As humans, we are frequently terrified of and dumbfounded by our own existence and what we should do with this existence, we look to those who came before us in hopes of finding The Way Things Should Be. Whether we’re trying to eat like cavemen or live like nomads, only one thing is certain: at the source of it all is a big ol’ question mark.
So, when we do look back and see something that is so clearly wrong, there’s something weirdly comforting about it. We can pat ourselves on the backs about how far we’ve come, and use the opportunity to know, at the very least, the place where we do not want to return. One of those places is the child labor of yore.
Though it’s unthinkable to many today, rather than protect children, society treated them as functional objects. If you want to feel marginally better about the state of the world today, read on for eight terrible jobs forced on children throughout history.
The idea that children deserve to be children and should be protected from some of the world’s harsher adult realities is one that so many of us take for granted today, but in the 19th century, mining coal in the most efficient way possible took precedence.
Kids as young as 5 years old were sent to crawl through the narrow spaces of the mine. (Many died of lung cancer before the age of 25 because they were constantly breathing in coal dust.)
In 1851, more than 30 percent of the coal mining workforce in Britain alone was made up of people under the age of 20, according to Huffington Post editor Libby-Jane Charleston.
She writes: “The smallest kids were used as ‘trappers.’ They’d have to crouch in the dark by a trap door which they’d have to open to let the carts come through the tunnel. Many children were killed when they fell asleep in the tunnel and were run over by the mine carts. Thousands of children were woken around four am, five-six days a week, and were carried, half asleep, to the mines where they’d work a long, exhausting day.”
Continuing with the toxicity theme, matchstick dippers were factory workers who had to dip matchsticks into white phosphorus, which made igniting the matchstick easier.
Oh, also the phosphorus was poisonous, and stuck to the skin, so children—often girls as young as 10—ate their lunches with poisonous phosphorus fingers, which eventually led to a condition known as “phossy jaw.” Once phossy jaw developed into an infection, a slow, painful death wasn’t far behind.
“Around 1858 until 1906, thousands of matchstick factory workers were struck down by the epidemic of ‘exposed bone osteonecrosis’ which attacked the jaw bone,” writes Charleston. “The poison literally caused the jaw bone to rot. Eventually, after Queen Victoria’s advisers investigated, phosphorus was banned in the UK (it had already been outlawed in several other countries).”
If you want to see some ghastly pictures, go ahead and do a Google image search of “phossy jaw” right now—but don’t say we didn’t warn you. They’re awful.
The name—apparently derived from the Loblolly stew served aboard the boat where the job took place—is fun to say and even sounds kind of cute, but don’t let that fool you.
On the one hand, the job—a ship hand who served sailors and assisted the ship’s doctor—sounds like one of the better ones in the sense that there was the acquisition of valuable knowledge and exposure to the open air.
On the other hand, the job description included scrubbing the decks, pouring tar into open wounds to help heal them, cleaning bed pans and vomit, collecting amputated limbs—and, as there was not yet anesthesia, HOLDING DOWN PEOPLE AS THEY WERE HAVING THEIR LIMBS AMPUTATED. That’s a big old nope.
Then there was the whole compensation issue. “Loblolly boys were rarely paid,” Charleston writes. “Most of them were homeless orphans, desperate for some kind of roof over their heads.”
The whipping boy is such a well-known concept that the term has been integrated into our idioms, but how much time have you spent thinking about the flesh-and-blood scapegoats who paid for the sins of others with their bodies?
“The whipping boy was usually a boy who had grown up with the prince, perhaps the son of the palace blacksmith,” Charleston writes. “The boy would have to be the prince’s best friend, seeing as he would need motivation to stop being naughty (i.e. you wouldn’t wish your best friend to be whipped on your behalf, would you?)”
But supposedly being a whipping boy wasn’t as terrible as it might sound (pretty terrible), since friendships with the prince came with certain perks.
William Murray, for example, was made an earl by Prince Charles, for whom he had been a whipping boy. As Cambridge University Press points out, “This role in time brought him an unusual degree of favour and trust with his master.” Worth it…?
For families with farms, it was a given that everyone with the ability to breathe would do their part in helping maintain it. According to Walter Trattner, author of Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America, this was an uncontroversial truth in colonial America.
“It was an integral part of the agricultural and handicraft economy,” he writes. “Children not only worked on the family farm but were often hired out to other farmers.”
In Australia, children as young as 5 were expected to wake up at daybreak to milk cows and then maybe go to school. Education wasn’t mandatory until 1870, and this caused a bit of a stir.
As historian Grace Karskens tells the Huffington Post: “Many farmers did not want to send their kids to school because they felt they were needed at the farm and that was more important for the family. For the farmers that let their children attend school, it meant that the kids would be half asleep for most of the day, if not falling asleep at their desk, because they’ve been up early with the cows!”
Textile Mill Worker
With the Industrial Revolution came more factory jobs that needed to be filled, and more factory jobs meant more children being taken advantage of for their small size and willingness to work for very little pay.
This photograph from 1908, for example, shows Minnie Carpenter (left), who made 50 cents for a 10-hour day as a spinner at Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Mill conditions often devastated young bodies. Here, Giles Edmund Newsom is shown in 1912 with injuries he sustained while working in Sanders Spinning Mill in Bessemer City, North Carolina.
The caption reads: “A piece of machinery fell on his foot, mashing his toe. This caused him to fall onto a spinning machine and his hand went into unprotected gearing, crushing and tearing out two fingers. He told the investigating attorney that he was 11 years old when it happened. He and his younger brother worked in the mill several months before the accident. Their father, R.L. Newsom, tried to compromise with the company when he found the boy would receive the money and not the parents. Their mother tried to blame the boys for getting jobs on their own, but she let them work several months. Their aunt said ‘Now he’s jes got to where he could be of some help to his ma, an’ then this happens and he can’t never work no more like he oughter.'”
One of the faces of the 20th-century movement to end child labor belongs to Henry Sharp “Shorpy” Higginbotham, who was born Nov. 23, 1896. At age 13, or possibly much younger, he began working at the Bessie Coal Mine in Birmingham, Alabama.
Just days after turning 14, supposedly, he was photographed doing his work as a greaser.
“His was one of hundreds of photos Hine took for the National Child Labor Committee to highlight the horrors of child labor, but photos of Shorpy’s grease-covered body and worldly expression led him to become a symbol of the child labor movement,” writes Kelly Kazek for the Alabama Media Group website.
“He said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. He carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars,” the caption of the photo reads. “Photographed in December of 1910.”
We’ve become so accustomed to the image of the young, sooty chimney sweep through movies that the concept almost seems benign—until you think about the reality of the job.
Much like breathing in coal dust all day every day, rolling around in chimneys was not good for kids’ health, and chimney sweeps often suffered from respiratory illnesses, cancer and infections.
More horrifying are the specifics of how children chimney sweeps came to be, and how they were treated. Because their size made them superior at the job, adult chimney sweeps would often kidnap children from orphanages or buy them from their parents to use as apprentices.
“The kids were deprived of a healthy diet, so they would remain small,” Charleston writes for the Huffington Post. “Some of the nastiest adults would actually start a fire to frighten the child into climbing the flue faster and getting the job done in record time.”
Speaking of fire, there’s probably a very special place in hell for those adult chimney sweeps.