In the 1800s, few laws protected child labourers from exploitation. They worked in every industry and usually under poor conditions for little money. While the energetic newsboy and the shoeshine boy popping his rag are iconic images of child labour in the 19th century and beyond, the immigrant child worker did many other jobs and had few leisure moments.
The 1800s were the years of the industrial revolution. Manufacturers needed lots of cheap labour, and immigrant child labour was the cheapest to be had. With demand for products that could be mass produced came worsening labour conditions for children. Immigration was at its height during the latter half of the century, and children of immigrants went straight into factories. The sweatshop conditions were dangerous and dirty. Employers were known to lock workers inside during work hours, and employers often beat children for not keeping up with quotas and sometimes tied the children to their workstations.
The majority of immigrant children worked in agriculture, either for their own families or on nearby farms. Their work was essential to keep the family fed. Orphan children in the middle of the century were loaded onto trains and transported to work in the Western states. Sometimes families adopted them and they fared well, but at other times they suffered as servants and lost track of their own families. These children worked seven days a week performing heavy farm labour.
Immigrant children went into business for themselves or formed small collectives to sell newspapers, flowers, ribbons and matches. Some children turned to prostitution. Running errands, attending to horses and cleaning up after them, sweeping the streets and sorting and selling rags were all jobs immigrant children held.
Immigrant children as young as 3 and 4 years of age worked at home either caring for younger children while their parents worked or participating in "piecework" with their families. Piecework was hand or machine sewing or assembly that manufacturers commissioned. Children assisted parents with the work, sometimes working late into the night to finish orders for pennies a piece.
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