The happy-go-lucky childhood spent playing kickball and complaining about piano lessons is a modern phenomenon for all but the wealthy. Lower class children have always worked, and worked hard, especially in agrarian societies. But the Industrial Age brought machinery that could do the work of a dozen full-grown men, and a boy could run it. And so began the era of child labor and unspeakable cruelty.
Whether chimney sweeps, mudlarkers, miners, or mill house scavengers, these jobs were dangerous, oftentimes very treacherous, and required long, long hours.
In 1938, 26 boys and girls ages 6 to 17, died in the Huskar Pit disaster in Yorkshire. The picture on the right shows a child pushing a cart through a small shaft in a deep rock mine.
Mill house scavengers brought much controversy to early Nineteenth Century Britain. Frances Trollope wrote, "A little girl about seven years old, whose job as scavenger, was to collect incessantly from the factory floor, the flying fragments of cotton that might impede the work... while the hissing machinery passed over her, and when this is skillfully done, and the head, body, and the outstretched limbs carefully glued to the floor, the steady moving, but threatening mass, may pass and repass over the dizzy head and trembling body without touching it. But accidents frequently occur; and many are the flaxen locks, rudely torn from infant heads, in the process.
Charles Dickens publicized the plight of the children in Oliver Twist, as did several charitable societies and churches. By the 1880s, the U.K. and most of Europe had child labor laws in place, but the United States lagged way behind. "Children were often preferred, because factory owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike."
According to Scholastic.com: By 1810, about 2,000,000 school-age children were working 50- to 70-hour weeks. Most of them came from poor families. When parents could not support their children, they sometimes turned them over to a mill or factory owner. One glass factory in Massachusetts was fenced with barbed wire "to keep the young imps inside." The "young imps" were boys under 12 who carried loads of hot glass all night for a wage of 40 cents to $1.10 per night.
After several abortive attempts, the United States enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, a full one hundred years after England passed its first child labor laws.
In our modern era of enlightenment, children are still used and abused unfairly. The International Labor Organization estimates that worldwide, 211 million children are engaged in unlawful, dangerous, or forced labor--mostly in mining, agriculture, industry, pyrotechnics, domestic, or in the sex trade.
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