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The glorious Victorian era may captivate fashionistas and trendsetters, but the subject of child labour during this era still remains a squirmy issue. During the Industrial Revolution, British and American farms, textile mills and mines hired children to work long, gruelling hours in horrific environments. Children received harsh punishment and low or no wages. Novelist Charles Dickens called these atrocities "dark satanic mills," and historian Edward Thompson described them as "places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents and alien manners."
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It was not uncommon to see children aged three, four and five labouring in steam rooms, cotton fields, textile factories or flax mills. Their puny, stunted bodies made them look older. Britain used children in crop harvests, brick factories, chimney sweeping, underground mining and textile mills. Children in the American South picked cotton and tobacco, and worked long hours in cotton and tobacco factories. Smaller children had to crawl into dangerous, tight spots, which meant losing fingers or limbs, or even death. Children worked at glass factories, canneries and home industries.
Injuries and Illnesses
Children contracted scarlet fever, measles and polio from foul water, open drains and unsanitary toilets. Match factories made matches with phosphorous, which rotted children's jaws or teeth. Tardy children were punished by carrying weights around their necks; this caused back and neck injuries. Older children often died from coal dust, lung disease, asbestos exposure or cancer. Toxic fumes caused early respiratory disease and tuberculosis. Machinery scalped longhair children or crushed tiny hands. Others died by falling into machines while they slept.
British Child Labor
British working children fell into two groups: Parish apprentices and free labourers. Parish apprentices were orphans or hardship cases, and were often auctioned. Parish officials governed parish apprentices. Parish apprentices worked for large textile mills in rural towns. In 1797, two-thirds of the John Birch Backbarrow Mill were parish apprentices. Free-labour children lived at home with their parents and worked in factories during the day. A factory owner could not force free labourers to work for him unless parents agreed to it.
Child Labor Laws
Britain and America were slow to pass child labour laws. The 1833 British Factory Acts forbade hiring a child under age 9 and allowed a child under age 19 to work no more than 12 hours daily. Britain passed laws requiring clean factories with good ventilation. Factories had to fence off dangerous machines like hoists and gears. In the late 1870s, Massachusetts incorporated factory safety and inspection laws. Other northern industrial states then passed laws governing machinery, ventilation, sanitation and inspection.
- Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images News/Getty Images