In this lesson, we’ll learn about child labor during the Industrial Revolution. We’ll learn what working conditions were like for child laborers and the legislation and movements that paved the way for its end.
Industrial Revolution Timeframe
This lesson is about child labor during the Industrial Revolution, but first let’s make sure we understand what the Industrial Revolution was. The term Industrial Revolution is used to describe the period of tremendous technological and industrial advances which took place between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries.The time-frame for the Industrial Revolution is somewhat ambiguous; not all historians agree about when it began and ended. However, it is generally accepted that the Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain around the 1750s or 1760s, and from there spread throughout Europe and to the United States. The end of the Industrial Revolution is cited as anywhere between the 1840s and the 1860s.The Industrial Revolution was characterized by rapid advances in steam technology, machine tooling, iron production, and textile manufacturing. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, small-scale guilds and craftsman shops were replaced by large-scale factories.
Effects of Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution dramatically altered the course of human history and had both positive and negative effects.Positive effects included:
- Helping give rise to a new middle class
- Improving the quality of life among all classes
- Increasing life expectancy
Now, let’s take a look at some of the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution. The factory work itself was usually repetitive and took a psychological toll on workers.
In addition, worker safety was not a concern and many injuries (oftentimes very serious injuries) frequently occurred. Because technology was advancing so rapidly, there was the need for a larger labor force, and during the Industrial Revolution, children as young as four or five were employed to work in industrial factories.
The Horrors of Child Labor
The extensive use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was a sad chapter in human history.
Child labor was widely used on both sides of the Atlantic. Child labor varied considerably from place to place, but in extreme cases children as young as four or five were made to work. Sometimes, children were made to work long hours, up to 12 or 14 hour shifts. Generally these were children from lower classes, whose parents needed them to work in order to help provide income.
Children from wealthy families did not work.Children were seen as valuable workers partly because they could fit into small spaces that adults could not. In coal mines children were used to crawl through narrow, low corridors. Sadly many children developed Black Lung and other life-long breathing issues.
Lacking fully developed coordination and judgement, children often injured themselves on the heavy machinery found inside factories. Throughout the Industrial Revolution it was not uncommon to see children missing fingers, arms, and legs that had been lost to machine accidents. In factories toxic fumes also posed dangers. Many children developed chronic lung problems due to inhaling toxic substances.
Children who worked in rural areas or in agriculture were not much better off: extreme temperatures and the elements posed hazards.
The Lowell Factory System
In the United States in the mid-1800s Francis Cabot Lowell developed the Lowell Factory System, which was a program of employment in which female teenagers lived on-site in boarding houses constructed specifically for factory workers.Sometimes as young as twelve or thirteen, these ‘mill girls’ were held to strict moral standards. They received religious instruction, had a curfew, and received various forms of training and education. Despite the fact that the ‘mill girls’ typically worked from 5:00 AM to 7:00 PM, the Lowell Factory System was relatively progressive by the standards of the day. Lowell sought to improve the quality of life among his child laborers by providing them with leisure opportunities and library access.
Sadly, most factory systems during the Industrial Revolution were not so accommodating.
Child Labor Reform
In Great Britain, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 was passed by Parliament. This reform law stated that factories must have adequate ventilation and set standards for cleanliness. It also stipulated that apprentices should receive adequate clothing and education. The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 was important because it paved the way for future child labor reform. This act along with others than followed it came to be known collectively as the Factory Acts.
Despite the numerous Factory Acts passed throughout the 19th century, reform was slow in coming. There were many loopholes to these acts, and many of the acts were not enforced. It would not be until the Progressive Era that serious efforts to end child labor were made.In the United States, the Progressive Era refers to the late 19th- and early 20th-century period characterized by social activism and reform movements.
Women’s suffrage, prohibition of alcohol, and relieving poverty were core themes of the Progressive Era in addition to combating child labor. The values of the Progressive Era were instrumental in bringing child labor to a close.
Let’s review. The Industrial Revolution is a term used to describe the period of tremendous technological and industrial advances that took place between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries.
The Industrial Revolution had both positive and negative effects. Among the most notable negative effects was child labor.In the mid-1800s, the Lowell Factory System in Lowell, Massachusetts, emerged as a program of employment in which female teenagers lived on-site in boarding houses constructed specifically for factory workers. It was relatively progressive by the standards of the day. In Great Britain, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 provided regulations for factories, and helped pave the way for child labor reform.
In the United States, the Progressive Era, characterized by social activism and reform movements, helped to end child labor.