Child Labor in the 19th Century in Europe Research Paper

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Labor in Europe in the 19th Century: Exploitation and the Rise of Labor Unions

As Carolyn Tuttle of Lake Forest College points out, the first textile mills in England were bad enough to elicit the opprobrious condemnation of none other than Charles Dickens in the 19th century, who scorned them as "dark satanic mills" (Tuttle). By the beginning of the 19th century, the First Factory Act of 1802 was passed -- but it did little to amend the strict, severe, and inhuman conditions in which "labor shortage" issues were solved by "employing parish apprentices" (i.e., via the exploitation of child labor) (Tuttle). Dickens would become a proponent of labor and education reform in England, depicting the latter as pernicious as the former in Hard Times (a novel which portrays the headmaster of a school as stubbornly insistent on the rote memorization of "facts" and "nothing but facts" (1) -- a subtle Dickensian point indicating that education had become as mechanical and inhuman as the labor force under the weight of Industrialization). But it was not just in England that labor and education in the time of the Industrial Revolution suffered from the de-humanizing character of the era. In countries such as Spain, France, Switzerland and others, the impact of Industrialization was keenly felt. However, each country had its own customs when it came to labor and politics, and with the rise of labor unions in the 19th century, both England and the Continent began to address more directly the issues that men like Dickens highlighted in their own homelands. This paper will show how labor unions and various trends in Europe in the 19th century correlated to bring an end to the exploitation of children in factories and to provide more rights for workers in general.

Labor, Unions, Children and Education

Throughout Europe in the 19th century and prior, communities viewed child labor as an outlet for poor families -- a way for every member of the family (including children) to contribute to the household. However, prior to the rise of Industrialization in the 19th century, labor was less intensive, less modernized, less factory-based and factory-driven -- and, therefore, less detrimental to the physical well-being of minors (Pleck 178). With the rise of the machine-based operations of the 19th century, where working conditions became more dangerous, less sanitary, and more taxing in terms of hours worked and ground to be made up (as poverty increased in various communities), nations began to take a closer look at the role of children in the workplace. This was as true for England as it was for the Continent. Industrialized urban centers in Spain were no different from those in the UK or other parts of Europe (Cunningham 414-416).

Grievances illustrated artistically in the popular novels of Dickens were matched by writers and activists in other nations: Spain had its Realists, just as France had Emile Zola, who was preceded by Victor Hugo (author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables) and Honore Daumier (Goldstein 43). Hugo himself predicted the effect that the labor unions would have on the fate of children in the future when he wrote that "sooner or later the splendid question of universal education will present itself with the irresistible authority of the absolute truth; and then, those who govern under the superintendence of the French idea will have to make this choice; the children of France or the gamins of Paris" (12). Indeed, just ten years after Hugo penned those words, a workers' rebellion in France gave birth to the Paris Commune. As a result, the Labor Movement in one of the leading intellectual cities of the Europe fanned the flames of social justice -- to such an extent, in fact, that the Catholic Church under Pope Leo XIII in Italy issued its own perspective in the encyclical "Rerum novarum -- Of revolutionary change: Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor: On the Condition of the Working Classes," which called for the standardization of working hours, wages, the abolition of child labor, and the rights of labor unions (which had seen undue repression under the various regimes that had come into power in the Continent throughout the century). Writers were as responsible as anyone else in these nations for stirring the social consciousness, which when prompted exerted its influence through the development of labor unions. Indeed, writers were part and parcel with the labor unions in many ways, as the relationship between the novelist and the activist was born in the same salons. Together their impact on social, political and economic changes in their individual homelands could be discerned, even as the character of those nations changed over the decades. The labor unions themselves were not the sole catalyst for change, however: technology became more and more developed, requiring more skilled labor from adults (and thus displacing any real need for child labor in particular sectors of the labor market) (Tuttle).

Society too began to adopt values in which households identified the father as the "breadwinner" and the mother as the "homemaker" -- values that supported the rising middle class in its identification of itself and in its perspective on the role of children in the family and in society (Tuttle). Children, by the mid-19th century, were no longer needed as strongly as partial-providers of the family's sustenance; by the third-quarter of the century, school and education began to be promoted from the top-down throughout all Europe as better places for children than the factory. From the Pope to progressives in Switzerland to the Victorian labor union leaders in England, bolstered by the writings of English Romantic poet William Blake whose "The Chimney Sweeper" epitomized the exploitation of child labor just prior to the 19th century, attention to the children of the 19th century finally gained the eyes and ears of lawmakers and leaders, who then set about instigating the necessary changes.

The labor unions varied from country to country in Europe in the 19th century. Spain was wracked by revolution and social unrest throughout the period with "minor revolutionary uprisings" being put down by "harsh repressive measures" (Goldstein 186). Even in the beginning of the century, Spain had been under the pressure of dichotomous extremes, with Ferdinand, following his release from Napoleon in 1813, first swearing allegiance to the 1812 Constitution and then just two years later declaring it "void" (Goldstein 126). France itself was no better, still reeling from the Revolution and its war with Britain (as well as its own internal struggle to come to grips with Napoleon). The century was one which began in one era (the Romantic-Enlightenment Era) and concluded in another (the Industrial Era). Every country in Europe experienced a change in social mood, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the surge of Romanticism, and the advent of technology. In the light of these changes, reform movements throughout Europe, including Spain, did manage to draw attention to changes and ideals within the social consciousness regarding welfare, education and labor for children. As Goldstein observes, "reforms that slightly shifted the burden off the backs of the poor in Germany, Italy, Austria, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom" had taken hold by the end of the 19th century and helped in the transition from cruel working conditions for children at the start of the century to better and more appropriate educational conditions by the end of the century (254).

In Switzerland, labor unions won a tremendous victory and were, in fact, the first in Europe to do so, when in 1877 "a comprehensive factory regulation bill" was approved "by national legislative referendum" and set by law a maximum working day (11 hours) while simultaneously excluding "children from factory work" (Goldstein 265). The other European nations soon followed suit, and in England, where Dickens had pushed for reform on the behalf of children in both the workplace and the schools, the entire concept of labor, society, family and education began to come under increased scrutiny. The British Labour Party grew out of the Trade Union Congress of 1899. But it itself had its earliest roots in the Chartist Movement in England, from 1838 to 1858: a period of two decades that saw a working-class union of millions petitioning the House of Commons for manhood suffrage (the idea that men should be better represented by the law and have rights in terms of labor, property and wages). The demand for better and fairer constitutional representation by men in mid-19th century England was a clear indication of the direction in which the labor unions were heading: more responsibility for men ("the breadwinners"), less exploitation of children (they should be in school, not in the factories). The Chartists helped lay the ideological foundation in the UK for the labor movement and the impact that the unions would ultimately have throughout Europe (Pickering 144).

Throughout Europe, diversity of nationality was nullified by the umbrella of activism by the labor movement, which focused not only on children's labor…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Blake, William. "The Chimney Sweeper." Songs of Innocence and Experience, Plate 45,

"The Chimney Sweeper" (Bentley 37). Yale Center for British Art, 1794. Web. 1 May 2016.

Carr, E. H. What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Cunningham, Hugh. "The Decline of Child Labour: Labour Markets and Family

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