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

Posted on December 15, 2011. Filed under: American history, Immigration, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarisse Kambire, an enslaved child laborer in Burkina Faso, 2011.

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

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