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Child Labor And the Industrial Revolution

written by: Robin L. • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 1/6/2012

The Industrial Revolution is acclaimed for the profound changes it created in society. However, Industrial Revolution era child labor is one of the often forgotten tragedies of the period.

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    How Was Child Labor Introduced?

    The industrial revolution provided numerous new inventions that allowed for the creation of factories. Within these factories were new machines that increased the production of consumer goods. The increased number of machines that needed workers created a labor shortage.

    Prior to the industrial revolution children often began working with their families in the farm or as an apprentice to a trade at a very young age. This was a common practice and the continuation of that practice into the arena of factory work seemed natural.

    Children were considered an excellent source of cheap labor. In addition to being inexpensive, they were also much smaller than adults and were able to get into spaces which would be much too small for an adult. Unfortunately, most of these small spaces were also quite dangerous and the mortality rate of children working in factories was quite high.

    Extreme poverty was another deciding factor in the popularity of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. Most families in England were exceedingly poor and every family member, from the youngest to the oldest, had to work if starvation or eviction was to be avoided. Even after tentative measures were put into place to protect children they would often begin working as soon as the mandatory school time was completed at around age eleven.

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    Where Did They Work?

    A great many children worked in factories, however, there were other jobs during the Industrial Revolution that utilized child labor. Children were frequently employed as chimney sweeps during this time because they were small and agile and easily able to fit inside the chimney to clean it.

    Coal mines employed children because they were small enough to fit into tunnels that grown men were unable to traverse. They would often begin working in the mines as young as age five and because of the hazards of the working conditions few lived to be thirty.

    Other jobs were less dangerous and included selling wears on the streets, street sweepers, domestic servants, errand boys, and construction workers.

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    What Were the Working Conditions Like?

    Working conditions were miserable across the board. Factories required workers to stand long hours in poorly ventilated rooms. In the summer temperatures would be stifling and in the winter they would be freezing. Before child labor laws were put into effect children would often work sixteen hours per day.

    After 1833 that was reduced to twelve hours per day for children ages eleven to eighteen and eight hours per day for children ages nine to eleven. Children younger than age eleven were no longer allowed to work in textile factories, although other industries were not mentioned. Unfortunately, the new regulations were difficult to enforce and often had little effect.