Child Labor: the Shifting of Jobs and Skill during the Industrial Revolution

In the 1700s, it was commonplace for adults to spend the daytime hours working 6 days a week. Although children working has been existent for many years, there was a changing point in the types of jobs children were tasked with during the Industrial Revolution. During the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution provided a large number of new jobs due to the technological innovations occurring. The Industrial Revolution accorded in Great Britain and the United States of America at almost the same time, which increased the number of advancements very quickly.

The Industrial Revolution was an important part of how society was able to advance. Machines could do the work of many people in different jobs in a shorter amount of time than before. The machines were developed to encompass the skill, so the worker did not have to have the skill. People had to train for long periods to gain the skills necessary to complete their job, before the Industrial Revolution. This increased efficiency because of the machines made during the Industrial Revolution. The machines designed in the Industrial Revolution had the skill built into them, which allowed more work to be done by many unskilled laborers. Children filled the jobs provided by the machines’ advancements (De Vries).

The working conditions for children varied based on the job they were tasked with by their supervisors. Before the Industrial Revolution, children had completed tasks given to them; they were supplemental to the tasks done by their parents, but “critical to the family economy” (Tuttle). The work done by children could be milking a cow, scraping soot out of the chimney by crawling within them or cooking. Only some were dangerous, but others were not paid the equivalent amount of wages as the adults for the same output produced (Tuttle).

Child labor was crucial to the ability to produce large amounts of goods uniformly and quickly. Children began working at very young ages doing various tasks throughout history, but once technical advancements began to occur, in a period now known as the Industrial Revolution, these tasks changed for the children. In areas where farming was prevalent throughout history, children would help out their parents and other adults with labor. Great Britain was almost completely agriculturally based on many farms before that period (Owen). The innovation of machines allowed for factories to be made at an extraordinary pace. From the factories being built, there was a large need for laborers. This is one of the key reasons why children were added to the workforce beyond the work they had worked beforehand.

Labor for children was grueling because a child would begin work at very early hours of the day and not be finished until the wee hours (Adler). Felix Adler, PH. D. was a professor of political and Social Ethics at Columbia University and Chairman of the National Child Labor Committee in the United States. He wrote about the evil parts of child labor in his ‘Child Labor in the United States and Its Great Attendant Evils.” In this, there are descriptions of children working in horrible conditions for long durations. Adler continues in his “Child Labor in the United States and Its Great Attendant Evils” writing, to say that the children in the southern parts of the United States of America were “forced to work fourteen hours” a day with no breaks; this is especially true in the cotton factories.

In cotton factories, the children were often not allowed to leave their machines, even to eat something on their long grueling shifts. One man had his seven-year-old son working a machine in a factory, where he was not allowed to leave, so, his father “often knelt at his side and [gave] him food while he was working” (Adler 4). The number of children put to work was extremely high; they “were sent by hundreds and thousands to supply the demand for cheap labor on the part of the factories, which at the time were everywhere springing up” (Adler 3). Most of these children were orphans and they all were known as pauper children. The long hours of work done by children were able to provide cheap products, which were able to help boost the economy in areas where there was access to the new amounts of manufactured goods. The long hours were not the only concern of child laborers during this time.

Figure 1: Two young boys working at a cotton mill. They are balancing on top of the machine while it is moving. This is a photograph, “Many youngsters here. Some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins,” by Lewis Hine and was taken for the National Child Labor Commission and the photograph is available from the Library of Congress archives,

The working conditions were hazardous with so many moving parts of the machines. The Industrial Revolution changed the jobs children did, so once the jobs became dangerous, some reformers pushed for changes. The Factory Act of 1833 in Great Britain was an influential part of making working conditions better for children in Great Britain; the act placed limitations on the hours of which children could work during the week (Nardonelli). It placed the restrictions of hours to be forty-eight hours per week and older workers were required to replace the child workers if the factory was to remain running past the forty eight hour mark, which was only applicable for children aged nine to twelve years (Nardonelli). Children over this age range did not have the restrictions the same as those below the age restrictions. The restrictions for children aged nine to twelve was a maximum of forty-eight hours of work a week.

There was a wide range of jobs that were started due to the opening of many factories. There were also many aspects of child labor that were required to be regulated by the Factory acts of Great Britain (Nardonelli). The regulation of children working was due to the perspective that “industrial work is both dangerous to a child’s health and detrimental to a child’s mental development” (Effland). The positions some children held in the factories were very laborious but did not pay very much (The Sadler Committee Report). In “The Child Labor Act” by Anne B. W. Effland, she discusses the laws and policies surrounding children in the workforce during the Industrial Revolution (Effland). There were many different jobs children could do once factories were added into the pool of options for jobs. Also, children were able to do tasks in textile mills with the threads and spindles due to their tiny fingers. The cotton gin was created by Eli Whitney in 1793, which changed the cotton industry (Smith 11). Before this innovation, the seeds had to be separated by hand and this was not very efficient. The cotton gin took in seeds of cotton and took off the cotton fibers. This innovation was much more efficient than doing the process by hand and this is just one example of how the work required to make any textile became easier and faster (Cotton Gin).

The mills required to make items out of cotton employed by many different people, but a large portion of the workers were children (Smith 40). The conditions for these workers were not safe. There was a “girl at Stockport …carried by her clothing round an upright shaft; her thighs were broken, her ankles dislocated” (Smith 40). This is just one example of the dangers of children working in factories. Factories were often unsafe and caused horrible injuries and death.

Children also worked in mines during the Industrial Revolution; while this job had better wages, the conditions were much worse (Smith 41). The mines were not safe due to poor measures of precautionary action. However, the wages just barely covered the cost of living and workers had almost no rights (Writers). The children working in the mines were often lowered down a shaft by a hemp rope; this was extremely dangerous (Smith 41). Hemp rope uses very long threads and is sturdy, which is good because it had to hold the weight of the workers being lowered into the mine. Adults would have made this task even harder since they weigh much more than a small child, which is why child workers were hired to work in the mines (Writers). The small size of child workers was why they were used in the workforce more than before the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, there were very few reasons a child would have to work on a task as they had nimble fingers as or a small body that could squeeze into small spaces.

Children, due to their small size, were often taken advantage of during the Industrial Revolution when they were hired into factories or mines. There was a definitive shift from children doing domestic work and farming to being factory workers and miners. The shift here was due to the growth in the technical industries. The labor force shifted to include more children once the efficiency of product manufacturing increased.

Child labor is bad for children. Children that had too long hours of hard labor, often sick and had weak lungs and eventually would get to a point where they could no longer work. The sickness caused by the illnesses for the effects of the factories was terrible. Some workers would be out of work for six months at a time because their bodies could not handle the long grueling hours of labor in the manufacturing industry due to the extended periods the child was exposed to the terrible conditions. The children in textile mills had very little space to stand in. The machines had very tiny walkways so the children working were cramped.

Before the Industrial Revolution, children mainly worked in agriculture or their parent’s family businesses. These practices were much safer and would be helpful for the children to learn the trade, but after the changes in the Industrial Revolution, there were so many jobs that did not require skill anymore, parents were willing to send their children to work these new jobs. These jobs were formed by people designing machines to have the skill of the trade already built-in so that anyone could work the machine. This is what allowed children to work at such a young age. Some of the machines had parts that had very small spaces to reach them, and this is where children became a necessity. The children’s small hands and dexterity were crucial to the outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. Mass production would not have been possible otherwise. This was one of the key parts of the Industrial Revolution.

The children would work torturously long hours and they were not allowed to take a break. There were so many other things that children did to earn money for their families. Working in the field was common for children and they worked alongside their parents.

Figure 2: This is Sadie Pfeiffer working as a Spinner. She had to work long hours all on her feet which was bad for her. This photograph was taken by Lewis Hine in North Carolina, it is called “Sadie Pfeiffer, Spinner in Cotton Mill” this was taken in 1910 and was a Gelatin Silver print which resides in The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angles as of November 2019.

Children that had to work for very long hours where sometimes even strapped to their machines to make sure they would work. Some of the children were placed into manufactories because their parents could no longer take care of them. For one child, named William Cooper, he began working at the age of ten and his sister also worked at the same factory. The siblings work in Mr. Benyon’s flax-mill that was one and a half miles from their house in Leeds. According to the Report from the Committee on the “Bill to Regulate the Labour of Children in the Mills and “Factories of the United Kingdom:” with the Minute of Evidence, Appendix and Index, the Cooper children were not able to be kept by their parents and so “they sent [them] to work at such places” indicating that parents needed more income to feed, house, and take care of their children (Committee on Factories Bill 9). This was commonplace at the time for parents to send their children off to work in a factory to support their families. There are so many different tasks that children did in factories. William Cooper was a bobbin-doffer where he had to doff the frames when they were full. Doffing is the act of removing an object, which is a very repetitive task for William Cooper to do as a ten-year-old boy. The shifts were long and so the workers were always tired. This sometimes became an issue for the workers showing up on time in the mornings because they had a hard time waking up. The workers were punished for being late and this was twofold, which was not what any of the workers wanted. They were punished by a decrease in pay for the week and they were also punished physically, by being strapped with a leather strap (Committee on Factories Bill 6). This was not an unusual punishment at the time for the supervisors to enforce the expectations of the workplace by violence.

Labor done during the Industrial Revolution time by children was not solely done in factories and manufacturing facilities. Children also work in mines. Coal mines were a profession where many children worked. Some parents that worked in the mines often brought their children with them to work starting at young ages. The children working in mines did not have very safe working conditions. The coal dust would enter into the workers’ lungs and cause black lung because of poor ventilation in mines. This was especially an issue for children since their lungs were still developing. Other safety issues related to the mines were risks of the roof falling, explosions, and being run over by carts. There are several jobs children could do such as being a drammer, a colliers’ helper, a doorkeeper, or a driver. All these tasks had different

Figure 3 This shows nineteenth-century coal mine workers pulling and pushing a cart of coal through the tunnels of the coal mine. Specifically, the coal miners were drammers. The tunnel is roughly three feet tall, so the miners are unable to stand upright without hitting their heads in the roof of the mine. This cart was one of the few with wheels, but the cart was holding 1.5cwt of coal which is equivalent to 168 lbs. For these two coal miners, it was very treacherous as they were children and did not have very much strength. This image came from the National Museum of Wales.

hazards that were more likely to be an issue. The children that worked as drammers were solely responsible for pulling heavy “coal carts to and from the coal face” this was a risky task and often the carts did not have wheels. The carts would have been pushed by one worker and then another worker would pull the cart, by tying a rope around their waist and climbing towards the surface dragging the cart behind them. This job required a lot of strength but had safety concerns that the mine owners and supervisors did not pay much attention to, and therefore caused injuries and death.

There were age restrictions placed on who could work in the mines of Pennsylvania in the United States. The minimum age for a worker in a mine in Pennsylvania was fourteen years old, but there was no required proof of age so many parents and children lied about their ages to have their children work in the mines (Hinderman 106-107). The parents did not agree with the age restriction on who could work in the mines, so an investigator found that the parents lied about their children’s ages even when discussing the age at which their child had died in the mine as to not get in trouble with the mine owner or get the mine owner and supervisors into trouble, as it was against the law.

Children began to do more work away from their homes in the Industrial Revolution which was a shift from the period before then because many children did work, but it was alongside their parents or helping around their house. And at that time, the parents usually worked in their own business, which was next door to or attached to their house. Very rarely did people have to travel to and from their house to go to work. The Industrial Revolution created new work and home life separation that had not been there previously. The labor had previously been relatively safe, besides an occasional accident, but this rate of accidents was significantly lower than those during the industrial revolution for children. Children began doing hard manual labor in not safe conditions, which was due to the events of the Industrial Revolution. There are so many different machines that were created due to the innovation and advancement of the technology that the new jobs created to keep up with the machinery’ output required the work of children.

Works Cited

  1. National Museum Wales, n.d. Image. 1 11 2019. .
  2. Adler, Felix. ‘Child Labor in the United States and Its Great Attendant Evils.’ The Annals of the American Academy of Politcal and Social science 25 (1905): 3-15. 23 9 2019. .
  3. ‘Child Labor.’ Monthly Labor Review 10.4 (2019): 178-182. 21 September 2019. .
  4. ‘Children Mining.’ n.d. National Museum Wales. 1 11 2019. .
  5. Commitee on Factories Bill. ‘Report From the Committe on the’ Bill to regulate the Labour of Children in the Mills and ‘ Factories if the United Kingdom:’ with the Minutes of Evidence.’ 1832. HathiTrust Digitla Library. book/pdf. 12 November 2019. .
  6. Cotton Gin. 2019. webpage. 14 November 2019. .
  7. De Vries, Jan. ‘The industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution.’ The Jourmal of Economid History 54.2 (1994). 4 October 2019. .
  8. Effland, Anne B. W. ‘Agrarianism and Child Labor Policy for Agriculture.’ Agricultural HIstory 79.3 (2005): 281-297. 21 September 2019. .
  9. Hinderman, Hugh D. Child Labor an American History. Ed. Daniel J.B. Mitchell. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. 16 October 2019.
  10. Hine, Lewis W. Bibb Mill No. 1 Many youngsters here. Some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins. Macon. color digital file from original print. 2 11 2019. .
  11. —. ‘Sadie Pfeiffer, Spinner in Cotton Mill, North Carolina.’ The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 1910. Gelatin silver print. 7 11 2019. .
  12. Nardonelli, Clark. ‘Child Labor and the Factory Acts.’ The Journal of Economic History 40.4 (1980): 739-755. 22 September 2019. .
  13. Outman, James L. and Elisabeth M. Outman. Industrial Revolution Almanac. Ed. Matthew May. Farmington Hills: Thomson Gale, 2003. Book. 17 October 2019.
  14. Owen, Robert. Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System: With Hints for the Improvement of Those Parts of it which are Most Injurious to Helath and Morals. 2. London, 1817. 14 October 2019. .
  15. Smith, Nigel. Events & The Outcomes Industrial Revolution. Austin: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2003. 17 October 2019.
  16. ‘The Sadler Committee Report.’ 1832. 15 October 2019. .
  17. Tuttle, Carolyn. Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. n.d. 1 October 2019. .
  18. Writers, History Crunch. Child Labor in the Industrial Revolutios. 5 October 2016. 1 October 2019. .
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Child labor: the shifting of jobs and skill during the industrial revolution. (2021, May 18). Retrieved August 9, 2022 , from

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