Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:03 Industrial Revolution…
  • 1:05 Effects of Industrial…
  • 1:52 The Horrors of Child Labor
  • 3:12 The Lowell Factor System
  • 4:00 Child Labor Reform
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

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

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.

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