate to their size and experience. They might make themselves useful around the age of six or seven, but were unlikely to train in the more skilled and exacting tasks until around the age of ten, at the very earliest. Censuses of population do not lend themselves particularly well to recording this type of routine working and helping. For what it is worth, the British census of 1851 found that only 3.5 percent of children aged five to nine were occupied. P. E. H. Hair concludes that, even allowing for a high margin of error, "the vast majority of children under ten did not undertake any regular gainful employment." In the next age group, ten to fourteen, the census found no more than 30 percent occupied: 37 percent of boys and 22 percent of girls. Not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is there evidence of a crisp transition from childhood into the adult world of work, marked by the ritual of leaving school at the minimum age required by the state.

In Europe the majority of children lived in the countryside—at least until urbanization steadily impinged from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Employment in agriculture generally required strength and stamina that were beyond the capacity of children. On the small family farms that were characteristic of many parts of Europe, children of both sexes were confined to such jobs as looking after younger brothers and sisters, fetching water and firewood, picking stones, scaring birds, spreading manure, and "minding" pigs and sheep. Their contribution was also partly seasonal, reaching a peak with the intensive work routines of the harvest period. Younger juveniles took food out to the laborers in the fields, while the older ones bound corn into sheaves behind the harvesters. Some of this work required long, lonely hours out in the fields, but it also left plenty of time for leisure pursuits. Early in the sixteenth century, a native of Segovia described mingling his sheep with other flocks so that he and his fellow shepherds could play games along the lines of hockey and racing.

During their early teens, as they moved from childhood to youth, gender differences among young farm workers became more pronounced. Daughters continued to help their mothers around the house, the garden, and the dairy, while sons began to work more intensively beside their fathers in the fields and stables. At this age, many young people left home for employment in other households. The proportion of the youthful population involved in farm service varied considerably between regions. In Austria, for example, between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, a sample of census material from various rural communities reveals that somewhere between a fifth and a half of those in the age-group fifteen to nineteen were servants. An unfortunate minority, drawn largely from the ranks of small peasants and agricultural laborers, had to take this path at an earlier age, perhaps when as young as seven or eight. In general, though, service with another family was associated more with youth than with childhood. Ann Kussmaul calculated from evidence concerning early modern England that thirteen to fourteen was the most common age for moving into service in husbandry. A female farm servant might begin her career helping the farmer's wife with household chores and looking after the children. A female farm servant in Bavaria at the end of the nineteenth century started at the age of thirteen or fourteen, helping the peasant's wife with household chores and looking after the children. She would hope to move up the hierarchy of servants as she grew older. The ultimate aim of such girls was to accumulate enough skills and money for a dowry to secure a husband. In Tuscany during the late eighteenth century, girls preferred to work on larger farms, where they could learn a broader range of skills, and so enhance their marriage prospects. The typical male experience was slightly different. The young Robert Savage started in the kitchen of a big farm in Suffolk as a "back'us boy" (back house boy) at the age of twelve. By his mid teens he had moved on to the more obviously "masculine" work of helping with the horses and assisting a shepherd at lambing season. In isolated cases during the nineteenth century, and indeed creating considerable scandal, children of both sexes joined agricultural gangs, working the arable land of East Anglia and Belgium or the rice fields of Piedmont and Lombardy.

In the towns, particularly the major commercial and administrative centers, paid work for children was not always easy to come by. The traditional apprenticeship system continued to flourish during the early modern period in Europe under the supervision of the guilds. The master undertook to teach all the "rudiments and secrets" of a trade to a boy or a girl. He would feed and lodge them within his own family, so that they could learn all the values and customs associated with their calling. The apprentices for their part agreed to obey the master, in an agreement that might last for up to seven or even ten years. However, apprenticeships did not usually start until young people had reached their early or mid teens, an age when they were considered sufficiently strong or mature to be able to cope with the requirements of the craft. In a few trades that did not need much in the way of strength or skill, such as nail making and ribbon weaving, they might start earlier. In England there were also the pauper apprentices, who were usually placed with a farmer or a craftsman by the Poor Law authorities around the age of seven or eight. Otherwise apprentices, like servants, were more often youths than children.

Apprenticeships did not usually start until boys, or in some cases girls, had reached their early or mid teens. Again, children lacked the physical strength necessary for many trades, notably those in the construction industry. Where children did go into full-time work, the example of nineteenth-century London reveals a minority starting around the age of six or seven, but most delaying until they were closer to twelve. They began with light work such as making clothes or "trimmings" for furniture, street selling, or making deliveries. Even without a full-time job they could help with household chores and perhaps also a domestic trade. Girls in particular looked after younger children for their mothers or, in the words of the social investigator Henry Mayhew (1812–1887), were "lent out to carry about a baby to add to the family income by gaining her sixpence weekly." Their next step, at twelve or thirteen, was often to become a "slavey": a telling indicator of the fate that awaited child servants everywhere in Europe. Domestic service was by far the largest employer of female labor in Europe before World War I. As in the villages, the young girl started at the bottom, as maid of all work in a modest household, or as scullery maid in a large one. At this stage her life became one of constant drudgery: cooking, cleaning, running errands, and lugging the laundry to and from the wash place.

In sum, children were perhaps the most flexible workers within the family economy, ranging from full-time employment outside the home to helping their parents with a wide range of light jobs. As such, although it is difficult to measure their precise contribution, they were valued members of a team. Young people were also likely to accumulate a varied experience of work by their late teens. Edward Barlow, to take an example from mid-seventeenth-century England, began his working life in Lancashire as a casual laborer at harvest time and in a colliery. He went on to apprentice in the Manchester textile trade, and then tried his hand in London as successively an errand boy, a post boy, and a vintner's apprentice. He finally settled on a seven-year apprenticeship as a seaman. In late-nineteenth-century Germany, the anonymous female author of Im Kampf ums Dasein! moved from gluing bags at home to domestic service, later found jobs in a series of factories, and ended up as a waitress. For the most part, the work performed by children in agriculture, the handicraft trades, and the service sector remained uncontroversial. However, indignation aroused in the late eighteenth century by the fate of the climbing boys employed by chimney sweeps, or petits savoyards as they were known in France, gave a hint of battles to come.


During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the authorities in many regions were keen to promote industry precisely because they hoped it would provide a reliable source of employment for women and children living in poverty. Whether industrialization did in the end bring an increase in the proportion of young people who were gainfully occupied is a matter of dispute, particularly among British historians. Some of them assert that since most children in the preindustrial era had been expected to make a contribution to the family economy, there was little scope for a general increase in child labor during the industrial revolution. A more common assumption would be that industrialization did draw in more young children to the labor force—although it is not clear whether the peak was during the "protoindustrial" phase of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or the later factory-based phase of the 1830s and 1840s. Most historians would also accept that industrialization brought a more intensive use of child labor in certain occupations. Children working in, say, cotton mills and urban "sweatshops" were everywhere a minority, but they faced more regular employment through the year, longer hours, and a more sustained level of effort than their peers.

The first signs of change appeared in the countryside during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when merchants decided to profit from the supply of relatively cheap and docile labor for their manufacturing operations. Families in these "protoindustrial" workshops were goaded by the pressures of poverty and the seemingly endless round of agricultural and industrial work into erasing the customary division of labor by age and gender. The historian Hans Medick has drawn attention to child labor among rural weavers, spinners, and knitters, "which both in its intensity and duration went far beyond that of the corresponding labor of farm peasant householders." During the early nineteenth century, among the handloom weaving families of the Saxon Oberlausitz, young children wound bobbins and prepared spools, while both adolescent boys and girls learned to weave. Similarly in England a royal commission on the employment of children in 1843 reported that the children of knitters in the Leicestershire hosiery industry began work around the age of six, seven, or eight. The boys worked up to twelve hours a day as winders, the girls as seamers. Boys as young as ten years of age worked on the stocking frames, and allegedly were soon able to earn nearly as much as their fathers. Other trades that employed countless numbers of children in the countryside included lace making and embroidery, straw plaiting, nail making, and other forms of metal working.

Pressure on child workers in the smaller workshops also increased in the towns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as guilds and apprenticeship regulations crumbled in the face of free markets. Take the example of children employed in the silk industry of Lyon. The development of grande tire looms for the production of fancy brocades involved numerous tireuses (drawgirls) pulling their heavy cords for up to fourteen hours a day—until the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1807 eventually made them redundant. Silk reelers fared little better. In 1866 the legal authorities of the city investigated the case of ten-year-old Marie Péchard, a so-called apprentice reeler, after she ended up in the hospital with a serious eye disease. They found that a certain Dame Bernard was employing Marie and two other girls in their early teens for sixteen hours a day, from five or six in the morning until ten or eleven o'clock at night.

The climax to the story came, of course, with the massive "exploitation" of child labor in the cotton mills, coal mines, and factories of the industrial revolution. Steam power and machinery, it is commonly assumed, allowed women and children to take over work that had previously required the strength and skill of an adult male. Certainly the earliest spinning machinery of the late eighteenth century was designed to be operated by children (strictly, in this case, ousting adult females), in a bid to reduce labor costs. By a fortunate coincidence, from the point of view of employers, large numbers of pauper children were available for industrial work on long-term contracts. Robert Owen (1771–1858) estimated that he employed five hundred parish apprentices in his cotton mill at New Lanark, in Scotland, in 1799. Overall, children under thirteen accounted for 40 percent of the workforce in this mill. As a rule, though, children continued their customary role of acting as assistants to adults, taking on ancillary tasks and at the same time learning the skills and general culture of their trade. Examples are legion: the little piecer who tied broken threads for a mule spinner; the winder who prepared bobbins for a weaver; the trapper who operated ventilation doors for miners at the coal face; and the carriers of bottles for glassblowers.

Children of both sexes often did the same work, though there were variations between trades and regions. Young girls sometimes worked underground in the coal mines, as the 1842 children's employment commission found in Yorkshire, Lancashire, South Wales, and East Scotland, but the pits increasingly became male territory in most parts of Europe. The temptation is always to emphasize that children might start work in the mills "as young as seven or eight." Most, however, probably waited until they were ten or twelve in the textile trades and into their teens in a heavy industry such as iron and steel making. At the Heilmann spinning mill, for example, in the Alsatian town of Ribeauvillé, an industrial census of 1822–1823 listed twenty-seven children aged eight to eleven but eighty-one aged twelve to fifteen. Employers liked to argue that the new machinery had taken over the physical effort of work, so that children only had to bestir themselves intermittently. A less partial view would surely stress the long hours and sustained concentration required in the early mills. A piecer in a cotton mill during the 1830s was likely to have to work for thirteen and a half hours a day, and be prepared to rush forward and mend any of up to five hundred threads.

There is evidence, then, that the early industrialisation sauvage of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought an increased reliance on child labor. How far this varied between the countries of Europe is difficult to estimate, given the lack of reliable statistics. The safest conclusion must be that child labor in the manufacturing sector was particularly important for the early starters on the path to industrialization, notably Britain, Belgium, France and the western parts of Prussia. An industrial enquiry of 1839 to 1843 in France found 143,665 child workers under the age of sixteen, equivalent to 12.1 percent of the labor force. Another, but not necessarily comparable one, for Belgium in 1843, counted 10,514 child workers, or 19.5 percent of the total. Much of this was concentrated in a small number of industries, particularly textiles, as can be seen in table 1. The often distressing experiences of factory children were therefore far from typical, yet it was their plight that loomed large in the debates over child labor launched by social reformers.


Lurid accounts of harsh working conditions for children in the factories and workshops were grist for the mill for all those who feared that industrialization and urbanization would cause massive social dislocation. The public health movement that emerged in France during the 1820s and 1830s reflected such concerns, notably with the investigations by Dr. Louis Villermé into the "physical and moral condition" of textile workers. There was talk of a "bastardization of the race" in the wake of industrial expansion. The new manufacturing centers were allegedly producing children described by Villermé as "pale, enervated, slow in their movements, tranquil in their games" who would later be incapable of defending their country. The heightened economic and imperial rivalry between nations of the late nineteenth century, combined with threats to the established order from the labor movement, only served to reinforce the obsession with "degeneration" in certain circles throughout Europe. A British doctor, Margaret Alden, warned in 1908 that "the nation that first recognizes the importance of scientifically rearing and training the children of the commonwealth will be the nation that will survive."

The first observers to ring the alarm bells were doctors in the industrial towns of Britain who were disturbed by the physical condition of child workers. As early as 1784 a report on conditions in the Lancashire cotton mills by one Dr. Percival, following an outbreak of typhus, noted "the injury done to young persons through confinement and too long-continued labor." The case against child labor on health grounds was not as straightforward as might be thought. In the first place, the costs of working at a tender age had to be set against the benefits of earning a wage and contributing to a higher standard of living. Employers even liked to emphasize the cleanliness of their factories in comparison to the slums, and the "moderate degree of healthy exercise" that work involved. Hence reformers generally argued against the dangers of excessive work for children rather than against work per se. In the second place, providing statistical proof that child labor in industry undermined health was not always easy. Apologists for the factory system asserted that the health of children was undermined more by the poverty of their families than by their working conditions. Villermé was surely right to note the cluster of influences that lay behind the poor physical condition of so many workers in the towns:

I do not seek to establish whether the poor succumb most readily to their lack of nourishment; to the poor quality of their food; to their excessive work; to the bad air; to illness brought on by their trades, humidity, unhealthy lodgings, squalor or overcrowding; to the anxiety of being unable to raise a family; or even to the intemperate habits common amongst them.

As for the specific influences of child labor on health, reformers first highlighted the strain of a long working day on a small and partially formed body. During the 1840s, for example, children in the cotton mills of Ghent worked from dawn till 10 p.m. in winter, and from 5 or 5:30 a.m. till 8 p.m. in summer. Such long hours produced twisted limbs and curved spines among the poor "factory cripples," as they were known in Lancashire, and weakened the eyes of thousands of girls engaged in close work such as lace making and embroidery. A second set of problems noted by doctors and other observers was the unhealthy environment created in the workshops by dust, noxious fumes, humidity, and high temperatures. Adelheid Popp recalled being poisoned by her job with a bronze manufacturer in Vienna during the 1880s; Alice Foley in her turn described a spell working in the basement of a Bolton weaving shed where "the frames stood on damp, cracked floors and I recall that the captive clouds of dust and lint could never escape." The young operatives were vulnerable to a sad catalog of afflictions such as typhus epidemics, "spinners' phthisis" and other forms of tuberculosis, anemia, eye infections, and white phosphorous poisoning (in the matchstick factories).

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Industrial accidents were another hazard for child workers. These were a particularly unwelcome feature of the industrial age. Before the nineteenth century a child might suffer a mishap such as being run over by a cart, but this paled into insignificance before the dangers associated with power-driven machinery. The early factories were a menacing concentration of fast-moving shafts, drive belts, flywheels, and gearings that could seize the hair or loose clothing of a passing operative. Piecers were all too often crushed by self-acting mules; "tenters" on the power looms might be hit in the eye by their shuttles; drawers in the mines fell under their wagons; and children cleaning machinery had fingers and hands mutilated by the moving parts.

Contemporaries were probably even more perturbed by the threats to the moral and educational development of child workers. They disliked the idea of the young being snatched from the bosom of their families and launched into the rough-and-tumble of life on the shop floor with its coarse language, licentious horseplay, and sometimes outright brutality. Of course, employers' representatives countered that the tight discipline of a well-run factory ruled out such pernicious influences, and some of the larger factories arranged separate workshops for males and females. At the extreme, silk mill owners in southern France brought in nuns to supervise the girls and young women they employed. All the same, many children must have found entry into the world of work a trying experience. The pauper apprentices of the early industrial revolution were doubtless more vulnerable than most to abuse. How representative the experiences of Robert Blincoe were is open to question, but his alleged sufferings at Litton Mill in Derbyshire certainly make grim reading. Older "stretchers" in the mill regularly kicked and beat him, threw rollers at his head, and played sadistic games such as tying him by the wrists to a cross beam so that he had to draw up his legs every time the machinery moved under him. Other children suffered at the hands of adults impatient with their pace of work. Lea Baravalle, who worked as a sbattitrice in an Italian silk mill immediately after World War I, recorded how the throwsters hit her and splashed boiling water in her face if she was slow in supplying them with thread.

Finally, the tension between work and school aroused a series of impassioned debates throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the medieval period, according to Philippe Ariès, "all education was carried out by means of apprenticeship," meaning that boys learned their trade and their "human worth" living and working with adults. This type of apprenticeship was gradually replaced by an academic training, but this was a slow process, particularly in the "mechanical arts." Young people, particularly the males, continued to follow apprenticeships during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it was generally agreed that the whole institution had become seriously debased. An extensive division of labor in the "sweated" trades and the mechanization of production in the factories permitted so-called "apprentices" to be exploited as a cheap source of labor. There remained a residual feeling that starting work as early as possible had its benefits, notably acquiring arcane skills and learning the disciplines of the workshop. It was also plausible for employers to assert during the early nineteenth century that children excluded from the workshops would merely idle away their time on the streets, given the absence of school places for them. Certainly, peasant and working-class families had to weigh the costs and benefits of investing in the schooling of their offspring. The novelist Jules Reboul highlighted their dilemma by staging an argument during the 1870s, in the Vivarais province, between father and mother over the future of their son, Jacques Baudet. The father was willing to make sacrifices for him to continue to attend school, even after he had acquired a basic literacy, in the hope that he might secure a better job. The mother would have none of it, asserting that a school certificate would never be enough to land someone from their background a white-collar occupation: better by far for him to start earning in the hope of building up a landholding. The young Jacques duly started work as a shepherd.

If the need to earn a living sometimes ruled out any schooling at all, in other cases it confined time in class to the winter months, allowing children to work on the land during the harvest season, or undermined schooling's effectiveness by requiring them to work before and after class. Heinrich Holeck, born in Bohemia in 1885, had to help his stepmother with her brick-making job by getting up at four in the morning to prepare the clay and resuming work after school making bricks. As a broad generalization, the schooling of girls was sacrificed to work more readily than that of boys, and country children attended class less regularly than those in the towns. By the late nineteenth century, however, such disparities were fast disappearing as school triumphed over work.


The obvious starting point for analyzing the causes of the withdrawal of children from the labor force would be to pinpoint when the process started. If, as Clark Nardinelli claims for the British case, the long-term decline set in before the passing of effective Factory Acts, then one would have to look farther afield than state intervention for explanations. Unfortunately, such evidence is hard to come by, not least since many of the statistics on child labor first appeared when states attempted to justify and implement factory legislation. Nardinelli uses data from the textile industry to show that child labor was decreasing relative to adult labor before inspectors began to enforce the 1833 Factory Act, the first such act to have any teeth. In 1816, he estimates, children under thirteen accounted for 20 percent of the labor force in the cotton industry, but by 1835 the proportion had fallen to 13.1 percent. He also notes the relative decline of child labor in the silk industry during the 1840s and 1850s, even though its mills were not covered by factory legislation in this period.

The broader picture of a gradual elimination of children from the economically active population cannot be documented before 1851, when the British census began to record the occupations of young people. At that point, as noted above, 96.5 percent of children aged five to nine were without a "specified occupation," and from 1881 the census no longer considered it worthwhile counting them. The next group, aged ten to fourteen, experienced an uneven decline in the proportion occupied from decade to decade, but the long-term trend was clear: if 30 percent were occupied in 1851, only 17 percent were in 1901. Other countries in Europe were less preoccupied with this issue. The French census, for example, did not publish information on the active population by age group until 1896. In that year only one-fifth of those aged ten to fourteen were occupied, and as in Britain, most of these would have been aged thirteen or fourteen.

Social reformers in all countries certainly attempted to use state intervention to curb the abuse of child labor. Their motives were largely humanitarian, though other parties might support them for more mercenary reasons. Howard Marvel argued that the 1833 Factory Act in Britain was designed to favor the interests of the large urban manufacturers in the textile industry. He reasoned that they employed relatively fewer young children than their rural counterparts, and that with steam rather than water power they rarely needed exceptionally long working hours to compensate for interruptions to production. British factory operatives and weavers in the Ten Hours Movement also agitated during the 1830s and 1840s for shorter working hours for children, making it clear that this was part of a wider campaign to lighten the burden of labor on all workers. Everywhere the state proceeded by a process of trial and error, gradually extending the scope of factory legislation and tightening the systems of inspection. The British paved the way in 1802 with an act that limited itself to protecting apprentices in the cotton mills, moved on to a broader but still ineffective one in 1819, and had to await Althorp's Act of 1833 for the first workable system of inspection. Among later landmarks, the 1842 Mines Act attempted to ban all females and boys under the age of ten from underground work; the 1844 Factory Act pioneered the half-time system, permitting children to divide their time between work and school; and the 1867 Factories Extension Act finally branched out beyond the textile industries. Prussia and France in their turn began tentatively around 1840 with child labor laws that were hamstrung by feeble means of enforcement, and went no further until 1853 in the former case, 1874 in the latter.

All such legislation aimed to regulate rather than abolish child labor. To begin with, it tended to set minimum ages, such as eight or nine, which made little difference to employers, and concentrated on grading hours according to age, banning night work, insisting on sanitary measures in the workshops, and enforcing a limited amount of schooling. The impact of these laws on child welfare is open to question. On the one hand, they undoubtedly drove some child labor "underground," into the small workshops that were either exempt from legislation or difficult to inspect. They may even have deprived some needy families of income. On the other hand, they curbed some of the worst abuses of children in the workshops and encouraged the shift from the workshops to the school benches. Even Nardinelli concedes that the 1833 Act in Britain caused what he sees as a short-term boost to the secular decline in child labor by placing a "tax" on it, in the form of the costs incurred by employers in taking responsibility for the education of the children. The fact remains that the clear-cut demands of compulsory schooling until the age of thirteen or so did more to keep young children out of the workshops than child labor legislation.

Before concluding that state intervention provides the key to removing children from the workplace, however, one should ask why the climate became favorable to legislation during the early nineteenth century, and also why the initial opposition to it from many quarters eventually weakened. Historians have sought answers in both the cultural and the socioeconomic spheres.

In the first place, eighteenth-century thinkers began to formulate new ideals for childhood, which ultimately made it unthinkable for young people to work. Out went the existing orthodoxy that children were essentially idle creatures who needed to be put to work as soon as possible. In its place, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed that people "love childhood, indulge its sports, its pleasures, its delightful instincts." Doubtless the sentimental approach to childhood championed by Rousseau and by the romantic poets initially reached only a narrow, middle-class audience, and their ideas were always contested by those espousing less sentimental viewpoints. Nonetheless, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, something of a consensus emerged portraying children, in the words of the historian Harry Hendrick, as "innocent, ignorant, dependent, vulnerable, generally incompetent and in need of protection and discipline." Such a construction of childhood went against the grain of earlier peasant and working-class experience, though it did complement demands for a "family wage": a wage high enough to allow a male breadwinner to support his wife and children without their having to work. It also meshed neatly with the growing interest in formal education among the "popular" classes. By this period opposition to shorter working hours and at least part-time schooling was often associated with "rougher" elements among the laboring population. Glassworkers provided an egregious example: in 1875 a French divisional inspector described them as "the most appalling collection of undisciplined good-for-nothings, drunks and idlers that it is possible to imagine." The upshot was an increasing acceptance at all levels of society that children should spend an extended period in school.

In the second place, changes in the labor market arguably tended to push children away from the world of work. On the one hand, the rising real wages, which sooner or later trickled down to workers during the course of economic development, made families increasingly reluctant to supply their children to employers. Sections of the working-classes remained anxious over the loss of earnings from their children implied by child labor legislation, but they did gradually shift the balance from work to school. On the other, technical progress in industry reduced the demand for juvenile workers. Cotton spinners, for example, allegedly found that they needed to employ fewer piecers once the self-actor had replaced the hand mule. Let it be added that there was nothing inevitable about these forms of change on the shop floor. Per Bolin-Hort highlighted the stubborn persistence of operatives in the Lancashire cotton industry continuing to put their own children in the mills as "half-timers," even though they were a relatively affluent group of workers. He also documented the diversity of strategies open to employers in deploying different types of labor on the same technology.

Finally, it should be noted in passing, historians of education have revealed the growing demand for education among the "popular classes" well before it was made compulsory. The French scholar Roger Thabault showed how in his village of Mazières-en-Gatine the peasants were won over to primary schooling from the middle of the nineteenth century onward when improved transport, commercialized agriculture, and elections ended their isolation from the rest of the nation.

In sum, the virtual extinction of child labor in the developed economies of Europe was a protracted process, linked to a broad range of changes in society. The implication for "third world" countries today is that campaigns to improve conditions for child workers will face a long haul, in the context of tight family budgets, labor-intensive methods of production, poor communications, and established conceptions of childhood. At the same time, there is no denying that from an early stage of industrialization efforts at reform made a difference to the welfare of the young. A very mixed bunch of philanthropists, politicians, working-class radicals, journalists, civil servants, industrialists, factory inspectors, and schoolteachers contributed in their various ways to imposing a "modern" conception of childhood.

See alsoYouth and Adolescence (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


Ben Amos, Ilana Krausman. Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1994. Conveys the varied experiences of young people in a "pre-industrial" society.

Bolin-Hort, Per. Work, Family, and the State: Child Labour and the Organization ofProduction in the British Cotton Industry, 1780–1820. Lund, Sweden, 1989. Concentrates on the Lancashire cotton industry, though adds some interesting comparisons with the Scottish and the American experiences.

Coninck-Smith, Ning de, Bengt Sandin, and Ellen Schrumpf, eds. Industrious Children: Work and Childhood in the Nordic Countries 1850–1990. Odense, Denmark, 1997. Informative on child labor in agriculture as well as industry, and on the impact of compulsory schooling.

Cruickshank, Marjorie. Children and Industry: Child Health and Welfare in North-West Textile Towns during the Nineteenth Century. Manchester, U.K., 1981.

Cunningham, Hugh. The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood since theSeventeenth Century. Oxford, 1991.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London, 1995. The best general introduction, which includes sections on child labor.

Cunningham, Hugh, and Pier Paolo Viazzo, eds. Child Labour in Historical Perspective, 1800–1985. Florence, 1996. Includes studies of the Belgian, British, and Catalan historical experiences of child labor.

Davin, Anna. Growing Up Poor: Home, School, and Street in London, 1870–1914. London, 1996. A fine local study of childhood experiences.

Hair, P. E. H. "Children in Society, 1850–1980." In Population and Society inBritain, 1850–1980. Edited by Theo Barker and Michael Drake. London, 1982. Helpful on the demographic data available.

Hendrick, Harry. Child Welfare: England, 1872–1989. London and New York, 1994. Interesting material on changes in the social construction of childhood during the nineteenth century.

Heywood, Colin. Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France: Work, Health and Education among the "Classes Populaires." Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Hopkins, Eric. Childhood Transformed: Working-Class Children in Nineteenth-Century England. Manchester, U.K., 1994. Excellent survey of various dimensions to childhood.

Horn, Pamela. Children's Work and Welfare, 1780–1890. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. A concise survey of recent British historiography.

Horn, Pamela. The Victorian Country Child. Kineton, U.K., 1974.

Lane, Joan. Apprenticeship in England, 1600–1914. London, 1996.

Maynes, Mary Jo. Taking the Hard Road: Life Course in French and German Workers'Autobiographies in the Era of Industrialization. Chapel Hill, N.C., and London, 1995. Provides interesting material on the experience of child labor

Nardinelli, Clark. Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution. Bloomington, Ind., 1990. A highly polemical work that focuses on the economics of child labor, making some comparisons between Britain and other European countries.

Smelser, Neil J. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the Lancashire Cotton Industry, 1770–1840. London, 1959. A controversial work, but one with interesting material on parent-child relations in the factories.

Stearns, Peter N. Paths to Authority: The Middle Class and the Industrial Labor Force in France, 1820–1848. Urbana, Ill., 1978. Includes a full account of the campaign to reform child labor.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1968. Includes a powerful assertion of the radical critique of "child labor under industrial capitalism" from the marxist camp.

Ward, J. T. The Factory Movement, 1830–1855. London, 1962. Standard account of the campaign for factory legislation in Britain.

Weiner, Myron. The Child and the State in India: Child Labor and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, N.J., 1991. Draws on the European perspective to argue for compulsory primary education as the most effective means to end the practice of child labor.

Weissbach, Lee Shai. Child Labor Reform in Nineteenth-Century France. Baton Rouge, La., 1989.

Child Labor

views updated May 29 2018

Child Labor


Child labor is work done by persons under age eighteen (or younger, depending on applicable national law) that is harmful to them for being abusive, exploitive, hazardous, or otherwise contrary to their best interests. It is a subset of a larger class of childrens work, some of which may be compatible with childrens best interests (variously expressed as beneficial, benign, or harmless childrens work). Broadly defined, child labor recognizes that childhood is a culturally specific concept and that the particular contexts within which childrens work is assigned and organized tend to determine both its costs and its benefits (Ennew, Myers, and Plateau 2005). While in most cultures some work by children is viewed as healthy for maturation and socialization, child labor is not. It is understood to violate human rights law and policy.

The number of children who are engaged in child labor globally is uncertain. The answer to this question varies according to activity, place, society, and other factors. It is estimated that in 2007 there exist some 250 million child workers worldwide (predominantly in developing countries), with perhaps as many as 75 percent of them working in agriculture and related activities, most of the remainder in the nonagricultural informal sector, and only a small portion in the formal sector. Yet unknown is the exact percentage of these working children who experience child labor specifically.

It nevertheless is widely accepted that large numbers of the worlds working children toil in appalling conditions, are ruthlessly exploited to perform dangerous jobs with little or no pay, and are thus often made to suffer severe physical and emotional abusein brick factories, carpet-weaving centers, fishing platforms, leather tanning shops, mines, and other hazardous places, often as cogs in the global economy; in domestic service, vulnerable to sexual and other indignities that escape public scrutiny and accountability; on the streets as prostitutes, forced to trade in sex against their will; and as soldiers in life-threatening conflict situations. Working long hours, often beaten or otherwise abused, and commonly trafficked from one country to another, their health is severely threatened, their very lives endangered. Many, if they survive, are deformed and disabled before they can mature physically, mentally, or emotionally. Typically, they are unable to obtain the education that can liberate and improve their lives, a condition that is deemed generally to constitute child abuse in and of itself (Bissell 2005; Bissell and Shiefelbein 2003).

The causes of child labor, while steeped in culture, are linked to economicsprimarily poverty, necessitating that children contribute to family income. Likewise, the reduction and eradication of child labor is tied fundamentally to economics. In North America and western Europe, for example, major economically based trends (e.g., industrial development, higher wages, technological innovation, more accessible and prolonged education, lower birth rates, the entry of women into the workforce) best explain, along with state regulation and changing popular ideas about childhood, most of the long-term declines in child labor. Labor movements and other forms of social action also have played an important role, shaping public perceptions and values about children and child rearing.

Because of this variety and complexity, economists and other experts point out that effective policies to combat child labor require flexibility to accommodate the many and diverse factors involved in its reduction and eradication. They especially emphasize the critical importance of presenting poor families and children with economic opportunities and incentives that can free them from having to rely on child labor for survival (Basu 1999; Basu and Tzannatos 2003; Anker 2000, 2001; Grootaert and Patrinos 1999).

Human rights discourse and activismespecially since the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Childhave likewise become influential in combating child labor, advancing the case for at least minimal standards of socioeconomic and political justice to hasten its elimination. Increasingly child labor is understood to be a multidimensional human rights problem in violation of a broad panoply of entitlements with which all members of the human family are endowed (Weston and Teerink 2005a, 2005b). The Convention on the Rights of the Child ensures that children specifically, including working children, are not overlooked in this regard. Thus does Article 3(1) stipulate that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration; and thus, to this end, does Article 32(1) recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the childs education, or to be harmful to the childs health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development.

While poverty and other economic factors will continue as driving forces behind child labor, a human rights approach to the individual child and societyholistic and multifacetedis indispensable to holding the world community and its member states accountable in eradicating the phenomenon (Weston and Teerink 2005a, 2005b). Recognizing child labor as a human rights problem signals that notions of human dignity are central to all aspects of a working childs life and to the means by which child labor is reduced or eliminated. In this setting, states, multilateral international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and business enterprises are expected to act affirmatively to guarantee that childrens rights are not violated within either the work in which they are engaged or the means by which that work is controlled. In addition, children must be informed of their rights so as to be able to engage their full participation in the realization of their rights. To assert a right of a child to be free from abusive, exploitative, and hazardous work bespeaks duty, not optionaloften capriciousbenevolence.

SEE ALSO Childrens Rights; Human Rights


Anker, Richard. 2000. The Economics of Child Labour: A Framework for Measurement. International Labour Review 139 (3): 257-280.

Anker, Richard. 2001. Child Labour and Its Elimination: Actors and Institutions. In Child Labour: Policy Options, eds. Kristoffel Lieten and Ben White, 85-102. Amsterdam: Askant.

Basu, Kaushik. 1999. International Labor Standards and Child labor. Challenge 42 (5): 82-93.

Basu, Kaushik, and Zafiris Tzannatos. 2003. The Global Child Labor Problem: What Do We Know and What Can We Do? The World Bank Economic Review 17 (2): 147-173.

Bissell, Susan L. 2005. Earning and Learning: Tensions and Compatibility. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 377-399. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Bissell, Susan, and Ernesto Shiefelbein. 2003. Education to Combat Abusive Child Labor. Washington, DC: USAID Bureau for Economic Growth, Culture, Agriculture, and Trade.

Ennew, Judith, William E. Myers, and Dominique Pierre Plateau. 2005. Defining Child Labor as if Human Rights Really Matter. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 27-54. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Grootaert, Christiaan, and Henry Anthony Patrinos, eds. 1999. The Policy Analysis of Child Labor: A Comparative Study. New York: St. Martins Press.

United Nations. Convention on the Rights of the Child. 1989.

Weston, Burns H., and Mark B. Teerink. 2005a. Rethinking Child Labor: A Multidimensional Problem. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 3-25. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Weston, Burns H., and Mark B. Teerink. 2005b. Rethinking Child Labor: A Multifaceted Human Rights Solution. In Child Labor and Human Rights: Making Children Matter, ed. Burns H. Weston, 235-266. London and Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Burns H. Weston

William E. Myers

Child Labor (Issue)

views updated Jun 11 2018


Using children to perform manual labor is probably as old as the human race. European settlers brought this practice to North America, where it was expected that children would help their parents with the family enterprise, which was usually the farm. The modern summer vacation from school hearkens back to such an era. The expectation that children can provide an economic benefit to their families was transferred from farm work to factory labor when the nation began to industrialize. Many parents desperately needed the extra income their offspring could earn, and some would omit their children's names from school lists when education became compulsory. Samuel Slater, a pioneer in the New England textile industry, thought it natural to hire children to work in his cotton mill in 1793, because their small hands could manipulate the machines more easily. This practice aroused no outrage. Slater was remembered as a philanthropist, and President Andrew Jackson (1828-1836) respectfully referred to him as the "father of American manufactures."

As the nation continued to industrialize, many children were forced to work under conditions that were increasingly harsh. Boys would be expected to stand near hot furnaces, molding glass for hours on end, or they would sort coal by hand in the mines, where they might catch black lung disease or other illnesses associated with a dirty, damp, and cold environment. Children in factories were often mangled or killed, as they worked with or near heavy industrial machines. Even in the best of conditions, working children were denied their right to an education.

As the nineteenth century progressed, there was a reaction against this form of child abuse. Workmen's associations often protested child labor because it kept wages low and compromised job security, but there was also a growing appreciation that children should be defended and protected for their own sake. At first the response was rather mild. In 1842 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that limited children under 12 to working no more than ten hours a day. Many other states passed legislation that restricted child labor, but the laws were often toothless. Certainly they were not uniform and offered industry no definite guidelines on how to curb the practice. The number of children in the workplace continued to expand.

In 1904 a group of reformers established the National Child Labor Committee, whose purpose was to investigate the problem and lobby state-by-state for legislation to end the abuse. It was not effective because each state feared restrictive legislation could give other states a competitive advantage in recruiting industry. In 1907 a federal law against child labor, sponsored by Senator Alan Beveridge of Ohio (1899-1911) went down to defeat. In 1910 there were still an estimated two million children employed in industry.

In 1912 a Children's Bureau was established as an agency of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Its mandate was to examine "all matters pertaining to the welfare of children," which included child labor, and it was led by Julia C. Lathrop, the first woman to head a federal agency. Progress, however, was still slow. In 1916 senators Robert L. Owen and Edward Keating sponsored a bill that restricted child labor, which passed both houses of Congress with the strong support of President Woodrow Wilson. The law was based on a recommendation of the National Child Welfare Committee, but it only prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and materials processed in mines by children under 16. It also limited their workday to eight hours. In 1918 the Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional, because it was directed toward the regulation of working conditions, not the control interstate commerce. In 1919 Congress passed the Child Labor Act, which placed a tax on companies that used child labor, but the court too overturned it. In 1924 there was an attempt to amend the Constitution to prohibit child labor, but it never received approval from the required number of states.

In spite of these failures, the national mood was clearly against child labor. As educational requirements became more stringent and truancy laws more strictly enforced, it became harder for companies to depend on child labor. Also demands within industry for a better skilled, more highly trained labor force inhibited the hiring of children. By 1920 child labor was in decline nationally.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's domestic reforms in the 1930s, which are known collectively as the New Deal, also attacked child labor and settled the legality of the issue. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 prohibited the use of boys under 16 and girls under 18 on projects where the U.S. government contributed $10 thousand or more. Another bill, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in 1938, remains the major piece of federal legislation directed against child labor. It prevented children, including the offspring of migrant workers, from taking jobs that would interfere with their education, health or general well being. It forbade the full-time employment of those 16 and under, and this prohibition could be raised to include those 18 and under for work in dangerous or unhealthy industries. The law also provided for certain exemptions. Children 14 and over could be employed after school hours. Young people were able to work in a family-owned business or at home, or deliver newspapers or act. The Fair Labor Standards Act also established a minimum wage, which further discouraged the employment of children, because low wages was an important inducement for hiring them. A Supreme Court to which Roosevelt had appointed five members upheld the constitutionality of the law in 1941.

Federal legislation is now also supplemented by modern more comprehensive state laws, which also aim to safeguard children by restricting the type of job they may hold and the number of hours they may work. Although there are isolated incidents, child labor in the United States is no longer a major problem, and the remaining domestic issue concerns the morality of importing goods that were produced by child labor abroad.

The international situation regarding child labor is discouraging. In 1973 the United Nations called upon the countries of the world to ratify a convention that established 15 as the minimum age for work. Children as young as 13 would be permitted to do light work, but only those who reached 18 could hold a hazardous job. The reform has not been effective in the developing countries, where poverty forces many children into the workforce to help their families. In 1997, the International Labor Office estimated that 250 million children are working in jobs that may cause physical or emotional damage.

Topic overview

Breaker boys, some as young as nine or ten, worked in the mines, crouched for ten-hour shifts picking slate from coal chutes, breathing clouds of coal dust. All too often boys were pulled into machinery and mangled to death. Others worked underground in mud on fourteen-hour shifts as mule drivers.


Bernstein, Irving. The New Deal, the Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Cameron, E.H. Samuel Slater, Father of American Manufactures. Freeport, Maine: Bond Wheelwright Company, 1960.

Semonche, John E. Charting the Future: The Supreme Court Responds to a Changing Society. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Tentler, Leslie. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 1900-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Wilcox, Claire. Public Policies toward Business. 3d ed. Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1966.

Child Labor

views updated May 18 2018


CHILD LABOR. Before the twentieth century, child labor was rampant. Knowledge of its extent prior to 1870 is fragmentary because child labor statistics before then are not available, but juvenile employment probably existed in the spinning schools established early in the colonies. As the nineteenth century advanced, child labor became more widespread. The census of 1870 reported the employment of three-quarters of a million children between ten and fifteen years of age. From 1870 to 1910, the number of children reported as gainfully employed continued to increase steadily before the American public took notice of its ill effects.

Early Struggles and Successes

Among the earliest efforts to deal with the problem of child labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were those of organized labor. For example, the Knights of Labor conducted a campaign for child labor legislation in the 1870s and 1880s that resulted in the enactment of many state laws. The American Federation of Labor consistently spoke out against child labor as a cause of downward pressure on wages and campaigned for the "family wage" that would allow for a man to be the sole breadwinner. Nonetheless, during the nineteenth century, working children, although hired for their docility, took part in strikes and occasionally even led their elders in walkouts. The fledgling industrial unions in the early twentieth century organized the youngest workers, and there was even a union of child workers: the Newsboys and Bootblacks' Protective Union, chartered by the Cleveland AFL. The union's purpose was "to secure a fair compensation for our labor, lessen the hours of labor" and "educate the members in the principles of trade unionism so when they develop into manhood they will at all times struggle for the full product of their labor."

As opposition to child labor grew, the campaign against child labor—although an uphill battle—began to score victories. Conditions in the canning industry, the glass industry, anthracite mining, and other industries began to attract considerable attention at the turn of the century. In the South, a threefold rise in number of child laborers during the decade ending in 1900 aroused public sentiment for child labor laws. In the North, insistence on stronger legislation and better enforcement led to the formation of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. This committee, chartered by Congress in 1907 to promote the welfare of America's working children, investigated conditions in various states and industries and spearheaded the push for state legislation with conspicuous success. The 1920 census reflected a decline in child labor that continued in the 1930s.

Federal Regulation

The backwardness of certain states and the lack of uniformity of state laws led to demands for federal regulation. Early efforts were unsuccessful. In Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922), the U.S. Supreme Court set aside attempts at congressional regulation. Child labor reformers, nevertheless, began to push for a child labor amendment to the Constitution. In 1924, such an amendment was adopted by Congress and submitted to the states, but by 1950 only twenty-four had ratified it.

The New Deal finally brought significant federal regulation. The Public Contracts Act of 1936 set the minimum age for employment at sixteen for boys and at eighteen for girls in firms supplying goods under federal contract. A year later, the Beet Sugar Act set the minimum age at fourteen for employment in cultivating and harvesting sugar beets and cane. Far more sweeping was the benchmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FSLA). For agriculture, it set the minimum working age at fourteen for employment outside of school hours and at sixteen for employment during school hours. For nonagricultural work in interstate commerce, sixteen was the minimum age for employment during school hours, and eighteen for occupations designated hazardous by the secretary of labor. A major amendment to the FSLA in 1948 prohibited children from performing farm work when schools were in session in the district where they resided. There were no other important changes in the FSLA until 1974, when new legislation prohibited work by any child under age twelve on a farm covered by minimum-wage regulations (farms using at least five-hundred days of work in a calendar quarter).

Contemporary Problems

Despite the existence of prohibiting legislation, considerable child labor continues to exist, primarily in agriculture. For the most part, the workers are children of migrant farm workers and the rural poor. Child labor and school-attendance laws are least likely to be enforced on behalf of these children. This lack of enforcement contributes, no doubt, to the fact that the educational attainment of migrant children is still half that of the rest of the population. Beyond agriculture, child labor has emerged, or sometimes reemerged, in a number of areas. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, there have been efforts to relax the minimum-age laws for doing certain kinds of work. The most notable challenge has come from Amish families, who have opened small manufacturing shops in response to the reduced availability of farmland and have sought exemptions on the basis of religious freedom to employ their children in these shops. In addition, the employment of children in sweatshops that produce clothes for major labels has returned to American cities. Also, children and young teenagers selling

candy for purportedly charitable purposes have been overworked and exploited by the companies that hire them in work crews. Children have also remained a part of the "illegal economy," forced into child prostitution and child pornography.

Even work performed by teenagers between fourteen and eighteen—regarded as benign and beneficial long after most work by children under fourteen was abolished—has been reexamined and found problematic. When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment (1986), by Ellen Greenberger, has linked teen work to greater teen alcohol use and found that more than twenty hours of work per week can be harmful. The danger of workplace injury is far greater for often-inexperienced teenagers than for older workers, and many common teen work sites such as restaurants become especially dangerous when teenagers are asked to perform tasks (such as operating food processing machines) that are legally prohibited to them. Other workplaces offer unique dangers, for example, convenience stores where holdups at gunpoint occur, and pizza delivery companies whose fast-delivery promises encourage unsafe driving. Finally, the career-building role of teen work may be overestimated, except when linked to internships or vocational education.


Fyfe, Alec. Child Labour. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1989.

Greenberger, Ellen. When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Hamburger, Martin. "Protection from Participation As Deprivation of Rights." New Generation. 53, no. 3 (summer 1971): 1–6.

Hobbs, Sandy, Jim McKechnie, and Michael Lavalette. Child Labor: A World History Companion. Santa Clara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

Taylor, Ronald B. Sweatshops in the Sun: Child Labor on the Farm. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Working America's Children to Death. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Work Center and National Consumers League, 1990.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Susan RothBreitzer

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Child Labor Tax Case ; Children's Rights ; Fair Labor Standards Act ; Labor ; Labor Legislation and Administration .

Child Labor

views updated Jun 11 2018

Child Labor

In the early Republic, adults expected most children to labor as soon as they were physically able to do so. Typically, free white boys and girls began by helping out their parents on farms. Slave children went to work early on plantations. By the time free white youngsters reached their early teens, the parents of many had apprenticed them to learn skilled trades, although this practice began to decline in importance after the American Revolution. Public welfare authorities interceded and arranged for the indenture of poor free white and black children at a young age to work until their late teens or early twenties.

farms and plantations

In the early Republic, most Americans were farmers. To survive, white farm families required the labor of all family members, although the tasks that each person performed varied by gender and age. Between the ages of six and twelve, white boys began to help their fathers in the fields and girls began to assist their mothers with domestic tasks. Nonetheless, such gendered roles varied, depending on the makeup of the family: if there were no daughters, sons also helped out in the garden and kitchen, and if there were no sons, daughters helped in the fields. In a society that depended more on barter than on cash, parents of large families sometimes exchanged the labor of their youngsters with neighboring families in need of child labor.

Enslaved black children in the South went to work at about the same age as white children, although they did not labor for their own parents but for white masters and mistresses. While young slave boys might learn from their fathers how to stack wheat or pick worms off tobacco plants, and slave girls might learn to dust and clean silver alongside their mothers in plantation homes, for black children labor in family groups was short-lived. As soon as they were physically able, most slave boys and girls became field hands, where they worked directly under the control of white slave masters and their overseers. Only a few slave children, most girls, worked in plantation homes, and there they worked not for their mothers but for their white mistresses. White owners could punish black slave children harshly or sell them away from their families. As cotton became the dominant crop in the South in the early nineteenth century, whites moved from Virginia and the Carolinas south to Georgia and Mississippi and west to Texas. They took their slaves with them or purchased young slaves to work in the cotton fields. Many slave children were sold away from their parents and put to work picking cotton far from their family homes, a work experience unlike that of any white children.

the american revolution

During the American Revolution, children frequently had to take over the work of fathers who had gone to fight. In some cases, the work of children was not enough to keep a family solvent. Then, or when a father died, families were broken up. Mothers often became live-in servants and welfare authorities placed children in other families to work.

During the war, some boys enlisted in the military. While the minimum age for service was sixteen, some boys lied about their age, while others served as waiters to their fathers or as substitutes for them. Few actually engaged in battle. Many were fifers at a time when the fife was used to broadcast signals to the military, including the time to get up, eat meals, assemble, and turn lights out. Fifers were also used to position troops and signal them to turn, halt, and march.

young people, families, and apprenticeship

By the time their children were in their early teens, parents in all but the poorest white families sought to prepare them for self-sufficiency by apprenticing them to learn a trade. Parents typically searched for a place that suited the youngster's interests and inclinations. If the father were himself a skilled craftsman, sometimes he took his son as an apprentice. More commonly, parents contracted with a skilled craftsman for a set number of years. The craftspeople who took on the children promised to feed, clothe, house, and educate the youngsters. Some slaves learned trades as well, but few ever became self-sufficient, in contrast to white boys and girls. Instead, they worked to learn a skill and then plied that skill for their white masters, not for themselves.

Apprenticeship was highly gendered. Only boys were apprenticed to a whole variety of crafts, including furniture making, shoemaking, printing, candle making, blacksmithing, weaving, and others. Girls were typically apprenticed as domestics or seamstresses—about the only jobs outside the home then available to females.

Apprenticeship began to decline in importance after the American Revolution. The war challenged patriarchal relationships and led some apprentices to rebel against their masters' treatment. The economy changed after the Revolution as demand for various products fluctuated. Masters proved reluctant to take on apprentices for long periods when demand for their service might not be needed, and apprentices were less willing to spend long years learning a craft that might be outmoded. By the 1820s masters increasingly paid wages to apprentices and refused to promise them room, board, and clothes.

Children who were not apprenticed sometimes found jobs in textile mills. Samuel Slater opened one of the first in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790. There he employed children from ages seven through twelve. By 1810 there were eighty-seven textile mills in the United States employing thirty-five hundred women and children. In the 1820s new cotton mills opened in Lowell, Massachusetts, and employed many children under the age of fifteen, mostly girls.

indenturing by public authorities

Throughout the early Republic, impoverished white and free black children were removed from their families and placed out to live and work with more prosperous adults. In this way, public officials sought to take care of needy children, provide families with needed labor, save money on welfare in the short term, and forestall applications for relief in the future. The children were placed out through an indenture, a contract that was signed by local welfare authorities and the families that took in the children. In contrast to apprenticeship, parents of poor children and the children themselves had little choice in the matter of indenturing. Boys were typically indentured to age twenty-one and girls to eighteen, presumably because boys supposedly took longer to become self-sufficient farmers or craftsmen than girls took to learn how to keep house.

See alsoIndustrial Revolution; Slavery: Slave Life; Textiles Manufacturing .


Murray, John E., and Ruth Wallis Herndon. "Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship." Journal of Economic History 62, (2002): 356–382.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775–1850. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Born in Bondage: Growing Up Enslaved in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Stevenson, Brenda E. Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Williams, Elizabeth McKee. "Childhood, Memory, and the American Revolution." In Children and War, A Historical Anthology. Edited by James Marten. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Priscilla Ferguson Clement

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