Children At Work: Looking at Child Labor in the Victorian Age

Today, it isn't that uncommon for some children and teenagers to work. They may earn extra money by baby-sitting, doing yard work, or maybe even walking dogs. Others, once they go on to high school, may go to work in their local grocery store, malls, or food chains. However, in the Victorian Age, it wouldn't seem at all strange to see children as young as five or six, go to work full-time (sometimes sixteen hours a day!) in often dangerous conditions.

As you read, ask yourself questions. Why do you think children so young were working? What type of jobs do you do for extra money? What types of jobs did the Victorian Age children have to do? What would you do to help stop child labor? How do you think your life would be different if instead of getting an education, you had to go to work in a paper mill, or on an assembly line?

Why Did it Happen?

During the first United States Census it was reported that the number of children working in 1870, equalled nearly 750,000. This only included children under the age of fifteen, and didn't count those children who were working on their family farms, or in the family's business. The number of children working continued to increase as new technology and the Industry grew. What were some of the things that caused families to send their children to work? What about the employers that hired them?


One mother in the Victorian Age, Mrs. Smith, was quoted as saying:

"I have three children working in Wilson's mill; one 11, one 13, and the other 14. They work regular hours there. We don't complain. If they go to drop the hours, I don't know what poor people will do. We have hard work to live as it is?..My Husband is one of the same mind about it?last summer my husband was 6 weeks ill; we pledged almost all our things to live; the things are not all out of pawn yet? We complain of nothing but short wages?My children have been in the mill three years. I have no complaint to make of their being beaten?I would rather they were beaten than fined."

Another roadblock to change was that most people thought that by letting children have jobs, it would serve to help the poor families to make more money.

There were many ways that children entered the workforce. Orphaned children were often sent to a distant mill or factory owner to be fed and cared for while working to earn their keep. Others were indentured, or sold to a business owner by their parents for a certain number of years. Other, more fortunate working children lived with their families while working full-time.

Industrial Needs

While some factory owners and leaders of the industries spoke out against putting children to work so young, others hired children because they didn't have to be paid as much as adults did. Children were also hired for factory and mill jobs because many of the machines that they used were very small. Children were seen as the ideal candidates to work the machines, and to fix them when they were broken.

It's also important to remember that children were raised and treated differently in the Victorian Age. There were some employers who didn't think that there was anything wrong with hiring young children to work. They believed that by hiring these children, the children would eventually grow-up as responsible, hard workers.

However, as you will see in the next section, many of the jobs that children were hired for were often very hard, at times even dangerous.

Working for a Living

When teenagers go to work today, they can choose from many types of work. They can be cashiers, fry cooks, baby-sitters, front desk clerks, stockers or create their own lawn service. Children of the Victorian area didn't have these options.

So, what did these kids do for a living?

The most fortunate working children were hired on as apprentices for the major trades of the era. Some of these trades would include:

*Iron foundry
*Lace making

While the children were still required to work, and sometimes required to work long hours, they were at least lucky enough to be learning a profitable trade, which offered hope to them for their future.

Younger children might have started out working as street sweepers, "scavengers" or by selling newspapers. Scavengers were children who searched through trash, rubbish and refuse for items they could sell to junk stores, or even to their neighbors. Some of these items might have included pieces of rope, or metal scraps.

Still other children were put to work in more dangerous conditions.

Glass factories
Textile mills
Coal fields/mines
Cotton mills

These are only a few examples of the hard work children would face, sometimes working up to ninety hours a week!!

Sometimes the children who went to work and were often away from adult supervision would fall into criminal activity. They would wind up involved in things like gambling, stealing, and sometimes even prostitution.

Making a Difference!!

Many people worked very lard and hard to help protect children from being taken advantage of by the industries. Some key people who fought to control child labor were:

Charles Loring Brace - created the Children's Aid Society

Lewis Wikes Hine - photographer who exposed the child labor problem to the public at large

President Woodrow Wilson - created the Keating-Owen Act (see below)

Lord Ashley - created the Children's Employment Commission in 1842

Charles Dickens - wrote and spoke out against child labor. For more information, read Oliver Twist

Karl Marx - helped incite public opinion

Michael Sadler - worked on the "Ten-Hour Movement"

Organizations that were involved in gathering support from individuals and law makers to control child labor include:

"Short Time Committees"
The Children's Aid Society
The National Child Labor Committee

Progress was sometimes slow, but always encouraging. Several Factory Acts (1819-1878) were created in England, which increased the minimum age of children who were able to work. Along with the Factory Acts, there was the "Ten-Hour Movement" which limited shifts to ten hours, with a weekly limit of fifty-eight hours. Other laws in England that influenced the change of child labor laws included Lord Ashley's Children's Employment Commission (1842), which was followed by the Coal Mines Act in 1843. This Act stopped the Coal Mines from hiring women, or boys under the age of ten.

In America, activists joined together in groups and coalitions to work for labor law and reform, or change. They received a small victory in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson created the Keating-Owen Act, which banned the interstate (between two or more states) sale of any items produced by child labor. However, this Act was later found to be unconstitutional. The real victory came in the year 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act. This Act created a national minimum wage and set the national working age to sixteen (eighteen if the job was dangerous). Children aged 14 and 15 were allowed to work under certain conditions and fields of work, but only after school hours.

Because of the efforts of the Victorian people and the new laws it created for the children of England and America, child labor isn't as large of a problem?.for us. But child labor hasn't disappeared! According to some recent surveys and studies done by the International Labor Office, it was estimated that there are about 250,000,000 kids between five and fourteen working. Of these children, 120,000,000 are working full-time, often in dangerous conditions. Take some time to think of ways that you can help with the modern day global child labor reform!!

Jennifer Gibbs is a global freelance writer who lives in South Georgia with her husband and son. If you'd like to learn how she can provide your website or publication with unique, useful and energetic copy, visit

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