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The End of Child Labor
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Charles Dickens: Children's Crusader


When most people think of Charles Dickens they think of the guy who wrote those long and boring "classics" that your high school English teacher forced you to read. In fact,personally I have found the Tale of Two Cities to be a great cure for insomina. But what most people don't know about the bard of the Victorian Age is that he was a hardcore fighter in the struggle to ban child labor.


​In Victorian England only a handful of politicians could be heard complaining about the horrendous abuses that children had to suffer through in the sweatshops of the 19th Century. Exploited by greedy mill owners, the working poor had no rights and no protections against a sadistic boss. Serious legislation wouldn't even begin to be debated  until well near the19th century, which comes as no suprise seeing that many of the same people who owned the factories also sat in Parliament.


Charles Dickens himself  was a victim of  child labor. Growing up poor, Dickens was forced to work in a textile mill, enduring the same kind of explotative crap as tens of thousands of British children. What made Dickens unique is that he earned an edication and  used his pen to fight back against a greedy and corrupt factory system. We get it, Dickens' words are as dry as sawdust. R.K. Rowling he was not. But if you can somehow force yourself to get past the Victorian language you will  find powerfully raw stories about human suffering.


In his second most famous work (the first being A Christmas Carol) Oliver Twist, Oliver is sent to an orphanage where he grows up unloved and neglected. At the age of nine, he is sent to one of England’s notorious workhouses for the poor and he is “apprenticed” out to a variety of people, all who seem to share the same attitude problem. Oliver finds himself on the streets of London after running away and is kidnapped by a street gang. But in spite of a life filled with misery and disappointment, Oliver remains honest, a good soul. In the end…well we won’t spoil it for you just in case. The plot of most of Dicken’s books is that greed is at the heart of the corrupt society that 19th century England had become.


​Child Labor

Children have always worked. Most families couldn’t afford to have an extra pair of hands just doing nothing. Children were raised to do the same profession their parents did. Farmers’ kids were out plowing the fields all day right alongside their parents. A family of weavers had their kid’s spinning and cutting as soon as their little hands could grab the scissors. Of course, if you were rich it was a different story. Wealthy people weren’t expected to work at all.

Around the time of the industrial revolution, kids who weren’t plowing the fields or selling newspapers on the street were expected to go work in a factory or mine. Being a kid didn’t earn you many privileges. You might end up working as a bobbin girl or floor sweeper which was easier than what the adults did, but you still put in the same 12 hour days–but for less money, about 80% less. It was even worse if you were a girl; girls were paid half of what boys brought home. Knowing that they could be replaced by cheaper child labor, adults were forced to accept lower wages. The loss of income also meant that they had no choice but to allow their children to go to work. The vicious cycle would continue into the 20th century.


But back to the point. Reformers in America and Europe (like Dickens) were pushing hard for children to be protected. It took Great Britain until 1802 to pass its first child labor law. But that was largely ignored and child labor carried on. Great Britain passed a series of Factory Acts. It took 45 years before children under the age of 14 were banned from working in factories and for the working hours of adults be reduced to ten hour days. The United States would take a bit longer. In 1938, 93 years after Britain, the United States passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which outlawed child labor and set a forty hour work week for adults.

"I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day. The gloom of the breaker appalled me. Outside the sun shone brightly, the air was pellucid [clear], and the birds sang in chorus with the trees and the rivers. Within the breaker there was blackness, clouds of deadly dust enfolded everything, the harsh, grinding roar of the machinery and the ceaseless rushing of coal through the chutes filled the ears. I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was expectorating some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed."
children on a smoke break
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​Not only could children fit into tight spots where adults couldn’t go, like narrow mine shafts, the underside of machines, and inside chimneys they could be paid less for doing it. Bonus! In Britain and Scotland, two-thirds of all mill workers were children at the start of the 19th century. Mill owners like Josiah Wedgewood, who made a name for himself in the pottery business, employed children, as young as five, working at jobs that exposed them to lead oxide–a deadly poison.

Wedgewood knew that the lead oxide was making the children that worked for him ill, but he went on hiring them anyway. Profit came first. Employers in Europe had a steady supply of cheap labor from the poor parts of town. Orphanages and desperate parents literally sold their kids (they called it apprenticed) to a mill to be “trained in a trade”. These children were sometimes subjected to beatings and starvation to motivate them to work harder. Some mills locked their child workers in at night. If the children escaped (and many did), the police were expected to help the mill owner return them. It's no wonder that 19th century writers began calling mill work “wage slavery”.

Why is child labor still a thing in the 21st century!?!
Think child labor is a thing of the past? Think again. Today, there are 215 million children working in sweat shops and factories to churn out everything from the shoes you're wearing to i-phones.

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