Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Can you imagine having a job in a factory before you were 10 years old? In this lesson we will learn about child labor during the Industrial Revolution. We will learn what working conditions were like for child laborers and highlight key themes and developments associated with this topic.

The 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 Industrial Revolution is a term 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.

The Industrial Revolution: The Good and the Bad

The Industrial Revolution dramatically altered the course of human history, and had both positive and negative effects.

The Good

• The Industrial Revolution helped give rise to a new middle class.

• The quality of life among all classes was ultimately improved.

• The Industrial Revolution also led to an increase in life expectancy.

The Bad

• Factory work itself was usually repetitive and took a psychological toll on workers.

• Child labor: during the Industrial Revolution, children as young as four or five were employed to work in industrial factories.

• Many of the jobs given to children were dangerous and children were frequently injured.

This famous image depicts two child laborers, one who is not wearing shoes.

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.

Child coal-miners

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 and the Lowell Mill Girls

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, many factory systems during the Industrial Revolution were not so accommodating.

Two young mill girls from the Lowell Factory

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