In the work of Cowan, many perceive the interaction of technology and society as enormous computers in the workplace and, with regards to the topic here, massive armies of men, women and children slaving away in the textile mills. Prior to the introduction of age of the Industrial Revolution, women were primarily engaged in household chores; however, in the industrialization age, the tasks of running and taking care of the needs of the home fell by the wayside. In addition, the family activities were significantly reduced, particularly social functions, to more basic activities, such as consumption, relief of the growing stresses in the home, and socializing with the children (2).
Along with the decreasing sizes of family members in an Industrial Age unit, there was an increased life expectancy among the general population. However, one of the unintended results of the advancements in technology during this time was the opportunity for women to have a greater role in the labor market, the prevailing political structure and the movement for the reform of the system operating at the time (Dublin 1). Following the end of the Civil War, the United States, fueled by the flood of technological imports from Britain, soon rose to the position of an emerging industrial power during the era. It was also during this time that many families in the rural areas as well as millions of new immigrants flooded the rising American urban centers in the hope of landing a better life for themselves and their families.
Vast numbers crammed themselves into the city with that hope in mind. Unfortunately, many of them were disappointed; many of the job opportunities available then drove laborers to work inordinately long hours and often times gave extremely low wages. In majority of the situations, all of the family members had to find work to keep them all above the poverty level. Many of the children working in the mills and factories included children as young as three years of age who were forced to work for poverty wages (Eastern Illinois University 1).
Owing to higher living standards as well as increased living expenses as a result of urbanization, a family from the rural areas would find their resources stretched to almost survival level, with nothing for storage and planting. In the urban setting, the family resources with all family members working would barely suffice for daily living.
Given this scenario, not only were the men forced to take on jobs under near slavery conditions, women and children were also thrust into the labor market, in such numbers that these comprised almost 75 percent of the work force during that time. The instance of having women served two purposes and for attaining two completely objectives; for the families, the wages that the women and children would bring in would greatly help in augmenting the meager resources that the family would have had if only the men worked.
The other, factory owners were only too happy to hire women and children in that one, these could be given extremely miniscule wages, and can be easily controlled compared to men, often times by brutal beatings. Another advantage of children that factory owners’ desired is their small hands, which were needed to reach some parts of a certain machine that adults could not do. This would allow the machine to be turned around in a smaller amount of time compared to adults’ dismantling the machine. In addition, children employed in coal mines can squeeze themselves in the smaller and often treacherous pits (Sea 1).
The children working in these dangerous conditions were placed in extreme conditions that often resulted in severe injuries and even death. Working more than 10-14 hours with little or no rest in between, these children had little or no time to rest during their work hours. The machines ran so quickly and would not be stopped or even slowed down to accommodate the children working in the space in between.
This resulted in the children or their fingers and hands getting caught and mangling whatever was ensnarled in the machine. In addition, the physical environment is also a threat to the health and welfare of the children. Toxic fumes and dangerous chemicals being used by the manufacturing plants, if inhaled by the children, can result in the child contracting chronic illnesses and disease (Eastern Illinois University 1).
The youngest of the children working in the factories who could not operate the huge machines were designated assistants to those who worked the machines. The workers would in often in turn physically beat the children, shout at them and would often times expose them to danger. Boys as well as girls were subjected to this savage treatment. One of the more traditional methods of punishment, whether owing to showing up late at work or not meeting the quotas was to be “weighted”.
Here, the worker would be strapped to a heavy load by the neck, and then have the worker walk up and down the factory to serve as a warning to the others. The ordeal can last up to an hour, resulting in the child incurring serious injuries to the back and neck. Other punishments included dragging the child naked from their beds, with the child holding their clothes in order to ensure that the child will not be late for work (Needham Public Schools 1).
It was by the passage of the 1833 Factory Act did the situation for children begin to improve. Nevertheless, factory owners would still pay children workers a small fraction compared to the pay given to adult workers, or if these can afford to, not give any pay to the children at all. Among the children who had the worst lot among child workers were the orphans; often times, these were the ones often subjected to near slave like conditions. Factory owners, justifying the lack of an official payroll for the children, would rationalize the lack by stating that these provide the children lodging, food and clothes, which were inhuman at the best (Needham 1).
It was also during this time that the children found advocates among society, particularly women, who were also part of the movement of near slave labor and have moved to become integral parts of the political structure. These people moved to abolish the use of child labor in the market; nevertheless, even with the championing of the cause of banning child labor, there was ranged against them those that still advocated the advantages of using child labor.
As mentioned earlier, factory operators wanted child laborers in their facilities, reasoning everything from the fact that using child labor in the factories would have beneficial consequences for the economy to stating that making the children experience these inhuman labor conditions would be good for building their character. The parents of these children very rarely or would not object to the declarations of the factory owners as the income that these children bring in will contribute greatly to the family income. However, there were still those that fought for either three scenarios regarding child labor-abolition, regulation or improvement of the conditions where the children as well as the women worked in.
The initial step geared toward enhancing the working conditions of children in the workplace was the passage of the Factory Act, enacted to implement limitations in worker ages and work hours. In addition, factory owners were ordered to ensure that children attended school at least two hours every day. In later times in the 20th century, advocates were calling for the enactment of strong protections for the rights of the child (Needham 1).
Among the advocates who challenged the prevailing working conditions for children was Grace Abbott, who headed the Children’s Bureau in 1921 and guided the campaign for the adoption of an amendment to the United States Constitution that would ban child labor in the United States. Though the amendment was never established, the provision triggered a host of policies in the New Deal era that sought to monitor the use of child labor for children less than 16 years of age.
Another woman who championed the cause against child labor was Jane Addams. Addams was raised in an era where women were expected to just marry, have children and raise their families. On a tour of Europe, Addams was able to visit London’s Toynbee Hall, regarded as the pioneer settlement house in the world. It was during this visit that Addams drew the inspiration for her to become one of the foremost leaders in the battle for the rights of the child, earning her the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Upon returning to the United States, Addams established Hull House, where Addams and others worked for the establishment of laws dealing with child labor in the United States (Eastern 1).
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. “The Industrial Revolution in the home: household technology and social change in the 20th century”. Technology and Culture 17.1 (1976) 1-23
Dublin, Thomas. “Women and the early Industrial Revolution in the United States”. <https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/jackson-lincoln/essays/women-and-early-industrial-revolution-united-states>
Eastern Illinois University. “Childhood lost: child labor during the Industrial Revolution.” <http://www.eiu.edu/eiutps/childhood.php>
Needham Public Schools. “Child labor in factories”. <http://www2.needham.k12.ma.us/nhs/cur/Baker_00/2002_p7/ak_p7/childlabor.html>
Sea “Impact of the Industrial Revolution”. <http://industrialrevolution.sea.ca/impact.html>