children and families in the industrial revolution -- 9/1/20

Today's selection -- from The Industrial Revolution in World History by Peter N. Stearns. The Industrial Revolution radically changed the world. If measured by shifts in GDP and population, it was a far greater change than anything before or since, and it dwarfed the economic impact of later technologies such as the internet. As profound as the economic changes were, the social changes were more so, permanently altering the structure of families and communities from one based around extended families -- imbedded in clans and local communities, who largely worked together in business and child-raising -- to one in which families were more separated from each other, and from their communities, during workdays:

"In northern France in the early 1840s, Louis Motte-Bossut set up a large mechanical wool-spinning factory. His parents had run a much smaller, more traditional textile operation, manufacturing with only a simple sort of machinery; they prided themselves on being able to watch over every detail of their operation and directly supervise a small labor force. Motte-Bossut, in contrast, aspired to make France the factory equal of England -- during a visit there he had illegally taken away the plans for state-of-the-art factory equipment. His large factory quickly became one of the leaders in the region, but his parents would not set foot in it, judging its scale and its riskiness to be genuinely immoral.

"In Germany, Alfred Krupp was born in 1812 into a successful merchant family in the city of Essen. His father, however, a poor businessman, had decimated the family fortune; Friedrich Krupp had twice set up steel-manufacturing plants with swindling partners, the outcome being his failure and public disgrace. Alfred was sent to work in a factory at age thirteen, while his sister labored as a governess. In 1826 Alfred began his own firm on the basis of his meager inheritance, manufacturing scissors and hand tools. No technical genius, but bent on avoiding his father's mistakes, Krupp applied a single-minded devotion to his firm's success. As a result, he built one of the giant metallurgical firms during the crucible decades of German industrialization. ...

Interior of Magnolia Cotton Mills spinning room. Note children working. 

"Factory owners formed only part of industrialization's human story, of course. Workers also shaped the industrial revolution, and they, too, faced change, often involuntarily, in making their contribution. Children formed one category. They had always worked, in most social groups. They assisted their parents on the farm and in the household and provided some of the menial labor for craft manufacturing, often under strict employer control. They continued to work in the early factories but in a much less personal atmosphere, amid the dangers of powered machinery and the new demands for physical exertion or unrelenting pace. Government hearings held in Great Britain a few decades after the industrial revolution began there pinpointed what was probably the most shocking exploitation of child labor: Children had moved from providing supplemental labor to being beasts of burden. For the growing cotton factories in Lancashire -- greedy for workers and particularly interested in the 'small and nimble fingers' of children to help tend the machines at low cost -- gangs of children were recruited from the urban poorhouses. Many came from families displaced from rural manual manufacturing by the expansion of the very factories they now served. As factory hands, they were housed in miserable dormitories and often beaten to spur production. Shifts of children worked day and night, alternating with time in the dormitory. As an 1836 report suggested, 'It is a common tradition in Lancashire that the beds never get cold.' Not surprisingly, some children committed suicide, having been driven to physical and emotional despair."



Peter N. Stearns


The Industrial Revolution in World History


Westview Press


Copyright 2013 Taylor & Francis


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