One look at the dirty and dangerous list of jobs done by children in the Industrial Revolution sends a shiver through most people's modern sensibilities. Driven by extreme poverty, many parents felt they had no choice but to send their children to work in mills, factories and mines, as well as on farms, despite the dangers. The Industrial Revolution started in England in the late 1700s and spread to America by the early 1800s, lasting through 1900. The inhuman hours, health and nutrition issues and cruel treatment suffered by the children drove many to protest and lobby for reforms that led to the child labour laws we know today.
The dusty conditions in textile mills caused health problems for many of the children who worked as carders, weavers or lace makers. Piecers leant over sewing machines all day to repair broken threads. Any slowdowns or perceived slackness in work habits resulted in severe beatings.
Factory children often worked as scavengers. They had to crawl under the machines, where they were in danger of being crushed or mangled, to keep the gears clean and in working order. Others swept the factory and performed other cleaning tasks. Accidents and injuries were frequent, some resulting in death. Match factory workers had to dip matches in phosphorous, breathing in dangerous fumes that caused tooth rot and sometimes fatalities. Many who survived the terrible working conditions succumbed to disease and permanent disabling injuries because of poor sanitation and lack of proper nutrition in the workhouses.
Children in rural areas worked on farms, planting and harvesting crops. Although somewhat less dangerous than factory or mill work, the children were forced to work long hours in extreme temperatures, handle dangerous tools and carry loads that weighed more than they did.
Mining operations used children to sort rocks in the mining carts because their small size allowed them to fit in the carts. They also worked as trappers, opening the trap doors for the coal wagons to pass -- a comparatively easy job, but one of isolation and loneliness. Coal bearers would carry large baskets of coal on their backs. The dusty air caused many respiratory illnesses.