Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Child labor did not begin with the advent of the industrial revolution. The young had always worked alongside their parents in the home, in the field, and as apprentices in skilled and semi-skilled trades, but the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a drastic change in the type of labor children performed. Increasingly employed in factories and mines, children were thrust into dangerous and unhealthy situations within the adult working world, prompting reformers to call for legislative change and Romantic and Victorian writers to offer sympathetic representations of working children in their poetry and fiction.

In the early part of the nineteenth century thousands of children in England were employed in textile factories, workshops, and mines, usually working long hours for very low wages. Although the Factory Act of 1833 set at nine the minimum age for children working in factories, it was rarely enforced. Parents who depended on the wages of their offspring could easily obtain certificates testifying that their children met the required age. Mining was not regulated until much later when the Report of the Children's Employment Commission in 1842 exposed the dangerous and unhealthy conditions under which children as young as four and five labored underground. The smallest workers were most commonly employed as “trappers,” sitting alone in the dark shafts and opening the trap doors for approaching coal carts. Older children, six and up, worked in the mines as human beasts of burden, dragging loaded coal carts through narrow passages. Other industries, such as the manufacture of glass, lace, pottery, paper, and tobacco, were subject to no regulations at all until well past the mid-century mark.

An almost exclusively British practice was the tradition of using small boys, and sometimes girls, to climb narrow chimneys as apprentices to adult chimney-sweeps. George Phillips reports that elsewhere in the world chimneys were most often cleaned with a weighted rope operated by two men and later by machinery invented for the purpose, but it was an English tradition to use climbing boys. “Once he had started to employ climbing-boys, the Englishman did not wish to change his habit; and the custom of sending small children … up chimneys continued in a country noted for its tenacity in maintaining its traditions,” writes Phillips. Children as young as four, the smaller the better, were apprenticed by their poverty-stricken parents or by unscrupulous overseers of workhouses.

In America, just as in England, minimum age laws were routinely ignored. Catherine Gourley reports that at the end of the nineteenth century girls as young as eight worked in the infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York City, although state law prohibited the employment of children under fourteen. When infrequent inspections took place, factory owners would hide the littlest workers or push them out one door as the inspector was entering another. Every industry posed special hazards for children, from the unfenced machinery in mills to the toxic chemicals associated with tanning and printing.

Canada, still an agricultural country in the nineteenth century, became the host for thousands of indigent and abandoned British children sent to the Dominion as agricultural apprentices. Fueled by the desire to remove urban children from the unhealthy atmosphere in industrial cities (and in some cases, off the public dole), the emigration movement was based on the assumption that the pure air of Canadian farm country would naturally be more suitable for the youngsters. Joy Parr reports, however, that in the absence of legislation regulating this “traffic in children,” overwork and abuse were common features of the arrangement. Yet government debate on the importation of British children into Canada most often centered on the threats posed by the children to public health and to the local labor markets...

(The entire section is 1,549 words.)