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Centuries of Child Labour: European Experiences from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Rahikainen, Marjatta
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (November 2005)

Marjatta Rahikainen, Centuries of Child Labour: European Experiences from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2004. ix + 272 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-0498-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics, Lake Forest College.

The debate over the persistence of child labor from the medieval era to the turn of the twentieth century is extended beyond Great Britain and the United States to include many other countries. The extent, significance and degree of exploitation of child labor is examined in Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark in this work. The extensive cross-country approach clarifies the many similarities in the nature of child labor while also highlighting important differences. Although the book is mainly a summary of existing literature, the synthesis places it into a framework which successfully supports the argument that child labor was primarily demand driven. The book’s original contribution to the literature is contained in the sections in each chapter which describe and quantify the use of child labor in Finland. Marjatta Rahikainen, a professor at the University of Helsinki in Finland, uncovered and translated letters and diaries of poor and working-class families to capture the type of work children did as well as their working conditions in the late nineteenth century. In addition, Rahikainen utilized international data bases containing the Population Census and Manufacturing Census of Finland, Italy, Germany, France, Russia and Great Britain.

Centuries of Child Labour focuses on the argument that the employment of children across countries was a demand-driven phenomenon. Demand increased during the pre-industrial and industrial phase of economic development which reduced children’s participation in education. Once the production processes of industrialization moved from labor intensive to capital intensive, the demand for children declined and education became a viable option. Rahikainen carefully integrates evidence from a variety of sources to support this argument. The belief that idle children are immoral children who will adopt deviant behavior and commit crimes was widespread in Europe. This lead to a social policy of putting orphaned and pauper children to work in French hopitaux, in English Hospitals or Workhouses, Danish Bornehus, Swedish barnhus, and Russian state-sponsored hospitals (pp. 24-30). This paved the way for poor and working-class families to send their children to work in the new factories, mills and mines. Particularly convincing evidence is contained in Tables 4.1-4.3 (pp. 133-135) which illustrate that the largest employers of children in all of the countries were the same — textiles, clothing/hosiery/footwear, tobacco, pottery, glassworks and mining. The fact that the employment of children was concentrated in a few industries and that these industries were very important to the economy of each country implies that there was something special or different about these industries that required the labor of children. In addition, children were cheap labor that allowed factory owners and miners to reap high profits. And despite being paid much less than adults, the money children brought home to their families made an essential contribution to the families’ survival. This explains why poor and working-class parents often ignored child labor and schooling laws, the opportunity cost of having their children at school was too high. Less convincing is the claim that children had the lowest productivity of all workers but were still hired because “children’s employers were more concerned about labour costs than about productivity” (p. 90). Unfortunately, this research asserts this claim for every type of work children did — ranging from picking weeds on the farm to spinning cotton thread in the factory — without offering any substantial evidence. Given the profit-maximizing behavior of producers, it is unlikely that employers would hire workers whose wage exceeded their value to the firm (productivity).

In analyzing the employment of children in every sector of the economy from the early seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, three very interesting conclusions emerge. The similarities across countries over the four centuries are: (1) “child labour has been strongly connected to adult workers’ freedom to choose their work”; (2) “the forms of child labour and the terms of employment seem to have anticipated changes in adult labour and the labor market”; and (3) “child labour has been closely connected to the lives and options of children who never worked, in other words middle-class and upper-class children” (p. 16). It becomes quickly apparent in Chapters 1-5 that children got the jobs no one else wanted — whether it was in war, in workhouses, in textile factories, in other people’s homes (as servants or apprentices), on the farm or street. Most adults who had worked independently in their cottage or on their farm were extremely reluctant to give up their craft or trade to work for someone else at a pace determined by a factory clock. The new industrial regimen required workers to follow orders, work long days with set recesses, and perform monotonous repetitive tasks. Consequently, children who were obedient to authority, dependent on their parents and energetic would be well suited to fill the growing demand for “industrious” workers. Secondly, children worked where they were needed and often filled the shoes of adult workers. Children began work as soon as they were able to walk and as they aged, they developed from unskilled assistants to laborers to skilled operators. It is clear from the many examples of child labor in this research, that the availability of poor and working-class children prevented bottlenecks from developing. This was particularly important because children were employed in the same industries in Russia, Germany, Italy and Finland as they were in Great Britain and the United States. Most of the industries which used child labor extensively — textiles, glassworks, earthenware, paper and mining — were the “leading industries” for industrialization. Thirdly, children from orphanages, workhouses, or poor families toiled all day so that children from middle-class and upper-class families could play and get an education. Experiencing a childhood was a privilege afforded only to the wealthy and landed classes, while the children of the lower classes made a premature transition into adulthood.

This research fills a void in the literature on the use of child labor across time and across continents. There is a plethora of research on the importance of child labor during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Less has been written on France, Italy, and Germany. There is a dearth of research on the employment of children in Prussia and the Scandinavian countries. This book addresses the critical issues regarding the where and why of child labor by comparing and contrasting the economic and political circumstances in all of these countries. In addition, rather than simply focusing on factory labor, this research describes the employment of children in all sectors of the economy — the military, workhouses, cottage industry, farming, textile factories, coal mines, metal mines, tobacco, glassworks, pottery, brick-making, match manufacturing, street vending, workshops, and homes. The one drawback to covering so much is that each case cannot be investigated individually and discussed in detail. Consequently, the comparisons are only valid if the secondary literature from which they are drawn is accurate. Checking the assumptions, methodology and empirical estimations of each secondary source is beyond the scope of the reader but should be within the realm of the author.

As a history of child labor over four decades, labor historians, social historians, and economic historians will find this an excellent overview of the reasons why children worked and where they spent the bulk of their childhood.

Carolyn Tuttle is a Professor of Economics at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, IL. She is currently completing a book about the Mexican women who work in maquiladoras for American-owned multinationals along the United States-Mexican border.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII