3/19/13 - america and child labor

In today's selection -- in the 1800s, the British led the world in the automated manufacturing and production of steam engines, textiles, clocks, shoes and stoves. These industries were the fruits of the British-led industrial revolution and made Britain the wealthiest nation on earth -- but from the outset American merchants were angling to best the British, and were quickly able to do so through a combination of stealing Britain's industrial secrets, establishing tariffs to impede British exports to America, capitalizing on the benefit of rapid American population growth, and significant innovations of their own. One area of innovation was in labor. British manufacturers largely used child labor as famously decried by such writers as Charles Dickens. As early as the late 1700s, American manufacturers took a different path, quickly learning that "American farmers didn't give up their children as easily as the British" and finding a solution by hiring whole families instead. In the early 1800s in Massachusetts, innovator Francis Cabot Lowell took it a step further. Fearing that Britain was teetering on the brink of social upheaval because of child labor, he paid higher-than-normal wages and created decent mill housing for young farm girls willing to work away from home for a few years:

"Lowell made yet another historically original contribution. Both he and [fellow merchant Nathan] Appleton had come away from their trips to Great Britain deeply disturbed by the human degradation in the great textile mills. They feared that Britain was teetering on the brink of social upheaval and did not want to replicate British conditions in America. They were also ready to pay higher than normal wages if they could get the assurance of a reliable work force. Lowell's solution was to create decent mill housing for young farm girls willing to work away from home for a few years to earn their own cash stake -- for a dowry, to pay for training as a teacher, or to help out the rest of the family. The hours were long but the work not too physically de­manding, and by the standards of the day, the housing was spartan but clean. When Charles Dickens visited the new town of Lowell, the second great development of [Lowell's] Boston Company mills, in 1840, he was deeply im­pressed, even moved:

'I happened to arrive at the first factory just as the dinner hour was over, and the girls were returning to work; indeed, the stairs were thronged with them. . . . [They] were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. . . . They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded beasts of burden. . . . The rooms in which they worked were as well ordered as themselves. ... In all, there was much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of. ... I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom ... I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.

'I am now going to state three facts, which will startle a large class of readers [in England] very much. Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries. Thirdly, they have got up among them­selves a periodical called The Lowell Offering . . . [of which] I will only observe . . . that it will compare advantageously with a great many En­glish Annuals.'

Daguerreotype of Lowell "Mill Girls," c.1840

"Dickens's favorable impression would have been reinforced by the de­sign of the mill village. The attractive arrangement of the buildings, the walkways and plantings along the canals, the attention to cleanliness and order, as recently reconstructed, is quite beautiful. (The Scottish 'new town' movement was much in the air when Lowell was in Scotland, al­though he doesn't seem to have visited any sites.) And farm girls who had never been far from their villages were easier to impress than Dickens. They had much more privacy at the mill than on the farm, and compared to mill work, farmwork was dirty, brutally hard, and often dangerous. Farm life could also be isolating, and the girls seem to have taken great de­light in meeting and living with so many girls of their own age. It's no sur­prise that most of them seem to have remembered the mills with fondness."


Charles R. Morris


The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution


Public Affairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2012 by Charles R. Morris


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