“Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution”

Here is a new and important paper by Jane Humphries (pdf):

Quantitative and qualitative analysis of a large number of autobiographies by working men who lived through the industrial revolution has demonstrated that there was an upsurge in child labour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with children’s work entrenched in traditional sectors as well as spreading in newly mechanized factories and workshops. I have interpreted this rise in terms of the appearance of a new equilibrium in the early industrial economy with more and younger children at work. The new equilibrium, in turn, was related to a number of co-incidental developments including: an increase in the relative productivity of children as a result of mechanization, new divisions of labour, and changes in the organization of work; the dynamics of competitive dependence linking labour market and families; high dependency ratios within families; stumbling male wages and pockets of poverty; family instability; and breadwinner frailty. The establishment of these links forges a new synchronization between revised views of the industrial revolution and a revisionist history of child labour.

The original pointer comes from the now back-up-and-running New Economist blog.


Now I know what comes after elimination of minimum wage: eliminate child labor laws!

From the paper: 'I argue that child labour, in terms of
child participation rates and younger working, increased during the classic era of
industrialization, and that this influenced the pace and nature of economic change.'

So, what is holding us back is child labor laws.

I, too, am writing a paper. It is on "graduate student labor" and in it I show that the decline of REAL graduate student wage rates ( defined as graduate student stipends, wages LESS increasing graduate school tuition) is responsible for the resurgence of American productivity and is highly correlated to patents and global warming.

What is interesting to me about the paper is how you measure productivity: do you measure it at the time the child is working (and thus not in school increasing his human capital) or do you measure it ten years later, when the child laborer, untrained and uneducated, contributes little to the economy.

Depends on your timeframe, doesn't it.

Of all the great evils of the child labour, this is not one. The children who ended up 18th century mills were not going to be learning Cicero or much else in any case. Apart from how to dig up turnips that is.


"an increase in the relative productivity of children as a result of mechanization,"

Can someone please scream this from the rooftops and do some revisionism? This may have been a cause for an increase in valuing children. But I guess it seems less cruel to leave them unborn rather than let them improve their family's living standards.


I think you might be interested in the issue that confronted Britain at the turn of the century: it was competing with a better educated German workforce. It is ironic that this paper looks at increased productivity at one period, and overlooks the loss of productivity at another, and the calls for England to improve its educational system to be competitive with the Germans.

Ask: who is the revisionist here. What did they know then that we seem to have forgotten.

Are you arguing factories were less educational than farms? Or that by decreasing their per-hour productivity, children would have more time available for education? Neither seems very tenable.

in the issue that confronted Britain at the turn of the century

Turn of which century?? :)


"The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations...has no occasion to exert his understanding...He naturally loses therefore the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."

And later on:

"It is otherwise in the barbarous societies...In such societies, the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity, and to inventing expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people."

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, UChicago Press, 1976
Book V, Chapter I, Part III, Article II, Pages 302-303.

Indeed, it does seem that factories are less educational than farms. At least, according to one important thinker.

This link contains material reprinted in an old history textbook, Readings in European History Since 1814:

A paper bag over your head helps with hyperventilation Bill.

In my narrow experience I have talked to a few people who grew up on farms. One comes to mind, his dad had land in northern Saskatchewan. Big family, not much in resources, all the kids were expected to do work in accord with their abilities and strengths. Not a nice situation. Brutally hard work with not enough to eat. Dickensian. Unfortunately there wasn't much alternative for them, and over time things got better.

A 10-12 year old can't do much heavy lifting, but is capable of running a machine that does the grunt work for him. That is what is referred to by productivity.

The fact that children were sent out to work probably has to do with the standard of living, income etc. of the time. As the populace became more prosperous, the necessity disappeared.This has happened in more recent memory in South Korea and other developing or recently developed nations.

I would suspect that we would see children working in some way to help support the family in Greece and some of the harder hit eastern european countries. In spite of laws to the contrary.

Child labor laws pretty much have and had no effect on anything except to annoy me when I was 15.

My first job was at a drafting company when I was still in High School. I got a job because I wanted to; we were a lower class family and I was interested in computers and going to college, both of which needed money I wasn't going to be getting from my parents (because they didn't have it to give). Mostly office work, with a bit of field work surveying sites, but certainly nothing dangerous or even particularly unpleasant. Even the smell of running blueprints wasn't that bad, the machine was in a well ventilated room.

Still, it took forever to get the job. Not because I wasn't qualified or they didn't need the help. Because I was young. They had to get a waiver from the state before they could hire me.

Child labor laws, like a lot of laws on the books, have outlived the circumstances that caused their implementation.

Wasn't child labor was not only nearly universal on the farms on which 90% of the population lived, but actually worse in most respects than industrial labor, esp. pay and living conditions?

Peasants had far more days off than factory workers, certainly. Also what spencer said below - children generally worked for the farm for a while and then moved on.

That should really read 'moved up*'

Because of course before the Industrial Revolution, it was absolutely the norm for child peasants to move off the farm and up in the world. Whereas nowadays, rural Britain is just chock full of dirt poor serfs digging up turnips with their fingernails.


Nonononono. Prior to factory owners, it had not occurred to anyone to exploit children. You know "like taking candy from a baby"? That phrase was coined by an industrialist.

No, rural Britain is full of East Europeans doing hard labour in the fields. It is the cities full of the poor and workless we should worry about.


Working with your father on the family farm where he is teaching you how to be a farmer is somewhat different from being a child working in some factory. Right?

The factory paid you?

And why could the factory pay you? an increase in the relative productivity of children as a result of mechanization

Gd children stealing jobs of reelmercanz.

Quantitative and qualitative analysis of a large number of autobiographies by working men who lived through the industrial revolution has demonstrated that there was an upsurge in child labour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

I guess there were not many autobiographies of working men before industrial revolution, as before industrial revolution few working men could read and write...

Shhh. Don't tell anyone.

Revisionist at work.

I know a feller who wrote TWO autobiographies before he did any work.
Seems to have worked out for him.

"I know a feller who wrote TWO autobiographies before he did any work."

Are you sure he's doing any work? ;)

That golf stick doesn't swing itself.

The industrial revolution actually happened after widespread literacy, and perhaps to no small measure because of it.

"By the mid-18th century, the ability to read and comprehend translated scripture led to Wales having one of the highest literacy rates. This was the result of a Griffith Jones's system of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the Bible in Welsh. Similarly, at least half the population of 18th century New England was literate, perhaps as a consequence of the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. By the time of the American Revolution, literacy in New England is suggested to have been around 90%."


But the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in Wales or New England; it happened in England, where the masses weren't very literate, and Scotland, where they were.

I would argue it took place across Christendom, led by Protestants, with England and Scotland in the vanguard.

(I say this partly because Protestants championed literacy on the basis of their belief every person had not just the right, but the duty to read Scripture).

Seems to me that children were considered highly disposable factors of production. This is economically rational as a child only had a 25% chance of living to adulthood, so It became sensible that a six year old be consumed in dangerous manufacture rather than allowed to go to waste in a grave. Different story once they become young adults and their life expectancy increased substantially - at that point they increase in value.

Indeed, I think it was Wellington who replied to an observation about the drummer boys inevitably being cut down by the first volley, "Plenty more where they came from".

> This is economically rational as a child only had a 25% chance of living to adulthood,

Are you sure? This sounds like you are working off infant mortality. The relevant life expectancy is whatever it was conditional on surviving to age 6 (at which point the child could then start work at whatever wages). Given that if you made it to ~20, you could expect another 40+ years of life for centuries before that, a 75% mortality rate for 6 year olds sounds way too high...

In the USA ,child labor was cheaper for the northern factory owners than slave labor . This led to the North's feeling of moral superiority over the South . If slave labor in factories would have been cheaper ,the North would have fought to preserve slavery .

Consider the fates of the little boys, from age four on up, who were widely employed by master chimney sweeps to clamber up inside long flues and knock down the soot, at horrific cost to their health. Paul Johnson writes in A History of the English People (p.285), "often they were forced up by the use of long pricks, and by applying wisps of flaming straw to their feet. They suffered from a variety of occupational diseases and many died from suffocation."

The ruling ideology of the age assumed that, as regrettable as this might be, the laws of economics required it.

After all, how else would chimneys ever get swept?

The first bill banning the employment of children under eight from chimney sweeping passed Parliament in 1788. But, like many immigration laws in America today, it was ignored. So was the 1834 act.

Then, the greatest reformer of the Victorian Era, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, began his almost endless crusade to abolish child labor inside chimneys. Like William Wilberforce, the victor over the slave trade, Shaftesbury was a Tory, an evangelical Anglican, and a relentless parliamentarian.

In 1840, Shaftesbury carried a bill to regulate child chimney sweeps over " resistance that can only be called fanatical", in Johnson's words.

It also was not enforced.

Three more of Shaftesbury's bills failed in Parliament in the 1850s. He succeeded in 1864, but the legislation proved ineffective "due to a general conspiracy of local authorities, magistrates, police, judges, juries, and the public to frustrate the law. Boys continued to die…" including a seven-year-old who suffocated in a flue in 1873.

Shaftesbury finally succeeded in passing effective legislation in 1875.

And, of course, that winter everyone in Britain froze to death due to clogged chimneys.

Oh, wait … sorry, that was in Bizarro Britain, where the reigning interpretations of economics actually applied. Rather like in Senator Kennedy's Abnormal America, where nobody will be able to afford to eat chicken without the Liberal Lion's amnesty and guest worker programs.

In the real Britain, however, the master chimney sweeps quickly found other ways to clean chimneys.


I got my first job when I was nine. Worked at a sheet metal factory. In two weeks, I was running the floor. Child labor laws are ruining this country.

"I got my first job when I was nine. Worked at a sheet metal factory. In two weeks, I was running the floor. Child labor laws are ruining this country."

Well played, sir!

At first reading, I thought this was just more dogmatic libertarian chest-pounding. It took a second reading to realize this was pitch-perfect parody.

What we've learned since the early Victorian Era is that the world works in ways more responsive to intelligent effort than was imagined by Thomas Malthus:

- High wages can often spur technological advances that more than make up for their costs.

- The key to economic prosperity is not low wages but high human capital.

In contrast to Dickensian England, with its Scrooge-like obsession with cheap labor, Americans traditionally enjoyed high wages because the country was underpopulated relative to its natural resources. This inspired American entrepreneurs to invest in labor-saving innovations, which, in a virtuous cycle, allowed even higher wages to be paid.

The most famous example: Henry Ford doubling his workers' salaries in 1914 after inventing the moving assembly line.

In the long run, the cheap labor obsession debilitated the English economy. After the brilliant innovations of the early Industrial Revolution, the English textile industry tended to stagnate. Paul Johnson explains:

"Factories paid higher wages than domestic industries; all the same, they were very low, chiefly because most of the factory hands were women and children. Low wages kept home consumer demand down; worse still, they removed the chief incentive to replace primitive machinery by the systematic adoption of new technology."

And then there was the long run impact on Britain's economic culture. Johnson writes:

"State limitations of human exploitation came too late, and were too ineffective, to make the quest for productivity a virtue; the English did not discover it until the twentieth century, by which time the trade union movement had constructed powerful defenses against it."

Victorian Scroogeonomics helped engender its own nemesis. It drove the British working class far to the left of the American working class, leading to both the nationalization of major industries in the 1940s and a hatred of productivity improvements among unions, exemplified in the 1959 Peter Sellers' movie I'm All Right, Jack.

Not so long ago literally everyone that was able to work did so, young or old. Just as there were no child labor laws, there were no retirement programs. In addition, the definition of a child has changed through time, a sixteen year-old was once considered an adult in terms of capacity to perform work. Group photographs of work gangs in mines, logging camps, farms, etc. consisted of a majority of youths led by a few adults. They're usually smiling. Unlike the young of today they were happy and excited to leave childhood behind and take their place in the world as independent adults. Many were married and parents before the age of eighteen. Child labor laws, made possible by the most affluent society in world history, have led to the present extension of psychological childhood into the third decade of life and beyond. It's not a pretty sight.

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