The Industrial Revolution was either a wonderful or terrible time to be a child, depending on a family’s economic status. Historian Stephen Mintz states, “At no point in American history was childhood as diverse as it was in the mid and late nineteenth century” (134); the same was likely true about childhood in England. Class was the defining characteristic of one’s experience. Those from middle- and upper-class families experienced a growing sensitivity in regard to the idea of childhood. Children from lower-class families, however, generally joined the workforce.
The Industrial Revolution, generally defined as the time between 1760 to 1850, was the period in which Europe and the United States transitioned to a more industrial way of life. Transitions from hand-powered to steam-powered, from boats to trains, and from the countryside to cities occurred (Montagna). In England and the United States, these industrial advancements greatly impacted the lives of many children.
For the working class, the Industrial Revolution introduced harsh new ways to make ends meet. Children had always helped on farms or assisted in making textiles at home. However, as life became more urban and industrial there were fewer domestic job opportunities. This forced many children to work outside of the home. Though it had previously existed, child labor during the industrial revolution was harsh and widespread (Mintz 136). Mothers would sometimes get jobs in order to spare their children. However, mothers often found it difficult to work outside of the home because of the enormous amount of time required to take care of the house and children. The average housewife in 1800 spent six hours a day cooking and cleaning alone (Mintz and Kellog 85).
Textile factories employed many children. Conditions were harsh, shifts were often 14 hours long, and children were subjected to exacting discipline (Horn 18). Textiles were so profitable that the factories sometimes ran 24 hours a day, resulting in children as young as six years old working overnight shifts. The work was exhausting and dangerous—one wrong move could easily crush a hand (Horn 21).
There were many other jobs for children besides those in factories. For boys, agriculture and mining were common jobs (Horn 30). Being a domestic servant was the most common occupation for girls (Horn 12). Middle-class families had a sharp growth in income, allowing the use of more hired help. The work was arduous, and psychological and sexual abuse were frequent (Mintz 141).
Many people did not see a problem with child labor. Childhood did not have the special protective status that it has today, and most accepted the idea of a “cooperative family economy, in which all household members contributed to the material support of the family” (Mintz and Kellogg 88). Jews and free blacks rejected this idea, however, sensing that education was the way to a better life. Thus, they often sent their children to school despite the cost to the family (Mintz and Kellogg 93).
Bildungsromane of the time were often written to criticize child labor and the prevailing social order. The classic bildungsroman of the Industrial Revolution, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, explores poverty and class. The book is an accurate portrayal of the plight of the extremely poor. Oliver is an orphan, as were many of his time; half of all children lost at least one parent before age 10 (Mintz 141). He grows up under wretched conditions in a corrupt orphanage. At the age of nine, he is transferred to a workhouse. His work is performed under harsh conditions with little oversight. There is never enough food, which sparks his famous plea “please sir, can I have some more?” Later, he falls into a life of crime, a trend not uncommon for the very poor. This novel attempts to raise awareness about the lives of London’s forgotten citizens (Priley).
Another prominent bildungsroman of the time was a series of two poems by William Blake, both entitled “The Chimney Sweeper.” Blake wrote them to draw attention to the harshness of child labor by depicting the life of a young chimney sweep. The chimney sweep dreams that upon his and his co-workers’ deaths, an angel would bring them to a sunny meadow, free of the misery of their work. These poems are designed to gain sympathy for the chimney sweep’s plight, starting with the first few lines:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry "'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep (Blake).
In direct contrast to those of the lower class, for middle class children there was a dramatic and positive transformation about the idea of childhood. The first part of one’s life began to be viewed less as “a period of submission to authority” and more as one “of growth, development, and preparation for adulthood” (Mintz and Kellogg 47). Child rearing became a more intentional activity, childhood dependency was prolonged (frequently to the age of twenty), and schooling was extended (Mintz 77).
This new view of childhood drew on several philosophies. Two major influences were the Liberal Protestants and the Romantics. The former believed that children had innocent souls that needed to be turned towards God, and the latter thought that children were pure, uncorrupted beings that needed their parents to shield them from the world (Mintz 76).
Families became more child-oriented: middle-class families bought highchairs, built a separate nursery for children, and started to permit toddlers to crawl. Previously, babies were bound in restrictive clothing until they began to walk (Mintz 80).
Also during this period, a strict dichotomy between boys and girls emerged. Girls had more household chores, and their play was often based on pretending to be adults. Boys were given more free time and often ran wild outside (Mintz 82). As practice for the adult world, adolescents formed voluntary associations. Church and reform societies emerged for girls, and for boys, there was everything from political organizations to groups crusading against liquor (Mintz 88).
Middle-class children during the Industrial Revolution, especially boys, attended school for much longer than children did in the past. Schools were often overcrowded and usually focused on rote learning, which emphasized memorization and repetition. Towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, the United States established public schools, which gave a much higher-quality education (Mintz 91). This new focus on education was not just for the mind but also for the spirit. Sunday schools began, arising from the idea that children’s character needed to be developed (Mintz 89).
For better and for worse, the Industrial Revolution was a time of rapid change to children’s lives. Poor children struggled, often having to work under terrible conditions. Middle-class and wealthy children, on the other hand, enjoyed a real modern-day “childhood” for the first time.
Blake, William. "The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young." The Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172910>.
Hine, Lewis W. Little Spinner in Bibb Mill No. 1, Macon, Ga. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2013. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Child_Labor_in_Georgia,_United_States_1909b.jpg>.
Horn, Pamela. Children's Work and Welfare: 1780 - 1880. Basingstoke, Hampshire [u.a.: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
Mintz, Steven. Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2004. Print.
Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free, 1988. Print.
Montagna, Joseph A. "The Industrial Revolution." Yale.edu. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2013.
Priley, Angela Marie. "An Analysis of Oliver Twist." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 18.4 (Winter 1993): 189. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Allison Marion. Vol. 95. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.