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Child Labor in the United States

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

Child labor was widespread in agriculture and in industry in U.S. economy up until the early twentieth century but largely disappeared by the 1930s.

In the colonial period and into the 1800s parents and guardians generally required children to work. Initially most of the population worked in agriculture and children gradually moved into tasks demanding greater strength and skills as they aged. Craig (1993) uses census data to gauge the impact and value of child labor in the middle of the 1800s. He finds that the activities of farm-owning families were not closely linked to the number and ages of their children. Within each region, families in different life-cycle stages earned revenues in almost exactly the same manner. At every life-cycle stage, farm-owning families in the Midwest, for example, earned approximately 30 percent of their gross farm revenue from growing cereal crops; 29 percent from dairy, poultry, and market gardens; 22 percent from land and capital improvements; and 15 percent from hay and livestock. In addition, Craig calculates the value of child labor by estimating how the total value of labor output changed in the presence of each type of family member. He finds that children under 7 reduced the value of farm output, presumably because they reduced their mothers’ economic activities. For each child aged 7 to 12 the family’s output increased by about $16 per year – only 7 percent of the income produced by a typical adult male. Teen-aged females boosted family farm income by only about $22, while teen-aged males boosted income by $58. Because of these low productivity levels, families couldn’t really strike it rich by putting their children to work. When viewed as an investment, children had a strikingly negative rate of return because the costs of raising them generally exceeded the value of the work they performed.

The low value of child labor in agriculture may help explain why children were an important source of labor in many early industrial firms. In 1820 children aged 15 and under made up 23 percent of the manufacturing labor force of the industrializing Northeast. They were especially common in textiles, constituting 50 percent of the work force in cotton mills with 16 or more employees, as well as 41 percent of workers in wool mills, and 24 percent in paper mills. Goldin and Sokoloff (1982) conclude, however, that child labor’s share of industrial employment began its decline as early as 1840. Many textile manufacturers employed whole families and – despite its declining share – child labor continued to be an important input into this industry until the early twentieth century.

In the mid-1800s the median age of leaving home was about 22.5 for males and 20.5 for females. Apprenticed children generally left home at much earlier ages, but this institution was not very strong in the U.S. One study of rural Maryland found that nearly 20 percent of white males aged 15 to 20 were formally bound as apprentices in 1800, but the percentage fell to less than 1 percent by 1860.

National statistics on child labor are first available in 1880. They show that the labor force participation rate of children aged 10 to 19 was considerably higher among black males (65.5 percent) and females (43.7 percent) than among white males (43.1 percent) and females (13.1 percent). Likewise, the rate among foreign-born children exceeded that of their counterparts born in the U.S. – by about 9 percentage points among males and 16 percentage points among females. These differences may be largely attributable to the higher earnings levels of white and native-born families. In addition, labor force participation among rural children exceeded urban rates by about 8 percentage points.

The figures below give trends in child labor from 1880 to 1930.

1880 1900 1930
Labor force participation rates of children, 10 to 15 years old (percentages)
Males 32.5 26.1 6.4
Females 12.2 6.4 2.9
Percentage of 10 to 15 year olds in agricultural employment
Males 69.9 67.6 74.5
Females 37.3 74.5 61.5

Note: 1880 figures are based on Carter and Sutch (1996). Other numbers are unadjusted from those reported by the Bureau of the Census.

These figures show that throughout this period agricultural employment dominated child labor, despite the fact that industrialization was occurring rapidly and agricultural employment fell from 48 percent to 25 percent of the work force between 1880 and 1930.

Data from the Cost of Living Survey of 1889-90 show the importance of child labor to urban households. While the family head’s income peaked when he was in his thirties, family expenditures peaked when he was in his fifties because of the contributions of children. Similarly, in a 1917-19 Department of Labor survey, among families with working children, children’s earnings accounted for an average of 23 percent of total family income.

The continuation of child labor in industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, sparked controversy. Much of this ire was directed at employers, especially in industries where supervisors bullied children to work harder and assigned them to dangerous, exhausting or degrading jobs. In addition, working-class parents were accused of greedily not caring about the long-term well-being of their children. Requiring them to go to work denied them educational opportunities and reduced their life-time earnings, yet parents of laboring children generally required them to turn over all or almost all of their earnings. For example, one government study of unmarried young women living at home and working in factories and stores in New York City in 1907 found over ninety percent of those under age 20 turned all of their earnings over to their parents. Likewise, Parsons and Goldin (1989) find that children of fathers working in the textile industry left school about three years younger than those with fathers in other industries. They argue that many parents with adolescent children migrated to places, like textile centers, where their children could earn more, even though doing so didn’t increase overall family wages very much. On the other hand, Moehling (2005), using data from 1917 to 1919, finds that adolescents’ earnings gave them increased bargaining power, so that, for example, expenditures on children’s clothing increased as the income they brought into the household increased.

The earliest legal restriction on child labor in the U.S. was a Massachusetts law in 1837 which prohibited manufacturing establishments from employing children under age 15 who hadn’t attended school for at least three months in the previous year. Legislation enacted before 1880 generally contained only weak restrictions and little provisions for enforcement. In the late 1800s, however, social pressure against child labor became more organized under leaders such as Florence Kelley, Edgar Gardner Murphy and Felix Adler. By 1899, 44 states and territories had a child labor law of some type. Twenty-four states had minimum age limits for manufacturing employment by 1900, with age limits around 14 years in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and no minimums at all in most of the South. When the 1900 Census reported a rise in child labor above levels of 1880, child labor activists responded with increased efforts including a press campaign and the establishment of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. (Ironically, recent research suggests the Census was in error and child labor was already on the decline by 1900.) By 1910 seventeen more states enacted minimum age laws and several others increased age minimums.

Federal legislation, however, initially proved unsuccessful. The Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which prevented the interstate shipment of goods produced in factories by children under 14 and in mines by children under 16, was struck down in the Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) ruling. Likewise, the Pomerane Amendment of 1918, which taxed companies that used child labor, was declared unconstitutional in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture (1922) on the grounds that it was an unwarranted exercise of the commerce power of the federal government and violated states’ rights. In 1924, the Senate passed a Constitutional amendment banning child labor, but it was never ratified by enough states. Finally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibited the full-time employment of those 16 and under (with a few exemptions) and enacted a national minimum wage which made employing most children uneconomical. It received the Supreme Court’s blessing.

Most economic historians conclude that this legislation was not the primary reason for the reduction and virtual elimination of child labor between 1880 and 1940. Instead they point out that industrialization and economic growth brought rising incomes, which allowed parents the luxury of keeping their children out of the work force. In addition, child labor rates have been linked to the expansion of schooling, high rates of return from education, and a decrease in the demand for child labor due to technological changes which increased the skills required in some jobs and allowed machines to take jobs previously filled by children. Moehling (1999) finds that the employment rate of 13-year olds around the beginning of the twentieth century did decline in states that enacted age minimums of 14, but so did the rates for 13-year olds not covered by the restrictions. Overall she finds that state laws are linked to only a small fraction – if any – of the decline in child labor. It may be that states experiencing declines were therefore more likely to pass legislation, which was largely symbolic.

References:

Carter, Susan and Richard Sutch. “Fixing the Facts: Editing of the 1880 U.S. Census of Occupations with Implications for Long-Term Labor Force Trends and the Sociology of Official Statistics.” Historical Methods 29 (1996): 5-24.

Craig, Lee A. To Sow One Acre More: Childbearing and Farm Productivity in the Antebellum North. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Goldin, Claudia and Kenneth Sokoloff. “Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses.” Journal of Economic History 42, no. 4 (1982): 741-74.

Brian Gratton and Jon Moen, “Immigration, Culture, and Child Labor in the United States, 1880-1920.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 3 (2004): 355-91.

Moehling, Carolyn. “‘She Has Suddenly Become Powerful’: Youth Employment and Household Decision-Making in the Early Twentieth Century.” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 2 (2005): 414-38.

Moehling, Carolyn. “State Child Labor Laws and the Decline of Child Labor.” Explorations in Economic History 36 (1998): 72-106.

Parsons, Donald O. and Claudia Goldin. “Parental Altruism and Self-Interest: Child Labor among Late Nineteenth-Century American Families.” Economic Inquiry 27, no. 4 (1989): 637-59.

Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Child Labor in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October 7, 2005. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/child-labor-in-the-united-states/

Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

Carolyn Tuttle, Lake Forest College

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Great Britain became the first country to industrialize. Because of this, it was also the first country where the nature of children’s work changed so dramatically that child labor became seen as a social problem and a political issue.

This article examines the historical debate about child labor in Britain, Britain’s political response to problems with child labor, quantitative evidence about child labor during the 1800s, and economic explanations of the practice of child labor.

The Historical Debate about Child Labor in Britain

Child Labor before Industrialization

Children of poor and working-class families had worked for centuries before industrialization – helping around the house or assisting in the family’s enterprise when they were able. The practice of putting children to work was first documented in the Medieval era when fathers had their children spin thread for them to weave on the loom. Children performed a variety of tasks that were auxiliary to their parents but critical to the family economy. The family’s household needs determined the family’s supply of labor and “the interdependence of work and residence, of household labor needs, subsidence requirements, and family relationships constituted the ‘family economy'” [Tilly and Scott (1978, 12)].

Definitions of Child Labor

The term “child labor” generally refers to children who work to produce a good or a service which can be sold for money in the marketplace regardless of whether or not they are paid for their work. A “child” is usually defined as a person who is dependent upon other individuals (parents, relatives, or government officials) for his or her livelihood. The exact ages of “childhood” differ by country and time period.

Preindustrial Jobs

Children who lived on farms worked with the animals or in the fields planting seeds, pulling weeds and picking the ripe crop. Ann Kussmaul’s (1981) research uncovered a high percentage of youths working as servants in husbandry in the sixteenth century. Boys looked after the draught animals, cattle and sheep while girls milked the cows and cared for the chickens. Children who worked in homes were either apprentices, chimney sweeps, domestic servants, or assistants in the family business. As apprentices, children lived and worked with their master who established a workshop in his home or attached to the back of his cottage. The children received training in the trade instead of wages. Once they became fairly skilled in the trade they became journeymen. By the time they reached the age of twenty-one, most could start their own business because they had become highly skilled masters. Both parents and children considered this a fair arrangement unless the master was abusive. The infamous chimney sweeps, however, had apprenticeships considered especially harmful and exploitative. Boys as young as four would work for a master sweep who would send them up the narrow chimneys of British homes to scrape the soot off the sides. The first labor law passed in Britain to protect children from poor working conditions, the Act of 1788, attempted to improve the plight of these “climbing boys.” Around age twelve many girls left home to become domestic servants in the homes of artisans, traders, shopkeepers and manufacturers. They received a low wage, and room and board in exchange for doing household chores (cleaning, cooking, caring for children and shopping).

Children who were employed as assistants in domestic production (or what is also called the cottage industry) were in the best situation because they worked at home for their parents. Children who were helpers in the family business received training in a trade and their work directly increased the productivity of the family and hence the family’s income. Girls helped with dressmaking, hat making and button making while boys assisted with shoemaking, pottery making and horse shoeing. Although hours varied from trade to trade and family to family, children usually worked twelve hours per day with time out for meals and tea. These hours, moreover, were not regular over the year or consistent from day-to-day. The weather and family events affected the number of hours in a month children worked. This form of child labor was not viewed by society as cruel or abusive but was accepted as necessary for the survival of the family and development of the child.

Early Industrial Work

Once the first rural textile mills were built (1769) and child apprentices were hired as primary workers, the connotation of “child labor” began to change. Charles Dickens called these places of work the “dark satanic mills” and E. P. Thompson described them as “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners” (1966, 307). Although long hours had been the custom for agricultural and domestic workers for generations, the factory system was criticized for strict discipline, harsh punishment, unhealthy working conditions, low wages, and inflexible work hours. The factory depersonalized the employer-employee relationship and was attacked for stripping the worker’s freedom, dignity and creativity. These child apprentices were paupers taken from orphanages and workhouses and were housed, clothed and fed but received no wages for their long day of work in the mill. A conservative estimate is that around 1784 one-third of the total workers in country mills were apprentices and that their numbers reached 80 to 90% in some individual mills (Collier, 1964). Despite the First Factory Act of 1802 (which attempted to improve the conditions of parish apprentices), several mill owners were in the same situation as Sir Robert Peel and Samuel Greg who solved their labor shortage by employing parish apprentices.

After the invention and adoption of Watt’s steam engine, mills no longer had to locate near water and rely on apprenticed orphans – hundreds of factory towns and villages developed in Lancashire, Manchester, Yorkshire and Cheshire. The factory owners began to hire children from poor and working-class families to work in these factories preparing and spinning cotton, flax, wool and silk.

The Child Labor Debate

What happened to children within these factory walls became a matter of intense social and political debate that continues today. Pessimists such as Alfred (1857), Engels (1926), Marx (1909), and Webb and Webb (1898) argued that children worked under deplorable conditions and were being exploited by the industrialists. A picture was painted of the “dark satanic mill” where children as young as five and six years old worked for twelve to sixteen hours a day, six days a week without recess for meals in hot, stuffy, poorly lit, overcrowded factories to earn as little as four shillings per week. Reformers called for child labor laws and after considerable debate, Parliament took action and set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into children’s employment. Optimists, on the other hand, argued that the employment of children in these factories was beneficial to the child, family and country and that the conditions were no worse than they had been on farms, in cottages or up chimneys. Ure (1835) and Clapham (1926) argued that the work was easy for children and helped them make a necessary contribution to their family’s income. Many factory owners claimed that employing children was necessary for production to run smoothly and for their products to remain competitive. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recommended child labor as a means of preventing youthful idleness and vice. Ivy Pinchbeck (1930) pointed out, moreover, that working hours and conditions had been as bad in the older domestic industries as they were in the industrial factories.

Factory Acts

Although the debate over whether children were exploited during the British Industrial Revolution continues today [see Nardinelli (1988) and Tuttle (1998)], Parliament passed several child labor laws after hearing the evidence collected. The three laws which most impacted the employment of children in the textile industry were the Cotton Factories Regulation Act of 1819 (which set the minimum working age at 9 and maximum working hours at 12), the Regulation of Child Labor Law of 1833 (which established paid inspectors to enforce the laws) and the Ten Hours Bill of 1847 (which limited working hours to 10 for children and women).

The Extent of Child Labor

The significance of child labor during the Industrial Revolution was attached to both the changes in the nature of child labor and the extent to which children were employed in the factories. Cunningham (1990) argues that the idleness of children was more a problem during the Industrial Revolution than the exploitation resulting from employment. He examines the Report on the Poor Laws in 1834 and finds that in parish after parish there was very little employment for children. In contrast, Cruickshank (1981), Hammond and Hammond (1937), Nardinelli (1990), Redford (1926), Rule (1981), and Tuttle (1999) claim that a large number of children were employed in the textile factories. These two seemingly contradictory claims can be reconciled because the labor market for child labor was not a national market. Instead, child labor was a regional phenomenon where a high incidence of child labor existed in the manufacturing districts while a low incidence of children were employed in rural and farming districts.

Since the first reliable British Census that inquired about children’s work was in 1841, it is impossible to compare the number of children employed on the farms and in cottage industry with the number of children employed in the factories during the heart of the British industrial revolution. It is possible, however, to get a sense of how many children were employed by the industries considered the “leaders” of the Industrial Revolution – textiles and coal mining. Although there is still not a consensus on the degree to which industrial manufacturers depended on child labor, research by several economic historians have uncovered several facts.

Estimates of Child Labor in Textiles

Using data from an early British Parliamentary Report (1819[HL.24]CX), Freuenberger, Mather and Nardinelli concluded that “children formed a substantial part of the labor force” in the textile mills (1984, 1087). They calculated that while only 4.5% of the cotton workers were under 10, 54.5% were under the age of 19 – confirmation that the employment of children and youths was pervasive in cotton textile factories (1984, 1087). Tuttle’s research using a later British Parliamentary Report (1834(167)XIX) shows this trend continued. She calculated that children under 13 comprised roughly 10 to 20 % of the work forces in the cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills in 1833. The employment of youths between the age of 13 and 18 was higher than for younger children, comprising roughly 23 to 57% of the work forces in cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills. Cruickshank also confirms that the contribution of children to textile work forces was significant. She showed that the growth of the factory system meant that from one-sixth to one-fifth of the total work force in the textile towns in 1833 were children under 14. There were 4,000 children in the mills of Manchester; 1,600 in Stockport; 1,500 in Bolton and 1,300 in Hyde (1981, 51).

The employment of children in textile factories continued to be high until mid-nineteenth century. According to the British Census, in 1841 the three most common occupations of boys were Agricultural Labourer, Domestic Servant and Cotton Manufacture with 196,640; 90,464 and 44,833 boys under 20 employed, respectively. Similarly for girls the three most common occupations include Cotton Manufacture. In 1841, 346,079 girls were Domestic Servants; 62,131 were employed in Cotton Manufacture and 22,174 were Dress-makers. By 1851 the three most common occupations for boys under 15 were Agricultural Labourer (82,259), Messenger (43,922) and Cotton Manufacture (33,228) and for girls it was Domestic Servant (58,933), Cotton Manufacture (37,058) and Indoor Farm Servant (12,809) (1852-53[1691-I]LXXXVIII, pt.1). It is clear from these findings that children made up a large portion of the work force in textile mills during the nineteenth century. Using returns from the Factory Inspectors, S. J. Chapman’s (1904) calculations reveal that the percentage of child operatives under 13 had a downward trend for the first half of the century from 13.4% in 1835 to 4.7% in 1838 to 5.8% in 1847 and 4.6% by 1850 and then rose again to 6.5% in 1856, 8.8% in 1867, 10.4% in 1869 and 9.6% in 1870 (1904, 112).

Estimates of Child Labor in Mining

Children and youth also comprised a relatively large proportion of the work forces in coal and metal mines in Britain. In 1842, the proportion of the work forces that were children and youth in coal and metal mines ranged from 19 to 40%. A larger proportion of the work forces of coal mines used child labor underground while more children were found on the surface of metal mines “dressing the ores” (a process of separating the ore from the dirt and rock). By 1842 one-third of the underground work force of coal mines was under the age of 18 and one-fourth of the work force of metal mines were children and youth (1842[380]XV). In 1851 children and youth (under 20) comprised 30% of the total population of coal miners in Great Britain. After the Mining Act of 1842 was passed which prohibited girls and women from working in mines, fewer children worked in mines. The Reports on Sessions 1847-48 and 1849 Mining Districts I (1847-48[993]XXVI and 1849[1109]XXII) and The Reports on Sessions 1850 and 1857-58 Mining Districts II (1850[1248]XXIII and 1857-58[2424]XXXII) contain statements from mining commissioners that the number of young children employed underground had diminished.

In 1838, Jenkin (1927) estimates that roughly 5,000 children were employed in the metal mines of Cornwall and by 1842 the returns from The First Report show as many as 5,378 children and youth worked in the mines. In 1838 Lemon collected data from 124 tin, copper and lead mines in Cornwall and found that 85% employed children. In the 105 mines that employed child labor, children comprised from as little as 2% to as much as 50% of the work force with a mean of 20% (Lemon, 1838). According to Jenkin the employment of children in copper and tin mines in Cornwall began to decline by 1870 (1927, 309).

Explanations for Child Labor

The Supply of Child Labor

Given the role of child labor in the British Industrial Revolution, many economic historians have tried to explain why child labor became so prevalent. A competitive model of the labor market for children has been used to examine the factors that influenced the demand for children by employers and the supply of children from families. The majority of scholars argue that it was the plentiful supply of children that increased employment in industrial work places turning child labor into a social problem. The most common explanation for the increase in supply is poverty – the family sent their children to work because they desperately needed the income. Another common explanation is that work was a traditional and customary component of ordinary people’s lives. Parents had worked when they were young and required their children to do the same. The prevailing view of childhood for the working-class was that children were considered “little adults” and were expected to contribute to the family’s income or enterprise. Other less commonly argued sources of an increase in the supply of child labor were that parents either sent their children to work because they were greedy and wanted more income to spend on themselves or that children wanted out of the house because their parents were emotionally and physically abusive. Whatever the reason for the increase in supply, scholars agree that since mandatory schooling laws were not passed until 1876, even well-intentioned parents had few alternatives.

The Demand for Child Labor

Other compelling explanations argue that it was demand, not supply, that increased the use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. One explanation came from the industrialists and factory owners – children were a cheap source of labor that allowed them to stay competitive. Managers and overseers saw other advantages to hiring children and pointed out that children were ideal factory workers because they were obedient, submissive, likely to respond to punishment and unlikely to form unions. In addition, since the machines had reduced many procedures to simple one-step tasks, unskilled workers could replace skilled workers. Finally, a few scholars argue that the nimble fingers, small stature and suppleness of children were especially suited to the new machinery and work situations. They argue children had a comparative advantage with the machines that were small and built low to the ground as well as in the narrow underground tunnels of coal and metal mines. The Industrial Revolution, in this case, increased the demand for child labor by creating work situations where they could be very productive.

Influence of Child Labor Laws

Whether it was an increase in demand or an increase in supply, the argument that child labor laws were not considered much of a deterrent to employers or families is fairly convincing. Since fines were not large and enforcement was not strict, the implicit tax placed on the employer or family was quite low in comparison to the wages or profits the children generated [Nardinelli (1980)]. On the other hand, some scholars believe that the laws reduced the number of younger children working and reduced labor hours in general [Chapman (1904) and Plener (1873)].

Despite the laws there were still many children and youth employed in textiles and mining by mid-century. Booth calculated there were still 58,900 boys and 82,600 girls under 15 employed in textiles and dyeing in 1881. In mining the number did not show a steady decline during this period, but by 1881 there were 30,400 boys under 15 still employed and 500 girls under 15. See below.

Table 1: Child Employment, 1851-1881

Industry & Age Cohort 1851 1861 1871 1881
Mining
Males under 15
37,300 45,100 43,100 30,400
Females under 15 1,400 500 900 500
Males 15-20 50,100 65,300 74,900 87,300
Females over 15 5,400 4,900 5,300 5,700
Total under 15 as
% of work force
13% 12% 10% 6%
Textiles and Dyeing
Males under 15
93,800 80,700 78,500 58,900
Females under 15 147,700 115,700 119,800 82,600
Males 15-20 92,600 92,600 90,500 93,200
Females over 15 780,900 739,300 729,700 699,900
Total under 15 as
% of work force
15% 19% 14% 11%

Source: Booth (1886, 353-399).

Explanations for the Decline in Child Labor

There are many opinions regarding the reason(s) for the diminished role of child labor in these industries. Social historians believe it was the rise of the domestic ideology of the father as breadwinner and the mother as housewife, that was imbedded in the upper and middle classes and spread to the working-class. Economic historians argue it was the rise in the standard of living that accompanied the Industrial Revolution that allowed parents to keep their children home. Although mandatory schooling laws did not play a role because they were so late, other scholars argue that families started showing an interest in education and began sending their children to school voluntarily. Finally, others claim that it was the advances in technology and the new heavier and more complicated machinery, which required the strength of skilled adult males, that lead to the decline in child labor in Great Britain. Although child labor has become a fading memory for Britons, it still remains a social problem and political issue for developing countries today.

References

Alfred (Samuel Kydd). The History of the Factory Movement. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1857.

Booth, C. “On the Occupations of the People of the United Kingdom, 1801-81.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (J.S.S.) XLIX (1886): 314-436.

Chapman, S. J. The Lancashire Cotton Industry. Manchester: Manchester University Publications, 1904.

Clapham, Sir John. An Economic History of Modern Britain. Vol. I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.

Collier, Francis. The Family Economy of the Working Classes in the Cotton Industry, 1784-1833. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964.

Cruickshank, Marjorie. Children and Industry. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981.

Cunningham, Hugh. “The Employment and Unemployment of Children in England, c. 1680-1851.” Past and Present 126 (1990): 115-150.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Moscow. London: E. J. Hobsbaum, 1969[1926].

Freudenberger, Herman, Francis J. Mather, and Clark Nardinelli. “A New Look at the Early Factory Labour Force.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1085-90.

Hammond, J. L. and Barbara Hammond. The Town Labourer, 1760-1832. New York: A Doubleday Anchor Book, 1937.

House of Commons Papers (British Parliamentary Papers):
1833(450)XX Factories, employment of children. R. Com. 1st rep.
1833(519)XXI Factories, employment of children. R. Com. 2nd rep.
1834(44)XXVII Administration and Operation of Poor Laws, App. A, pt.1.
1834(44)XXXVI Administration and Operation of Poor Laws. App. B.2, pts. III,IV,V.
1834 (167)XX Factories, employment of children. Supplementary Report.
1842[380]XV Children’s employment (mines). R. Com. 1st rep.
1847-48[993]XXVI Mines and Collieries, Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1849[1109]XXII Mines and Collieries, Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1850[1248]XXIII Mining Districts. Commissioner’s rep.
1857-58[2424]XXXII Mines and Minerals. Commissioner’s rep.

House of Lords Papers:
1819(24)CX

Jenkin, A. K. Hamilton. The Cornish Miner: An Account of His Life Above and Underground From Early Times. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1927.

Kussmaul, Ann. A General View of the Rural Economy of England, 1538-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Lemon, Sir Charles. “The Statistics of the Copper Mines of Cornwall.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society I (1838): 65-84.

Marx. Karl. Capital. vol. I. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1909.

Nardinelli, Clark. Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Nardinelli, Clark. “Were Children Exploited During the Industrial Revolution?” Research in Economic History 2 (1988): 243-276.

Nardinelli, Clark. “Child Labor and the Factory Acts.” Journal of Economic History. 40, no. 4 (1980): 739-755.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1800. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1930.

Plener, Ernst Elder Von. English Factory Legislation. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873.

Redford, Arthur. Labour Migration in England, 1800-1850. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1926.

Rule, John. The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth Century English Industry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

Tilly, L. A. and Scott, J. W. Women, Work and Family. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978.

Tuttle, Carolyn. “A Revival of the Pessimist View: Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution.” Research in Economic History 18 (1998): 53-82.

Tuttle, Carolyn. Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor During the British Industrial Revolution. Oxford: Westview Press, 1999.

Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures. London, 1835.

Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice. Problems of Modern Industry. London: Longmanns, Green, 1898.

Citation: Tuttle, Carolyn. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL
http://eh.net/encyclopedia/child-labor-during-the-british-industrial-revolution/

Child Labor: An American History

Author(s):Hindman, Hugh D.
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Hugh D. Hindman, Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. xi + 431 pp. $83.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7656-0935-5; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7656-0936-3.

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

Although children had worked in the yeoman household with their families, as indentured servants and slaves for a master, and as apprentices in the putting-out system, society’s view on the child labor issue changed from pre-industrial America to industrial America. Hugh Hindman, Associate Professor of Labor and Human Resources at Appalachian State University, tells the history of the child labor problem in America from an interdisciplinary perspective incorporating social history, political reform and economic theory. By focusing on America, this book fills a void in the literature that discusses child labor in Great Britain extensively, child labor in Belgium, France, Spain and Japan adequately and has just begun to offer research on contemporary child labor in Latin America, Africa, India and Asia. To explore how child labor in America was both unique and special it addresses several key questions: (1) How important was child labor to the industrialization of America? (2) Why did child labor, which had existed for centuries, become a social problem in America during industrialization? and (3) What were the successes and failures at effective legislative reform?

The major contribution of this book is presented in Part II entitled “Child Labor in America” because it describes child labor in the main industries and trades of the American economy using primary sources. Hindman provides original evidence on the employment of children in coalmines (Chapter 4), glasshouses (Chapter 5), cotton textile factories (Chapter 6), tenement houses (Chapter 7), and canneries and food processing sheds (Chapter 9). In addition, he highlights evidence on children who worked in the sugar beet, cranberry, tobacco and cotton fields as migrant workers (Chapter 9) and on the streets as bootblacks, messengers and newsboys (Chapter 8). He carefully extracts from the primary data collected by the investigators for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and the nineteen-volume report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Report on Conditions of Woman and Child Wage Earners in the United States, 1910-1913 valuable information on the number of children employed, jobs children performed, work conditions, work-related illnesses and wages for each type of employment. Information on schooling options, safety issues and the strength of unions, employer organizations and restrictive regulations was drawn from NCLC publications (Child Labor Bulletins), government publications and secondary sources to identify the factors that could eliminate child labor in each industry. The interpretation of this relatively untapped source of data is impressive and wonderfully complimented by samples of the 7,000 photographs taken by the famous social photographer, Lewis W. Hine. These photographs not only document the existence of child labor during America’s industrial period but they also give a lasting impression of the degree of youthfulness, poverty and despair of the children who worked hard day after day.

Hindman’s history of the struggles of poor families to survive and of legislative and court battles waged by reformers provides lessons for the worldwide resurgence of the child labor problem today. The contemporary update of the child labor issue in America in Chapter 10 is especially informative. Using current statistics from the National Longitudinal Study, which show that “proportionally nearly as many children in America work today as at the turn of the twentieth century” (pp. 294-95) remind us that child labor has not disappeared. Although many perform freelance jobs (babysitting and yardwork), which is considerably different in nature from the factory or migrant jobs of the past, the fact that more than four million children and youth are illegally employed makes the issue more than purely academic. The conclusion of the book on global child labor in Chapter 11 reveals striking similarities in the types of work children do, the causes of child labor and the ineffectiveness of legislative action between America and developing nations.

The thesis “that industrialization is the cause of both the child labor problem and, later, its eradication” (p. 8) is not novel, but the fact that it applies to America as well as to Great Britain is novel and significant. Many economic historians have either claimed or shown this to be true for Great Britain (Levine (1987); Marx (1867); Nardinelli (1980); Piore (1994); Polanyi (1994) and Tuttle (1999)). No research to date has attempted to or succeeded in showing that for both Great Britain and America the same mechanism that created child labor also eliminated it. The thesis, although not well developed until Chapter 11, is supported by the evidence on wages and technological change in most of the industries. Poverty and antiquated machines created a need for employing children whereas rising standards of living and technological innovation led to the decline of child labor. For example, in America mechanical pickers replaced the infamous “breaker boys” in the coal mines, automated conveyor systems replaced the “dog boys” in glasshouses, and vending boxes replaced newsboys (p. 334).

The book does not, however, sufficiently analyze child labor using the tools of an economic historian. The “Discourse on Exploitation” is superficial and bases its conclusion on assumptions made about improvements in wages, Gross Domestic Product per capita and household income without providing any supporting data or references (pp. 312-319). The economic theory used in describing the model of the labor market for children is an over-simplified adaptation of existing theories. The theory of child labor found in Chapter 11 should have been developed earlier and applied to the vast amount of information Hindman has on the key industries and trades that employed children in America. The market for child labor consists of a supply and demand curve whose intersection yields the level of employment and the equilibrium wage rate. The supply of child labor is determined in a family context. Parents’ motivations to send their children to work in America were identical to the reasons uncovered in Great Britain and in developing countries — poverty (low family income), custom, habit, tradition and the absence of schooling. The demand for labor is determined by profit-maximizing firms. Hindman makes two unsubstantiated claims about the demand for labor, however. He argues that the demand for labor is not very well developed in the literature and he assumes that child labor is “low productivity labor” compared to adults (p. 331). Both Nardinelli (1990) and Tuttle (1999) fully develop the theory of the demand for child labor for the case of Great Britain. Although Hindman identifies factors which increased the demand for child labor in America (labor-intensive production processes, lower transaction costs for hiring entire families, more compliant and obedient workers, “nimble fingers,” and biased technological change (pp. 332-33), he does not apply them to his analysis of the various industries. Child labor reform and education are not seen as deterrents to employers in hiring children or to parents in sending their children to work during the early stages of industrialization.

Although it may not completely satisfy the appetite of the economic historian, this book will appeal to scholars in labor economics, law and economics and industrialization. Historians specializing in the history of childhood, labor history, social history and American history will want to read this book and have it on their shelves for reference. Hindman tells a story which needed to be told.

Carolyn Tuttle is presenting a paper at the 2003 Annual EHA Conference in Nashville (with Simone Wegge) entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.” Her book, Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution (Westview, 1999), shows how technological innovation increased the demand for child labor in Great Britain.

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

Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America

Author(s):Herndon, Ruth Wallis
Murray, John E.
Reviewer(s):Grubb, Farley

Published by EH.NET (December 2009)

Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, editors, Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. xii + 264 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8014-7559-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Farley Grubb, Department of Economics, University of Delaware.

All societies have children who are orphaned or whose parents are too poor to provide care. Societies typically create institutions to provide substitute care. In colonial and early nineteenth-century North America orphaned and pauper children without alternative family support were handled through the political system following English and European precedents. Local government officials or courts placed indigent children via explicit labor contracts into the households of local non-relatives. Typically, the household master agreed to raise the child for a fixed number of years, usually until the age of maturity. The child received room, board, clothing, and other necessities; in many cases some education; and often occupational training or instructive work experience. In return, the child was bound to work for the master for the length of the contract. This system was referred to as orphan or pauper apprenticeship because the agreements resembled private apprenticeship contracts in the marketplace. Within the general commonality of this practice across North America, considerable local variation existed.

Ruth Herndon, professor of history at Bowling Green State University, and John Murray, professor of economics at the University of Toledo, have assembled an expert team of scholars whose combined individual studies provide the most definitive book written on pauper apprenticeship in the last half century. This book should become the new go-to source on the subject. Each contributor provides an in-depth look into a local set of pauper apprenticeship institutions. In total, the studies span or sample the breadth of North American communities, namely the cities of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore, New York, and Montreal, and the countryside and small towns of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New England (11 studies in all). They emphasize the commonality across locations, but also highlight substantive local variations, such as differences in how aggressive local officials were in taking children away from intact but poor families and how the treatment of black and female children differed from that of white and male children, respectively. The various local studies are ably tied together by introductory and concluding chapters, as well as by each study directly referencing findings in the other studies in the book to highlight differences across locales.

A common methodological approach is used, namely presenting a quantifiable data set of pauper apprenticeship contracts from each locale. In total, 18,268 contracts are analyzed. A cross-tabulated distribution of contract characteristics is the typical offering, such as for the age, gender, and race of the children; the type of contract compensation received by the children ? including the educational and occupational training provided and the end-of-contract payments received; and the gender and occupational distribution of the masters. Often administration records are employed, where available, to explore interesting ancillary patterns, such as the differential treatment of orphans and bastards, or the relational identity of the adults surrendering the children to the orphan-care official. Only the New Orleans and Montreal studies, by Paul Lachance and Gillian Hamilton, respectively, employ regression analysis. They estimate the variance in literacy achieved and pay received across pauper apprenticeship contracts controlling for child, parent, master, and contract characteristics. Their results are presented in a reader-friendly manner for the non-cliometrician.

The book is organized into three parts, one each focusing on the master-servant, parent-child, and family-state relationship. This organization is a bit artificial as all the essays to some extent touch on all three relationships. While all the studies are equally strong in some aspect or other, special mention should be made of Timothy Lockley?s study of poor children in Savannah. It alone is worth the price of the book. He traces what happened to pauper apprentices after they had exited their contracts through local tax and court records, a hard feat to accomplish and rarely done especially for the poorest parts of a population. Similarly, Jean and J. Elliot Russo?s study of orphans in rural colonial Maryland provides a compelling use of illegitimacy as an important interpretive tool.

Pauper apprenticeship crosses many fields in economics, e.g. the economics of the family, welfare economics, labor economics, optimal contract theory, and the economics of education. Unfortunately little theoretical structure from these fields is brought to bear on the data presented. As such, the book is more about establishing ?what is? than about analyzing ?why it is.? For example, the optimal or equilibrating contract design for pauper apprenticeship and how that design affected behavior and explains contracted terms is missing from these studies. More frustrating at times is the lack of relevant comparisons that gauge the importance of the institution. Because the distribution of pauper apprenticeship contracts on many margins was tilted toward young teenage boys, labor markets clearly mattered. However, what percentage of the labor force in various categories were comprised of pauper apprentices or what the probability was that a random employer would have, or ever cross paths with, a pauper apprentice is seldom established. We are told that the institution was important, but exactly how important is hard to gauge in any counterfactual or relative proportions sense. These criticisms are only intended to highlight future research directions. Using surviving pauper apprenticeship contracts to establish ?what is? in meticulous detail is the first step to bringing this history to light, and a necessary step before deeper analytical model testing can be done. This book has accomplished exactly that.

Farley Grubb is Professor and NBER Research Associate in the Economics Department at the University of Delaware. E-mail address: grubbf@lerner.udel.edu . Webpage: http://myprofile.cos.com/grubbf16 . His most recent works include: ?U.S. Land Policy: Founding Choices and Outcomes, 1781-1802,? in Douglas A. Irwin and Richard Sylla, eds., Founding Choices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming) and ?Testing for the Economic Impact of the U.S. Constitution: Purchasing Power Parity across the Colonies versus across the States, 1748-1811,? Journal of Economic History 70, no. 1 (March 2010), forthcoming.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914

Editor(s):Goose , Nigel
Honeyman, Katrina
Reviewer(s):Heywood, Colin

Published by EH.Net (July 2014)

Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, editors, Childhood and Child Labour in Industrial England: Diversity and Agency, 1750-1914. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013. xii + 358 pp. $135 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-1114-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Colin Heywood, Department of History, University of Nottingham.

The editors set out their stall for this book very clearly in their introduction. Their aim is to move on from the emphasis on exploitation and victimhood in the study of childhood during the Industrial Revolution period in England, so evident among earlier generations of historians. In its place, they take a leaf from recent developments in childhood studies in the social sciences and adopt as their two overarching themes agency and diversity. It is hard to disagree with their assertion that the history of industrial child labor in particular is ripe for a new look. The distinctly misérabiliste and emotive depiction of exploitation in the factories and mines, well established in the popular imagination, captures a dimension to the topic, but now looks a very partial view. By contrast, the desire to treat children as actors in the own right is much in vogue, and the diversity of childhood experiences is now evident as historical research in the area has flourished.

It should be said that finding evidence of children negotiating their own path in life is not always easy, given that they were so often at the mercy of adults. Some of the authors here acknowledge this, and indeed there is plenty of exploitation and victimhood on display, among chimney sweeps, pauper apprentices, and inmates of the workhouse, for example (for a full list of the essays, see below). And one sympathizes with the editors when they note the limits to what can be achieved in one book. The original focus on child labor in industry means that “diversity” is largely confined to the urban working classes, though this does give the book a certain coherence. Besides the varied experiences of work, in small workshops as well as factories, we have interesting material on the childhood dimension to political protest, sexuality, poor relief, human rights, clothing and (perhaps inevitably) schooling. What might have appeared beside them with more space are other new areas of interest such as delinquency, health, environment, and leisure. Following in the footsteps of many childhood historians before them, there is much emphasis in this collection on the role of the state and other institutions. The editors’ justification is persuasive, for as well as leaving extensive collections of records in the archives, institutions were coming to feature prominently in the lives of children during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kathryn Gleadle provides a fine example of children actively engaged in political protest with her study of their mobilization in the industrial north to support the Ten Hours Movement in 1833. She brings out the “complexities” involved in ascribing agency to children in politics, with the suspicion that their addresses to the authorities were written by adults (p. 223). She usefully notes the temptation to romanticize the idea of children’s agency, but also concludes that many young people were politicized during the 1830s by participation in protest movements (p. 229). Two other authors, Niels van Manen and Peter Kirby, draw attention respectively to the efforts made by poor law authorities and children’s employment commissioners to consult young people on matters that concerned them — an outstanding feature of English as opposed to continental administration. At the other extreme, Sarah Toulalan is keen to demonstrate that the young were often denied agency in their sexual activity, for example, when they married during their early teens but were kept apart by their parents.

The theme of diversity is most directly confronted in Nigel Goose’s contribution on the varied experiences of children in the labor market in Hertfordshire. He documents the “stark contrast between parishes with relatively high employment levels and those with virtually none at all” (p. 163), and the broad range of occupations involving young people within the county. He concludes that Victorian England produced varieties of childhood to a degree never seen before or since (p. 176). Otherwise, the essays look beyond the workshops to children in apprenticeships, workhouses, residential care, and elementary schools. There are some interesting challenges to received opinion. Katrina Honeyman, for example, argues that some of the pauper apprentices employed in the early textile mills were privileged in various ways in comparison with “free” children. (Sadly, Professor Honeyman died before this book appeared.) Jane Humphries uses working-class autobiographies to reveal the “lifelines” provided by education in the workhouses for brighter children.

All of the essays in the collection are solidly rooted in both secondary and primary sources, and are written in an approachable prose style. It is a pity that there are no illustrations, notably for Clare Rose’s study of photographs taken in Barnardo’s homes. Doubtless this is a book that will be sipped rather than swallowed whole by most historians, but it is a worthwhile addition to its field.

The essays:
1. Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman, Introduction
2. Sarah Toulalan, Child Sexual Abuse in Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century London: Rape, Sexual Assault and the Denial of Agency
3. Alysa Levene, Charity Apprenticeship and Social Capital in Eighteenth-Century England
4. Katrina Honeyman, Compulsion, Compassion and Consent: Parish Apprenticeship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England
5. Niels van Manen, Agency and Reform: The Regulation of Chimney Sweep Apprentices, 1770-1840
6. Jane Humphries, Care and Cruelty in the Warehouse: Children’s Experiences of Residential Poor Relief in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England
7. Peter Kirby, Victorian Social Investigation and the Children’s Employment Commission, 1840-1842
8. Nigel Goose, Child Employment Prospects in Nineteenth-Century Hertfordshire in Perspective: Varieties of Childhood?
9. Kathryn Gleadle, ‘We Will Have It’: Children and Protest in the Ten Hours Movement
10. Colin Creighton, Changing Conceptualizations of Children’s Rights in Early Industrial Britain
11. Nicola Sheldon, ‘Something in the Place of Home’: Children in Institutional Care, 1850-1918
12. Susannah Wright, Moral Instruction, Urban Poverty and English Elementary Schools in the Late Nineteenth Century
13. Clare Rose, Working Lads in Late-Victorian London

Colin Heywood is Professor Emeritus of Modern French History at the University of Nottingham. He is currently writing a history of childhood and youth in modern Europe.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850

Author(s):Kirby, Peter
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

Peter Kirby, Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850.  Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK:  Boydell Press, 2013. xi + 212 pp.  $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-84383-884-5.

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

This book significantly contributes to the child labor literature in discerning the health of the children who worked in British factories and mines from 1780 to 1850.  Although the debate over the exploitation of children during the British Industrial Revolution continues to rage on between the Optimists and the Pessimists, this is the first extensive examination into the occupational health of early industrial children.  The main contribution of this book is in producing a “comprehensive overview of the factors bearing upon the health and industrial working conditions of children in the context of the major occupational and epidemiological transitions of the Industrial Revolution” (p. 35).  Peter Kirby argues that the health of the industrial child was fairly good, was not worsened by their work or working conditions but rather that “the child workers who staffed the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution were at no greater risk of poor health than those in other occupations” (p. 161).  The book presents several types of evidence, some more compelling than others.  Considerable archival work on child work-related injuries, children’s heights, child muscular and skeletal development and childhood diseases challenges the existing view that children’s health declined once they had worked in the textile mills or coal mines for an extended period of time.  In addition, this research challenges the evidence which led to the prevailing image of the skinny, crooked, bruised factory child.  He casts doubt on the representativeness of Sadler’s Report, the representativeness of two well-known child laborers – Robert Blincoe (the parish apprentice) and William Dodd (the factory cripple) – and the conclusions drawn from the observations of contemporary factory operatives and medical men.

Chapters 1 and 2 rightly put the issue of the health of child laborers into the broader context of growing industrial cities and the emergence of a poor working class.  By identifying the externalities of industrial growth, such as the air pollution caused by the smoke of coal-burning factories, the potential source(s) of children’s poor health is highlighted.  In addition, the detrimental impact of poor nutrition of both the expectant and then nursing mother explains lower birth weights, weaker immune systems and lower heights of children from poor families.  These arguments are convincing as children from poor families, regardless of their occupation, would tend to be smaller and sicklier.  Kirby concludes that “infectious diseases were ubiquitous amongst children and it is likely that many young people commenced their working lives carrying physical impairments conferred by disease in early childhood.  This almost certainly led medical commentators to confuse broader epidemiological effects such as deformity and short stature with the influence of the workplace” (p. 60).

Although some medical doctors may have been misinformed or misled, it is unlikely they all were. Throughout the book Kirby dismisses the observations and examinations of the “medical men” reporting to Parliament by claiming they were not qualified to identify occupational aliments, and therefore erroneously attributed all the diseases and deformities of children to their work and not to their general living conditions.  He argues that many were not trained in occupational health, many had no experience with industrial workplaces, and that the majority of Sadler’s medical witnesses never visited a mill or factory.  Rather than provide a more nuanced assessment of their extensive commentary, Kirby dismisses all of their testimony and concludes that “the evidence of early nineteenth-century medical men is therefore a highly unreliable basis for a serious inquiry into the health of industrial children” (p. 34).

As a result, the main weakness of this book is that the evidence put forth ignores medical commentary at the time and instead uses recent research in occupational medicine and health studies of children working in developing countries.  Although this approach is useful due to the similarities of child labor past and present, it must be placed into context.  There are considerable differences in the technology (or lack thereof), tasks performed, and working conditions of child laborers today that significantly impact their occupational health.  Kirby instead cites a mill surgeon, a lecturer to the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute and a member of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association as reliable “experts” on occupational health; all three found no link between standing for long periods of time and knock-knees and skeletal distortions (p. 64).  Kirby assumes, moreover, that the tasks children performed in the factories were light, the least laborious of all indoor work.  He concludes that this may explain why many children who worked in the mills were disabled, “There is considerable evidence that slender or disabled children were positively selected to work in factories” (p. 77).  This opinion is not supported by the organizational charts of factories in 1833 where children were listed not just as helpers doing light work (“piecers,” “doffers,” and “cleaners”) but were also performing adult tasks (specifically spinners, winders, combers, carders and weavers).  Kirby’s assessment on page 77 also contradicts an earlier statement he made that “the health of children and adolescents was therefore crucial to the formation of contracts with employers and masters would not normally accept a child with an obvious illness or disability” (p. 58).  Kirby’s arguments about how factory conditions affected or didn’t affect child workers are more confusing than convincing.

Chapter 3 has a very interesting and important discussion on the difficulties of establishing a child’s age and therefore enforcing the age requirements set in the Factory Act of 1833 (which prohibited children under age 9 from working).  Age certificates were not valid or reliable until 1846. Early factory legislation made parents primarily responsible for confirming the ages of their working children.  Parents were known to lie in order to insure their children would get hired.  The Factory Act of 1833 shifted the responsibility to the employers, but since children did not have birth certificates, who would verify their age?  The Factory Commission recommended the appointment of certifying surgeons to confirm a child’s age and hence eligibility for work.  Although this system was an improvement, this research identifies the new problems that arose.  How does one determine the age of a child? Kirby has a thorough discussion of the problems with using height and the reasons officials turned to examining the stages of child dentition.

Compelling evidence is offered in Table 4 and Figure 4 illustrating that there was little difference in the height of the factory and non-factory children who attended Sunday school in Manchester and Stockport.  Kirby concludes that the factors stunting their growth occurred before they began working in the factory. “The effect of factory occupation upon the health and growth of working children therefore appears to have been negligible” (p. 115).  One exception is coal mining, where the occupation did contribute to their smaller stature (and larger chests), as Kirby documents carefully in Tables 5, 6 and 7. He astutely argues that children in the mines, due to their hours of work underground had a complete deficiency of ultraviolet light which was thought to have contributed to slow and abnormal bone growth (p. 120).

Chapter 4 discusses an extremely important topic on the ill treatment of working children but does not make a cohesive argument.  The conclusion that “the beating of child factory workers was extremely rare” (p. 150) is based on no new evidence and stands in contrast to Nardinelli’s (1982) findings that systematic corporal punishment occurred in many factories and mines.  Instead of examining the testimony of child laborers and overseers, Kirby makes the claim that life in Industrial Britain was far from peaceful – a working-class child was exposed to either violence at home, at school or at work.  Physical discipline was customary at school and at work and abuse or domestic violence at home was not uncommon.  Thus, rather than deny that corporal punishment occurred (which was his initial position), Kirby admits it did exist but argues it was justifiable – “where corporal punishment was practiced in any systematic manner in industrial situations, it tended to be generally moderate and connected in highly complex ways with the needs of production or the maintenance of workplace safety” (p. 149).

Kirby concludes in Chapter 5 that the “often simplistic stereotype of the health-impaired and abused industrial child can no longer be sustained” (p. 151).  The poor health of child laborers was caused by “a wide range of exogenous factors such as the urban disease environment, social class, household poverty, pre-existing disability or orphanage, and such influences almost certainly proved more harmful to their health and welfare than discrete workplace factors” (p. 151).  This research is thought-provoking and should encourage economic history scholars to delve into the other Factory Inspector Reports (besides Sadler’s 1833 Report) and the 1842 Mining Report for evidence on workplace accidents, the use of corporal punishment, and childhood diseases.  I believe the book has broad appeal and should be of interest to economic historians and social historians, as well as psychologists and sociologists.  It is well written and superbly documented and is accessible to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Carolyn Tuttle is the Betty Jane Schultz Hollender Professor of Economics at Lake Forest College.  Recent publications include “Child Labor: A Revival of the Pessimist View” in Research in Economic History and a book entitled Mexican Women in American Factories: Free Trade and Exploitation on the Border (2012) by University of Texas Press.  She is currently working on an article with Simone Wegge of CSI-CUNY entitled “The Role of Child Labor in Industrialization.”  She can be reached at tuttle@mx.lakeforest.edu

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (February 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Non-Agriculture
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/lf/aat37.txt.

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).

Conclusions

The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.

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Citation: Rosenbloom, Joshua. “The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-american-labor-market-institutions-and-outcomes/

The Charleston Orphan House: Children?s Lives in the First Public Orphan House in America

Author(s):Murray, John E.
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred B.

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
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John E. Murray, The Charleston Orphan House: Children?s Lives in the First Public Orphan House in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.? xx + 268 pp. (hardcover), $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-226-92409-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Winifred B. Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University.

The first public orphanage in America was founded not in Boston, citadel of civic virtue, but in Charleston, South Carolina. Because it was the first, it is not unreasonable to assume that it became the blueprint after which all other municipal orphanages were modeled ? which is to say, it set the dimensions of the ?great confinement? within which forsaken children would live for generations to come. Sufficient reason, then, for the Charleston Orphan House to have attracted the attention of John E. Murray, whose previous publications on orphans, paupers, child labor, charity, literacy, epidemic disease, a Shaker community, and the history of health insurance in America testify to a tender and enduring concern for ?the least of these.? Scholars less tender-hearted than Murray may wonder why a book on one southern orphanage should be of interest to economic historians, to which Murray can reply that charity ? or, more accurately, altruism ? has engaged the likes of Arrow, Debreu, Sen, Kahneman, and innumerable others in arcane conversations around rational expectations, decision theory, social welfare functions, intergenerational wealth transfers, the theory of the firm, and the specification of a Happiness GNP measure.

The narrative density of Murray?s book comes from his exhaustive research in the Orphan House archives. He has managed to link at least 500 children by name to their life-cycle events, allowing him to track at least a quarter of the 2,000 children who passed through the orphanage. Beyond that, it appears that he has found every donor, every Commissioners? report, every repair bill, contract, bill of sale, loan application, housekeeping account, public health inspection, doctor?s order, teacher?s diary, minister?s sermon, church attendance record, and the testimony of every impoverished and widowed parent on behalf of his child at risk. Murray calls this archive ?the single greatest collection of first-person reports on work and family lives of the [white, that?s important] poor anywhere in the United States? (p. 4).

First in the course of his ten chapters are the conditions in the House. They are Dickensian. Visitors found it ?miserable,? ?extremely comfortless,? ?appalling,? ?swathed in darkness,? ?beds drenched with water when it rained,? without light, without sheets, without beds or bedsteads, waste water leaking into the drinking wells, one toilet for 100 children, privies in the vegetable garden. ?Yet many children hoped to enter the institution? (p. 66). It improved over time, and Murray moves on to devote a chapter each to the financing, management, diet, discipline, education, training, and medical care offered to the children. In chapters 8 and 9 where Murray follows the young people into apprenticeships and beyond, he opens the orphanage up and out to the urban, industrial, and export-driven economy of the Charleston that will have to absorb them. The book ends with an Epilogue, and it is there, as I read him, that Murray relaxes the courtesies that have constrained him thus far, and ?tells it like it is.? It is there that he undertakes to answer the question: what really motivated the Commissioners to fund a public orphanage in Charleston? But more about that later.
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For this reviewer, the gold standard for a project like Murray?s is Civic Charity in a Golden Age by Anne E.C. McCants (1997), a magisterial study of the Municipal Orphanage of Amsterdam from its founding in 1578 to its demise in 1815. I have adapted from that book and applied to Murray?s a list of six large questions which project these two institutions onto a wide and consequential canvas. I want to use these questions as a heuristic device upon which to hang the balance of this review.

1. What impulse motivated the founding of the public orphanage?
2. In what sense was the public orphanage ?public??
3. What role did state, county, and city government play?
4. Why did the charitable impulse take institutional form? In the case of abandoned children, was there no other solution?
5. Or was the choice of an institutional solution dictated in some way by the consilience (E.O.Wilson?s term: ?accordance of two or more lines of induction drawn from different sets of phenomena?) of capitalism, urbanization, secularism, and the nuclear family that emerged in America at the end of the eighteenth century?
6. Did the orphanage effect genuine redistribution, or was it rather ?an elaborate ploy? to perpetuate the inequality that had motivated it? This last will not be discussed in this review, which is already too long, but will remain as a question ? if only to tease the righteous.

McCants?s book does not appear in Murray?s bibliography, but these questions are the nuts and bolts, the What, When, Who, Where, and Why of his story no less than of hers. And while some are dealt with implicitly in his text, until the Epilogue none of them is discussed explicitly, and I wish they had been.

When the orphanage was founded in 1790, there were 8,089 white persons in Charleston, and 8,270 black persons, and of the blacks 7,684 were slaves, and 586 were freed blacks. Complicating things was the revolution in Haiti the following year. The uneasy equilibrium in Charleston was overwhelmed by a wave Haitian ?migr?s, of the white elite, yes, but mostly by a new population of slaves, free blacks, and mulatto refugees. Complicating things further was that as the number of freed blacks in the city increased, so did the share that were mulatto. White anxiety about mulattoes would reach such a level by 1848 that Charleston would require by law that all freed people wear a tag identifying them as black, and carry proof of manumission, at risk being re-enslaved.

In this climate it will come as no surprise to learn that the Charleston Orphan House and the Free School associated with it admitted only white children; not just white but who, while certifiably poor, were not very poor, in fact whose homes were decent enough to pass an inspection.? Thus defended, the orphanage played an important part in forging a race-based ?alliance of whites? against blacks that cut across, was orthogonal to and subversive of the class-based alliance that a new industrial working class was trying to build against capital. ?It is this link between civic society and racial unity that helps explain the puzzling question, why the first (and for many years the only) large-scale public orphanage in America should have been built in Charleston? (p. 199). ?Charleston was unique in the early republic in creating the charitable orphan house because in no other city did the elite need to make common cause with the white poor and working class against the potential common black enemy? (p. 201). ?Webs of white cooperation reached across class lines, as if the other half of Charleston?s population weren?t there at all? (p. 204).

Amsterdam?s public orphanage was also restricted: open only to citizens of Amsterdam, tax payers, members of the Dutch Reform (Calvinist) church, wealth-holders, of the ?middling classes.? If the Charleston orphanage was an oasis of white unity, and the Amsterdam orphanage was an oasis of middling unity, then in what sense were they ?public??

To answer that, begin with the meaning of “private”: how do we understand “private”? Sir William Blackstone, the great eighteenth century jurist, defined private property for the ages. It is, he wrote, ?that despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the things of this world in total exclusion of the rights of any other individual in the universe.?

If ?private? is the right to exclude, then is ?public? the obligation to include?? It doesn?t appear so. Public swimming pools, public housing, public schools, public water fountains, public transportation, public lands, public access to the Internet … all of these masquerade as forms of Commons but they have all, at one time or another, been ?restricted? against some portion of the public: against unmarried couples, single women, families with children, families with pets, against smokers, blacks, Asians, Jews, Latinos, and on and on ? that sorry history is too well known. We are no closer to discovering the meaning of ?public.?

The Oxford English Dictionary makes short shrift of a definition: “of or provided by the state rather than an independent, commercial company”; “ordinary people in general”; “done, perceived or existing in open view.” Of these the only relevant definition for our purposes is the first: “of or provided by the State.” The Charleston orphanage, even if not of the State, was provided by the State.? Then how can it assert a privacy right to exclude?

There were three sources of funds for the orphanage: donations, income from the institution?s own assets, support from all levels of government. Accounting for (in the sense of keeping account of) the donations will always be problematical to the extent that it is a non-market transaction. Gift-giving is driven not by reciprocity but ?by the pursuit of ?regard?: the approbation of others? (Avner Offer, ?Between the Gift and the Market,? Economic History Review, 1997).? To keep account of a gift is a small desecration of a private benevolence. But inevitably the charitable impulse would have waned as the increasing pace of commercial development both of the port and of the city would have lured private wealth into emerging capital markets and land speculation.

Market sources of income, however, were built into the endowment of the institution by design. The orphanage earned income on its holdings of B.U.S. bonds; and by law the value of all escheated estates in South Carolina (the estates of those who died intestate and without heirs) automatically reverted to the orphanage, along with ?small bits of wealth belonging to the children? (p. 24).

But eventually the institution needed to depend ?heavily? for its ongoing expenses on contributions from what we now call the public sector. To the extent that the ?public? orphanage was supported by the public, where did the city, county, or state get the money?? Were these pay-outs opportunistic, or were they funded? And if funded, was it supported from taxes or bond issues? If taxes, what kind: property taxes? A poor tax? Port duties? Excise taxes? If so, on what? I found this discussion to be the thinnest in the book, but on the answers to these sorts of questions depends the question we asked above, by what right does a public institution assert a privacy right to exclude?

What was left unsaid about the sources of government funding in the Charleston book is sharpened by the contrast with how much it is possible to say about it in the Amsterdam book. Unlike every level of government in the U.S., the city of Amsterdam appears to have faced no inhibitions on its power to tax income and spending directly. Every ?foreigner? applying for citizenship of the city was obliged to pay a fee in support of the orphanage. Additional support came from taxes levied on burials and marriages; real property was taxed; taxes were levied on all who worked for wages; and excise taxes were levied on all consumption. In addition, graduates of the orphanage were expected to ?give back? to support its upkeep; revenue was earned from the sale of the girls? needlework. Most significant were the assets bequeathed to the children and held in fiduciary trust for them until their maturity, which assets were prudently invested by the orphanage in real estate, commercial property, commercial paper, and annuities, such that by 1790, private donations accounted for only 8% of the income of the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis.

Institutionalizing orphaned children is so bad an idea that one wonders if some other solution could not have been found. Why did institutional care prevail over alternatives like foster care, adoption, and government support to extended families?
a) Was institutionalization motivated by a rational calculation of its relative efficiency? Were there in fact economies of scale in warehousing children as there are in warehousing, say, Amazon?s inventory of CDs?
b) Or should we look to a moment in time, say 1780-1810 ? the consilience of the Four Modernizations: capitalism, urbanization, secularism, and the nuclear family ? to provide the clue? There are American historians (I among them) who see the decade of the 1780s as an ?Axial Moment? in American history ? ?the most critical moment in the entire history of America,? wrote Gordon Wood in The New York Review of Books (1994) ? in which, in the midst of ?Deep Change? in almost everything else, family responsibility for the intimate care of the aged, the young, the crippled, the alcoholic, the violent, the developmentally challenged, the homeless, the (oops!) pregnant, and the insane were professionalized and transferred to institutions.
c) Or was institutionalization motivated by the nature of institutions themselves which, in the language of the New Institutional Economics, ?provide incentives to agents to work through formal and informal rules and their enforcement? (John Nye, 2003). In the case of the Orphan House ? ?a white island in a sea of blacks? (p. 199) ? what Nye calls ?the institutions-rules nexus? must have provided a measure of security to the increasingly anxious people of Charleston in whom, says Murray, was lurking always the fear of a slave rebellion in the city at large. An ?institutions-rules nexus? to suppress any disorder in the orphan house would have been projected outward to repress any disorder in the society at large.

??The Orphan House was an integral part of the city?s collection of institutions that maintained the prevailing social order the foundation of which was white unity… [It] was at once an integral part of the most repressive social order in America and the most humane and progressive child-care institution in America, and it remained both for decades? (p. 12).
?
John Murray?s book has turned out to be provocative and utterly absorbing.

Winifred B. Rothenberg?s publications include From Market Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (University of Chicago Press, 1992).?
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Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The Children of Eve: Population and Well-being in History

Author(s):Cain, Louis P.
Paterson, Donald G.
Reviewer(s):Logan, Trevon D.

Published by EH.Net (December 2012)

Louis P. Cain and Donald G. Paterson, The Children of Eve: Population and Well-being in History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. xix + 391 pp. $60 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4443-3690-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Trevon D. Logan, Department of Economics, Ohio State University.

Louis Cain of Loyola University Chicago and Donald Paterson of the University of British Columbia have an ambitious agenda, to tell the population and health histories of the world in one volume.? Along the way they cover a great deal of health, medicine, economics and anthropology in describing how homo sapiens managed to grow in number, average size, and longevity over the last several thousand years.? Cain and Paterson are not attempting to tell the population history of the world, but rather the economic demography of human populations.? In other words, the goal is not simply to present the trends in population but to provide an economic interpretation for them.? This makes the book much more ambitious than its predecessor, Livi-Bacci?s Concise History of World Population, since it still aimed at an audience which was assumed to know little about either population history or economics.?

The book begins with a short section on ?Initial Conditions,? which describes the beginning of the species, how populations are measured, and the demographic transition.? This is where the ?Eve? of the book?s title comes from, the mitochondrial DNA remnants which link back to one common female.? The book makes little use of genetics, however, and moves quickly to the establishment of agriculture, the basics of Malthusian theory, and the beginnings of population counts.? The next chapter covers the demographic transition, and this is where its economic focus first shows up.? Cain and Paterson put the demographic transition into firmly economic territory.? They describe not only trends in birth and death rates but also national income, inequality, female labor force participation and dependency ratios.? Along the way the authors carefully define terms such as endemic, social benefits, GDP, and other terminology in specialized boxes.
?
The second part of the book is the heart of the text.? Mortality, fertility, long-distance and regional migration each receive their own chapters.? The chapter on mortality begins with the present causes of death and works backwards, covering mortality due to wars, infant mortality, and the basics of life expectancy calculations.? After briefly covering some of the basics of seasonality (which could be greatly enhanced by linking the discussion more closely to cause of death), the chapter concludes with the basics of the mortality transition.? The fertility chapter has a similar structure, beginning with a fairly long list of terminology (fecundity, nuptiality, doubling times, and the like).? Then Cain and Paterson move to the choices involved in fertility, and the economics comes through more clearly.? The authors cover the constraints on fertility mainly through marriage, which is appropriate given the historical focus.? As with the chapter on mortality, they conclude with a brief review of the crude birth rate and a more general discussion of the decline in fertility.

The chapters on migration are split between long distance and short distance.? I think this ordering is a bit odd since humans first moved short distances, as the authors note earlier in the text.? The long-distance migration chapter begins by looking at nativity and then forced migrations.? The largest section is devoted to the movement from Europe to the Americas in the Age of Mass Migration.? The authors then move to a discussion of remittances, an issue that has been underdeveloped in population history.? The chapter also has a very nice section which gives broad overviews of the diasporas of the Irish, Jews, and Chinese.? What is missing from the chapter is a model of migration that would justify the discussion of immigration restrictions that follows.? I was hoping for the development of a model which would link migration to wages and show how stakeholders may face different incentives to oppose immigration depending on whether they are substitutes or complements to the immigrants.? The regional immigration chapter begins by focusing on the westward movement in the United States and the black migration of the early twentieth century.? It then moves to a discussion of urbanization in history and provides case studies of Scotland-England and Canada-U.S.? One thing missing from this discussion is a role for economics is explaining chain migration or the role of social networks in migration more generally.? Also, given the focus on the species overall, the lack of a discussion of general migration patterns and the earliest migrations is a worrisome omission.

The last section of the book looks at related economic issues.? It beings with the changing family and discusses marriage, divorce, and child labor.? The chapter on wealth introduces the concept of morbidity and disability, then moves to nutrition and human physiology and includes a welcome section on human living spaces, which are usually neglected in historical inquiry.? The chapter on macroeconomic effects seems somewhat out of place. It describes intergenerational constraints, the labor-leisure tradeoff, household time use, and human capital.? What is lacking is a link between these factors and the population issues at play.? The book would have been greatly enhanced if it had started with some of these ideas.? The penultimate chapter describes catastrophes.? This includes a description of famines, plagues, HIV and the influenza pandemic. As with the chapter on macroeconomic effects, it is difficult to see why the discussion in its own chapter was necessary.? The material could have been covered in the mortality chapter.
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Overall, this book is a worthy successor to earlier population histories.? It updates much of what we know and integrates those insights into a decidedly economic framework.? Its key strengths are the ability to present a range of demographic and economic concepts and to use the sweep of history to provide some interpretation and illustration.? In the end, a lay reader comes away with a fairly sophisticated understanding of population processes and how they have played out in human history.? The drawback is that the scope of the book is far from global, and a reader could be left with the false impression that the trends described for northwest Europe are truly generalizable.? Some are, and others are not.? Then again, considering every nuance is beyond the stated intent of the authors, but for researchers the nuances are what keep us excited. This book is an excellent reminder of what first motivated this demographer?s interest in population issues.? As such, it should serve as a very useful, entertaining, and clear introduction to population and its relationship to human welfare and economic choices.?

Trevon D. Logan is an Associate Professor of Economics at Ohio State University and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Recent publications include ?Economies of Scale in the Household: Puzzles and Patterns from the American Past,? Economic Inquiry (2011); ?The Transformation of Hunger: Demand for Calories Past and Present,? Journal of Economic History (2009); and ?Health, Human Capital, and African American Migration before 1910? Explorations in Economic History (2009).

Copyright (c) 2012 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (December 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Humphries, Jane
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (January 2011)

Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution.? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.? xiii + 439 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-84756-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Carolyn Tuttle, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

Jane Humphries of All Souls College at Oxford University masterfully provides a unique look into childhood and child labor during the British Industrial Revolution that has, up until this point, been largely neglected in the literature.? Promoting the view that Britain experienced a ?child-intensive industrial revolution? (p. 207) she places child labor into the private and social worlds of family and community.? Humphries sets out to provide some concrete answers to three areas of debate within the literature — the timing, causes and consequences of child labor.? Her contribution to the first area of controversy, the trends in children?s employment over time, is the weakest.? Whether or not child labor did rise during the Industrial Revolution, as she claims, cannot be gleaned from a collection of individuals at various points in time.? The level of child employment over time is more accurately discerned from employers? records in Factory and Mining Reports.? She does, however, make a significant contribution to the other two areas of continuing debate.? In fact, her findings are seminal and will become a reference for scholars in decades to come.? Identifying the causes of child labor, which has significant implications for developing countries today, has been the subject of considerable research.? Scholars have adequately developed the demand-side argument but have only been able to model the supply-side, lacking evidence on family behavior.? Her insights into the decision-making process of families fill this void and seriously challenge the demand-induced argument.? With death at their doorstep, parents often had no choice but to send their children to work.? And finally, the vivid memories of childhood contained in the autobiographies reveal the physical and psychological consequences of child labor.? The bravery, stoicism and tenacity displayed by the children as they left home to work is both inspiring and disheartening.

This book represents original research that integrates the approaches of historians, economists and sociologists to explain children?s roles in their family, their community and the economy.? Humphries applies this interdisciplinary approach to over 600 autobiographies written by working men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.? Humphries is meticulous in finding and revealing a unique perspective on child labor, ?a view from below? as she calls it (p. 15).? This type of evidence, however, is considered by some scholars an unconventional and controversial source of information.? While it is arguably one of the greatest strengths of this research, others will see it as its greatest weakness.?? Acutely aware of the problems of using autobiographies for data, she convincingly defends their accuracy, relevance and applicability in representing the lives of poor and working-class children during the British Industrial Revolution (Chapter 2).? As she argues, it is a ?gold mine of information on pressures to work, links between family and the labour market, the nature of first jobs, remuneration, apprenticeship and schooling? (p. 6).? Although she admits it is not a random sample, it is also not an unbiased sample because it only represents the lives of literate men.? The absence of girls? experiences and women?s perspectives may taint her later discussion on women?s role in the family (Chapter 3 and 5) and economy (Chapter 4).???

With the information she gleans from pouring over the autobiographies, she supports certain ?truths? in the existing literature and refutes (and revises) others.? Humphries? research lends considerable support to four claims for which there is general consensus.? First, working-class parents sent their children off to work because they were poor and needed the wages of their children to survive (Chapters 3 and 7).? The relationship between children and their parents was altruistic at best and benign at worst (Chapter 5).? The majority of parents were not abusive or alcoholic but simply poor.? Although the reasons for this poverty varied from family to family, the reality of not having enough food on the table did not.? Secondly, the wages children earned were not trivial and made a significant contribution to the family purse (Chapters 7 and 8).? Teenagers were often ?second breadwinners? earning as much as adults.? Third, the occupational distribution of children did change during the Industrial Revolution (Chapter 8).? Although most children were still employed in agriculture, the number of children working in factories was significant and increased during the first part of the nineteenth century (Chapter 8).?? And finally, there was no discernable growth in formal schooling of the working class during this period of industrialization (Chapter 10).? Although many children delighted in opportunities to learn to read, the fact that ?school loomed large in the memories of childhood? (p. 310) may be over-exaggerated in this sample of literate autobiographers.? School enrollment and attendance was low for working-class children.? The few who did go to school skipped during harvest season and left as soon as they were old enough to find a job.? Overall, reality fits the model, the supply of child labor increased because children played an extremely crucial role in family survival during the Industrial Revolution.????????

Equally as important, several of Humphries? conclusions challenge well established views in the literature on the family.? In their place she creates an entirely different version and possibly reveals new ?truths.?? Three in particular deserve mention, two offer insights into the causes of child labor (supply) and the other, the consequences.? The unconventional model of the household that Humphries proposes in this book is both provocative and compelling.? Her research calls into question a longstanding belief of most scholars about the family structure before and during the Industrial Revolution.? Humphries argues that the male breadwinner model better describes working-class families during this period than Tilly and Scott?s ?family economy? and DeVries? ?industrious? household.? She found that families were largely dependent on father?s earnings, women were less likely to work and children were the ?secondary earners in the typical working-class family? (p. 85).? In her sample fewer than half of married women with husbands present were economically active (p. 95).? This finding challenges much of the existing literature that there was an increase in the labor force participation of women during industrialization.? Another surprising conclusion of her research is the high proportion of families that were fatherless or motherless.? Although the traditional family was the most prevalent among the autobiographers, single-headed households were not uncommon.? She found that children exposed to this ?breadwinner frailty? were more likely to end up in precarious situations (workhouses, apprenticeships or factories). The struggles of family survival did not, as the conventional view claims, lead to physical abuse of the most vulnerable members of the family.? Humphries finds that working-class childhood ?was one long empty belly? (p. 97) and ?abuse was distinguished from just chastisement? (p. 134).? Recollected work experiences, moreover, reveal that the physical and emotional damage from working was considerably less than implied by the Factory Commission Reports in 1831-32.? Children experienced the most violence, not in the home or even in the factory, but in private (dame) schools.? Dame schools were unpleasant places of learning.? Teachers were incompetent and often physically abusive.? Children vividly recalled the thrashings by the holly-stick, ebony ruler and cane they received from the school master.?

The strength of the book and its greatest contribution to the literature on child labor is in the presentation and discussion of the qualitative evidence and not the analysis of the quantitative data.? Humphries is extremely effective at revealing the factual and emotional ?richness of the words? from the personal accounts and not as effective in providing a statistical analysis of her sample (which was her original intention).? Her attempt to assemble and analyze quantitative data from the large sample of autobiographies is laudable and the tables on the wages of boys (Table 8.4) and fathers (Table 4.4) across occupations and time are extremely useful.? But the regressions seem to force cliometrics onto the autobiographical information and the results are often not statistically significant.? Although knowing the effects of apprenticeships and schooling on occupational outcomes would have an immeasurable impact on the literature, understanding the factors that determined children?s fate is equally enlightening.

Jane Humphries? book provides an experiential account of childhood during the British Industrial Revolution that is meticulously researched and creatively represented.? She opens the ?black box? of family life and reveals the nature of children?s relationship to parents and siblings, school teachers, masters of apprentices and overseers at factories.? Readers interested in family dynamics, childhood, child labor and education will find the words Humphries chooses captivating and the story the working-class men tell fascinating.? Although some may not appreciate the theoretical and econometric tools used to analyze the life histories, everyone will be captivated by the voices of the children.?

Carolyn Tuttle is the author of Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution (1999).? She has contributed chapters to a recent series on A Cultural History of Childhood and Family (2010) and Child Labour?s Global Past (2011).? tuttle@lakeforest.edu.

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (January 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century