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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)
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.
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).?
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 ( Published by EH.Net (July 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

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.
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 ( Published by EH.Net (December 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

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

Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics

Author(s):Mapes, Kathleen
Reviewer(s):Allen, Samuel

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

Kathleen Mapes, Sweet Tyranny: Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xi + 307 pp. $30 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-252-07667-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Samuel Allen, Department of Economics and Business, Virginia Military Institute.

Kathleen Mapes? carefully researched account of the American sugar beet industry in the first half of the twentieth century provides a thorough and vivid look at the myriad interest groups impacted by political and economic changes. The story is sweet ? not in any simple or soothing sense, but rather the sweetness derives from the complexity of flavors that Mapes deftly unwraps one layer at a time. Like many American agricultural conundrums, those facing the sugar beet industry at the turn of the last century were complicated because there were many simultaneous puzzles to solve. Prior to reading Mapes? work one might be inclined to think of the sugar beet industry as a plain, unsophisticated root crop. However, Mapes? telling story reveals the interconnected pressures of international trade, relations with Cuba, American imperialism in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, racism, and migrant and child labor. She meticulously merges together the stories of these groups, to provide a comprehensive synthesis for the actions and government policies that ultimately determined the fate of the fledgling domestic sugar beet.

Much of the story takes place in Michigan where Mapes depicts rural townspeople anxious to coax plant owners to their towns in hopes that a local sugar beet refinery would boost land values, employment, and economic growth generally. Farmers, too, were eager to contract with plant owners to ensure the viability of their farms. Meanwhile plant owners and the ?beet lobby? cautiously weighed-in on national issues with aspirations of garnering U.S. government support and avoiding the full competitive brunt of cane sugar producing locales in tropical climates ? including U.S. territories. The ?boosterism? exhibited by rural communities in Michigan and throughout the Midwest led to an explosion of sugar beet factories, growing tenfold between 1892 and 1906. This created new demand for work in the fields that was largely met by immigrant laborers.

The book is divided into 9 chapters, and in each Mapes delves deeper into the relations of the critical interest groups. Following the initial chapter on rural industrialization and imperial politics, the remaining chapters explain the unique qualities of contracts for growing sugar beet; as well as the realities of migrant families and child labor and the changing nature of stereotypical Midwestern family farms into ones where race and class take on new levels of importance.

The story is prophetic in many ways. For example, the actions of rural Americans reveal a serious disconnect between their expectations (and the prospects of a sugar factory in a given town) and the national debate on tariffs and protectionism. Essentially this serves as a reminder that the weather in Michigan was (predictably) somewhere else a few days earlier, and forecasting proactively is vital.

The owners of sugar beet refineries contracted with farmers to grow sugar beets. The especially stringent nature of these contracts ? which specified exact tracts of land to be planted with specific seeds provided by the plant owners at set dates ? resulted in considerable turmoil. Some farmers felt unfairly treated and initially threatened not to grow any beets. By banding together, they had significant bargaining power. Perhaps because the new refining plants represented an enormous capital investment relative to other agricultural processors of the day, their owners relented to these early demands from farmers and paid them more. Yet, Mapes explains how subsequent negotiations concluded much differently. They were anything but straightforward.

As Mapes shifts her attention to the workers it is apparent that the sugar beet industry demonstrates key properties of the U.S.?s transition from a nation with family farms to one of industrialized agriculture. Here the changing technology (capital intensive sugar beet refineries) and the changing workforce (through the growing importance of migrant labor) combined to meet the growing product demand (for sugar). Mapes astutely recognizes the people and institutions facilitating these changes ? which often used racist language as a plea for ?civilized? outcomes ? have lasting impacts on the demographic and industrial make-up of the country. Economists and development scholars would be wise to keep these lessons in mind.

Next, Mapes highlights the changes to the industry during World War I. The war-time inflation led to greater tension between farmers and plant owners; however, it also heightened the interest of those in Washington, DC. Despite higher war-time profits in the industry, the greater profits did not improve relations.

Finally, Mapes devotes the last few chapters to the debates about immigrants, migrant labor, and child labor. Again the relevance of these issues is widespread in the sugar beet industry. In her epilogue, Mapes concludes with a brief account of the ongoing political prowess of the sugar industry and more importantly an overview of why the issues of free trade, protectionism, globalism, family farming, and the polarized nature of the political process in these areas are so fundamental to the direction of our nation. Mapes hammers home these points in a concise and compelling manner.

Mapes? copious notes refer to citations at the end of the book so as to minimize the disruption to the flow. While ideal for a general reader, it would be significantly more useful for other historians if the references from the notes section were also included in the book?s index.

Overall, this book weaves together with amazing detail the threads from a vast array of relevant economic, social, and cultural realms. Outcomes were frequently bitter, and the tyranny of the politically powerful within U.S. institutions is quite apparent, but it would be hard to imagine that Mapes omitted any of this story?s sweet complexity.

Samuel Allen?s research in economic history pertains to workers? compensation insurance, labor laws, and working conditions in the United States, primarily during the early twentieth century. A recent paper is ?Lifting the Curse of Dimensionality: Measures of the Labor Legislation Climate in the States during the Progressive Era,? published in 2009 in Labor History. Allen teaches economics at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States

Author(s):Benson, Susan Porter
Reviewer(s):Ward, Marianne

Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

Susan Porter Benson, Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. xiii + 233 pp. $45 (hardcover), IBSN: 978-0-8014-3723-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marianne Ward, Department of Economics, Loyola College of Maryland.

The late Susan Porter Benson has left us with a fascinating account of the consumption patterns of working class women and their families in the interwar United States. The findings are based on interviews of working class women by agents from the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor in the 1920s and early 1930s and studies of families confronting unemployment in the late 1920s and 1930s.

The main themes of the book are laid out in the introductory chapter. Consumption patterns for working class families in the interwar period highlighted a constant battle against insecure and irregular incomes, lack of access to credit, and the use of non-market alternatives to secure consumption goods and services. In this environment, family relationships took center stage, and emerged as the source of both conflict and cooperation regarding the allocation of household resources. The struggle for survival that characterized daily life led Benson to characterize the emergence of mass consumption in the 1920s as a “class” phenomenon rather than a “mass” phenomenon (p. 12).

Chapter 1, titled “Living on the Margin,” examines how working class husbands and wives navigated the marriage relationship in this uncertain environment. Economic survival dictated that traditional gender roles of the male breadwinner and female consumer and household manager were fluid, and adapted to individual circumstances. Often, the male figure emerged as an unreliable breadwinner due to low wages, irregular work, delinquency, or desertion. Wives therefore found themselves constrained in their management of the family budget. In addition to the need to supplement their husbands’ incomes, wives often worked due to a desire to contribute to the family fund, as a source of discretionary income, and to provide support for non-resident relatives. In a similar manner, husbands assumed roles traditionally reserved for their wives by participating in housework and childcare.

Chapter 2, titled “Cooperative Conflict,” deals with the role of working children. There were substantial gender differences in the nature of children’s contribution to the family budget. While girls often turned over their entire salaries to the household, this occurred in fewer cases for boys. Moreover, girls’ contributions were seen as a duty, while boys’ sporadic contributions were tolerated without complaint. Over time, children began to keep more of their pay for themselves. This increased autonomy sometimes became a source of family contention, as did the increased use of installment credit by children.

Chapter 3, titled “The Mutuality of Shared Spaces,” examines shared housing among working class families. Shared housing was described as an important survival strategy for working class families. This sharing occurred both for rental and ownership of homes, in single family and multifamily dwellings. The formation of these expanded households tended to hinge on connections between female kin, with cross-generational sharing more common (mothers/daughters or aunts/nieces) than sharing among members of the same generation. In many cases, homeowners charged co-habiting relatives below market rates for room and board, thereby helping to stretch family budgets. While shared housing undoubtedly help working class families cope with a variety of life cycle changes, it created discontent when there were unclear expectations regarding monetary and household contributions.

Chapter 4, titled “What Goes ‘Round, Comes ‘Round,” deals with reciprocity, or the exchange of goods, services and labor among working class families. Reciprocal arrangements were common for housework, childcare, clothing, food and cash. A separate, but related issue regarding childcare was that of fostering children. As in the case of shared housing, reciprocal arrangements tended to hinge on the relationships among women. Children were also of paramount importance. The provision of food, clothing and other services for children was of special concern. In particular, there was less pressure for repayment when services were provided for children as compared to when they were provided for adults. These reciprocal arrangements were often the lifeline that kept working class families afloat when they faced setbacks or disaster. Yet not all families were able to benefit from these arrangements. Those best able to benefit from reciprocity had strong social networks, and, in the case of cash, a reputation for timely repayment.

Chapter 5, titled “The Family Economy in the Marketplace,” deals with the ways in which market transactions enhanced the operation of working class households. Purchases of goods and services helped to create more time for female workforce participation. For example, the purchase of baked goods, ready-made clothing, varying levels of laundry services, and household appliances such as washing machines, irons and sewing machines could reduce the time women spent on household duties. Participation in the second hand market helped working class families obtain items that would otherwise be unaffordable, such as clothing, furniture and work tools. Credit was often used by these families to meet regular expenses, like food or rent, during periods of unemployment or difficulty. In general, however, the use of credit for additional purchases was viewed with fear and avoided.

The final chapter of the book, titled “Class, Gender and Reciprocity,” presents David Montgomery’s tribute to Susan Porter Benson and her contributions to our understanding of working women in the United States of the early twentieth century.

This book was enjoyable to read due to the detailed and often colorful accounts of the lives of individual women and their families. It is, however, a very different investigation of working class lives than found in the many cost of living studies that are based on working class budgets, or Peter Shergold’s specific examination of the working classes in Working-Class Life: The “American Standard” in Comparative Perspective, 1899-1913 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982). Specifically, the book offers little in the way of aggregate statistics. When provided, they raise questions about the importance attached to specific characteristics of the working class lives under consideration. For example, the importance of shared housing is addressed in Chapter 3. Tables 1, 2 and 3 in the notes to Chapter 3 suggest that shared housing was a reality for approximately 17 percent of the households surveyed. Economists will find this general absence of quantification frustrating.

Marianne Ward is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Loyola College in Maryland. She is currently working on reconciliations of international comparisons across time and space. She also continues work on a longer term project to produce international price and income benchmarks for a large group of countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume One: Population

Author(s):Carter, Susan B.
Gartner, Scott Sigmund
Haines, Michael R.
Olmstead, Alan L.
Sutch, Richard
Wright, Gavin
Reviewer(s):Logan, Trevon D.

Published by EH.NET (July 2006)


Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright, editors, Historical Statistics of the United States, Volume One: Population. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xxviii + 807 pp. $825 (for the five-volume set), ISBN: 0-521-85389-3.

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

When I was in graduate school, Ken Wachter once said that you could define the size of the demographic profession by counting everyone who had a Coale-Demeny life table in their office. If that is true, counting those with a copy of the Historical Statistics of the United States in their office could define the group of quantitative American historians in years past. It has been more than twenty-five years since a version was published, and there is one question that everyone seems to have about the new millennial edition: Was it worth the wait? This question is not merely a straw man. In the years since the bicentennial edition of Historical Statistics, the size and (more importantly) the quality of historical data have improved many times over. Even more, contemporary quantitative historians now have the ability, more so than in the past, to answer microeconomic questions with individual level historical data. The question “was it worth the wait?” speaks not only to the quality of the newest edition, but also its relevance to contemporary quantitative historical scholarship. As this review will show, however, the answer for this volume is an unequivocal, enthusiastic “yes.” Since no review of such a large work can hope to completely convey its contents, below I will sketch out the volume by chapter and follow with a general assessment of the work as a whole.

The introduction to the volume begins with basic definitions of population and methods for measuring and accounting for the growth of the population. It also covers broad changes in American demography from 1790 to the present as a means of foreshadowing the chapters that follow. The introduction then moves to a rather detailed discussion of race and ethnicity, moving from definitions and historical change in the concepts to the differences in demographic measures by racial and ethnic categories and a discussion of gender. This seems to be somewhat misplaced, but there is no other chapter in the volume where it will fit — the volume does not include separate chapters for race and gender, but rather integrates them into other features of the population. While I agree with this integrated approach, the discussion of race and gender is well integrated enough into the successive chapters that the discussion in the introduction is somewhat unnecessary. Overall, the introduction highlights the scope and size of the project, and also details the contents that follow.

The first chapter, on population characteristics, begins with a caveat about the reliability of Census counts of the population. It then moves to an excellent overview of the topics covered by the Census over time (such as education, urbanity, and household structure). One feature to highlight is the fact that population estimates for years between the decennial Census from 1790 to 1900 now use the method of change approach, and not linear interpolation. After detailing regional differences in population growth, the chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the Hispanic ethnicity designation. The tables that follow form the majority of the volume, and will most likely be the most utilized information in the volume. The tables include population size, density, marital status, rural and urban location by age, sex and race and summaries of the foreign-born population. The tables also contain state-by-state counts of age structure by sex and race, population density, and the foreign born. These tables form a treasure trove for those looking for summary population measures both aggregated and disaggregated (by state) over time.

The second chapter (which, like the first, is written by Michael Haines of Colgate University) deals with vital statistics of fertility, mortality, and nuptiality?. It is related to the first in that it gives the demographic information while the first chapter largely deals with population counts. The chapter begins by discussing how the American demographic transition was distinct from the transitions of Europe in that fertility declines in the United States predated mortality declines. Moving beyond description, there is a discussion of some of the theories of America’s unique fertility regime such as Sundstrom and David’s, Ransom and Sutch’s and the land availability hypotheses. Next, the chapter records how Census records can be used to construct some measures of fertility (such as children per woman), but that they are not as useful for tracking mortality. This leads to a discussion of estimates of mortality in the past, the general trend of declining American mortality since the end of the nineteenth century, and the development of the system of vital registrations — which allows for better estimates of mortality and for estimates of cause of death. Haines is very good at pointing out what we can and cannot say about fertility and mortality in the past, and his honest discussion serves as a warning to those who would wish to view the data that follow as gospel. The tables in this chapter include fertility, marriage, divorce, birth rates, and death rates by race; fertility ratios; and life expectancy by race and sex. There is an extensive collection of tables relating to infant mortality (including neonatal mortality, maternal mortality, and the fetal death rate by race). This is followed by cause of death tables, which highlight the conquest of mortality due to infectious disease in the twentieth century. The size and quality of the information on mortality are especially noteworthy given the caveat in the introductory note. Of special interest to demographers, the tables also include information on cohort survival (lx) necessary to construct life tables by race and sex over time.

Chapters 3 and 4 detail migration, both internal (chapter 3) and external (chapter 4). Joseph Ferrie of Northwestern University begins chapter 3 by noting that movements in internal population are an important aspect of American history. While the calculation of internal migration is straightforward theoretically, there are a number of data problems that complicate its empirical measurement. As such, the chapter is the most focused on data and methodology in the volume, but is also careful to highlight general trends. The tables that follow include migration by type and also changes in farm population over time. Our inability to measure internal migration accurately in the past does limit the interpretation of the data Ferrie provides. Chapter 4, by Bob Barde of UC-Berkeley and Susan Carter and Richard Sutch of UC-Riverside, starts with a technical definition of immigration and then moves to a discussion of the unique features of American immigration (the number immigrants, the number of nations involved, the lack of an American Diaspora). The chapter then details the American immigration experience, breaking the historical experience into three periods (1815-1920, 1920-1965, and 1965-present) which coincides with changes in immigration policy. It also covers the related (but distinct) topic of naturalization. As a reading, this chapter is a great introduction to both the history and politics of immigration in the United States. The tables that follow give immigration and emigration by country of departure; immigration by sex, race and age; admission numbers and demographics by immigration regime; and counts of persons naturalized.

The chapter on family and household composition, by Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota, is next. He begins by noting that previous editions of Historical Statistics did not contain any information about changes in families and households. He then details the problems of trying to look at trends over time as definitions of households and family have changed not only in the social psychology but also by government reporting standards. He also highlights some broad changes in household structure such as the decline in multigenerational households and the rise of single-parent, cohabiting, and single-person household. The ensuing tables give counts of households by race and sex of the household head; subfamilies; institution type; marital status of mothers with children by race; and the living arrangements of those aged 65 and over. Susan Carter’s chapter on cohort analysis is important to the extent that the previous chapters in the volume are period demographic measures? — that is, they are counts of persons and demographic phenomena at a point in time and therefore apply only to an imagined (synthetic) cohort. Cohort analysis is important since events experienced by cohorts can influence their lives and because period trends may not hold when subjected to cohort analysis, leading us to modify our interpretation of events and their consequences. Carter highlights these two facts in her chapter, and follows it with tables that show labor force participation, marriage, and education by age and sex by birth cohort.

The final chapter, by C. Matthew Snipp of Stanford University, is concerned with the demography of Native Americans. Snipp begins with coverage of the unique history that Native Americans have had in the United States, and also with the puzzle that, despite numerous documented interactions between the United States government and various tribes since colonial times, there is relatively little evidence about Native American demography. Snipp then lists the sources of information, taking great care to highlight the inherent caveats when dealing with the topic. The tables that follow are a unique resource, detailing the number of tribes; their size and populations by state; the demography of reservations, terminations of tribes; and the employment, occupations, and education of Native Americans.

In total, this volume of Historical Statistics is a triumph. The chapters provide first-rate introductions to their general area of focus, particularly helpful for researchers and students who are not specialists in either history or demography. Each chapter reading is informative without being burdensome. The voluminous tables are carefully documented and legible, and are disaggregated enough that one may look at interesting features by themselves. While researchers now seem to favor micro-based population research, this volume impresses upon me the importance of looking in the aggregate at underlying demographic trends. Demography is truly unique in that the individual measure directly relates to the population measure. As such, this volume complements the contemporary research agenda in quantitative history quite nicely by providing a background to core demographic measures. It is also quite useful for those whose research falls outside of these areas but who need measures for certain demographic phenomena at a point (and place) in time. The availability of the underlying data in electronic format gives a nod to the fact that the editors understand that the information in these volumes will form the backbone and background of many research projects. Given its numerous sources and size, this volume is a testament to the value of large-scale historical projects and also the value of interdisciplinary work. This work will not only be useful for quantitative American historians, but also for those in the social sciences and history in general who wish to put their research into historical and comparative perspective.

Trevon D. Logan is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ohio State University and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Forthcoming publications include “Nutrition and Well-Being in the Late Nineteenth Century” in Journal of Economic History and “Food, Nutrition, and Substitution in the Late Nineteenth Century” in Explorations in Economic History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

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

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

Published by EH.NET (November 2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism

Author(s):Faue, Elizabeth
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (October 2003)

Elizabeth Faue, Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiv + 249 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3461-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Eva Valesh was different from most other women of her time. Born Eva McDonald in 1866 to a respectable but far from affluent working-class family, her Minneapolis public school education prepared her for that most traditional of American women’s professional occupations: teaching elementary school. But McDonald “didn’t like school teaching.” Instead her father helped her to submit her writings to a struggling reform newspaper where she then found employment as an apprentice compositor and occasional contributor. Thus began a career that would lead her in and out of the labor reform movement of the 1880s through World War I. As a journalist, traveling lecturer for the Farmer’s Alliance and Populist Party, owner of a Washington D. C. political newsletter, editor of the American Federationist, leader of the Women’s Trade Union League, and pioneer red-baiter: Eva McDonald led an extraordinary public life. And her private life was just as unusual.

Elizabeth Faue, a historian at Michigan’s Wayne State University, tells the story of this remarkable woman in an absorbing biography. Following her life chronologically, Faue recounts MacDonald’s early struggles to learn the compositing trade, her first writings on the condition of women workers in Minneapolis, and her involvement in an 1888 strike of Minneapolis garment workers. Her involvement in this strike launched MacDonald’s career as labor journalist, and she would write extensively on labor issues for the St. Paul Globe and, later, the Minneapolis Tribune. The strike also led to her work as lecturer for the Farmers’ Alliance, and her marriage in 1891 with a local labor leader, Frank Valesh.

At first a happy marriage of two dedicated labor activists, this marriage, and its progeny, Frank Jr., became an encumbrance to Eva Valesh’s growing ambitions. Faue reports that by the mid-1890s, Eva Valesh feared she had run up against the limits of what she could accomplish in the Midwest. She wanted to move East, to parley her talents into a place in broad national movements. But Frank wanted to stay. He had ties with the Minnesota labor movement; he had served as the first president of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor and was assistant labor commissioner for the State of Minnesota. He also suffered declining health and feared the fate of his brother and sister who died of tuberculosis within hours of each other in 1895.

Eva Valesh waited only a little while for her family before moving East in 1897. At first, she lived in the Washington D. C. home of Samuel and Sophie Gompers. But she soon moved out on her own. She used an earlier association with Minnesota Senator Nelson to secure an interview with President McKinley for the New York Journal; this story and a recommendation from Minneapolis Tribune editor William Murphy then led to a position at the Journal. After two years there, she borrowed money from Murphy to launch a political newsletter and publicity service. Next, Gompers recruited her to the American Federation of Labor where she worked for him as editor of the American Federationist. After eight years there, years longer than she had remained in any previous job, she quit to work as a free-lance lecturer and well-paid advisor to the silk-stockinged women in the National Civic Federation’s Woman’s Committee and the reform-minded New York Colony Club. Throughout she moved to the right, rejecting in turn the Knights of Labor and the Populist Party. Finally, in 1910 she burned her bridges to the labor movement by attacking the striking International Ladies Garment Workers Union, accusing its socialist leadership of prolonging the strike for their own “dangerous purposes.” Expelled from the Women’s Trade Union League, her relationship with the reform-minded club women also fizzled. Having formally divorced Frank Valesh in 1906, in 1910 she married Ben Cross, a wealthy playboy. Using his family money, the two ran a mildly successful women’s magazine for a decade. After that failed, they divorced and this remarkable woman, Eva Valesh, spent the next twenty-seven working as copy editor for the New York Times.

The chronological presentation makes Faue’s biography a page turner, a mystery where the reader wonders what MacDonald/Valesh will pull off next. But it also reflects an admitted bafflement on Faue’s part. She admits, looking “in vain for the moral to Valesh’s story. Abandoning the idealism of her working-class youth for the pragmatic adjustments of middle age brought her neither ultimate victory nor tragic defeat” (p. 195). In the end Faue admits that she sought only “to tell a good story” leaving it to the reader “to draw the rest of the conclusions yourself.” Well we might: and I would suggest three:

First, gender was a surprisingly permeable barrier to advancement. Prejudice did notably little to slow Valesh’s rise. Not only were the Populists and trade unionists willing to listen to a woman, they even paid to hear her. And so did the Twin-City newspaper-reading public. As she herself noted about Washington D. C., “If you had anything to offer intellectually, you were well received in Washington. It doesn’t make any difference if you’ve got a dollar to your name or not, and no one is critical of your dress” (p. 141).

If gender was not a barrier to Valesh’s advancement, it was because so many men stepped forward to help her. Eva Valesh’s successes show how important it was for a woman to have support from the men around her. And her men were remarkably helpful! Even after she deserted him, Eva’s husband Frank Valesh accepted legal responsibility for the breakup in order to let her out of the marriage without prejudice to her career. Also, to free Eva Valesh for her work, Frank cared for their son during the summer and paid for him to attend boarding school. Other men in Eva MacDonald/Valesh’s life were just as ready to support her. Her father helped her to become a journalist and compositor; longtime labor activist John P. ‘Jack’ McGauhey taught her to speak in public; Minneapolis Tribune editor William Murphy “put her through a course of analysis training that no college would have” and he “let me try everything on the paper.” Later, he recommended her for jobs and loaned her money to launch her newsletter. Repeatedly, Eva succeeded because she was helped by a succession of men who saw her potential and helped her to unlock it. One may wonder how many other women ever received such generous help.

In the end it was class, not gender, that cut off Valesh’s career. She rose to club woman status because she could interpret the class struggle for her upper-class friends as a member of the working class and participant in the labor movement. But this required that she walk a fine line between the demands of an increasingly radical labor movement and the moderate vision of her club friends. With one foot in each camp, it is not surprising that Valesh lost her balance. When the New York garment workers strikers rejected her mediation proposals, she had to explain to her upper-class friends why they turned down what she had presented as a reasonable compromise. Her attack on the ILGWU’s socialist leadership preserved her position with her rich friends, but at the cost of her position as a labor leader. But it was that position that made her interesting and valuable to her upper-class friends.

Elizabeth Faue has told a remarkable story, one with implications that extend well beyond Eva Valesh. Eva Valesh’s remarkable story shows what is possible in an society open to talent. But her life also shows the compromises that may be demanded of even a remarkably talented child of the working class. There may be a moral here after all.

Gerald Friedman is an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The author of State Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1999), he is currently preparing studies of the decline of the modern labor movement, and the development of modern economics provisionally entitled “Ambition and Ideals: Richard Ely and the Creation of Modern Economics.”

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

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

Constituting Workers, Protecting Women: Gender, Law, and Labor in the Progressive Era and New Deal Years

Author(s):Novkov, Julie
Reviewer(s):Bernstein, David

Published by EH.NET (June 2000)

Julie Novkov, Constituting Workers, Protecting Women: Gender, Law, and Labor

in the Progressive Era and New Deal Years. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press, 2001. xii + 320 pp. $44.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11198-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Bernstein, George Mason University School of Law.

Constituting Workers, Protecting Women is an interesting look at the

so-called Lochner era of American constitutional jurisprudence through

the lens of the struggle over the constitutionality of so-called “protective”1

labor legislation, such as maximum hours and minimum wage laws. Many of these

laws applied only to women, and Novkov argues that the debate over the

constitutionality of protective laws for women — which some women’s rights

advocates saw as discriminatory legislation against women — ultimately had

profound implications for the constitutionality of protective labor legislation

more generally.

Liberally defined, the Lochner era — the era during which American

courts were most likely to declare regulatory legislation unconstitutional,

generally as violating of liberty of contract and due process under the

recently-passed Fourteenth Amendment — lasted from the Slaughterhouse

Cases in 1873, in which four of the nine Supreme Court Justices advocated

strong constitutional protection for occupational liberty, through the triumph

of the New Deal in the late 1930s. Novkov divides the Lochner era into

four distinct periods. First, 1873-1897, was the “era of generalized

balancing,” in which “the tension between liberty and police power emerged as

the central focus of claims grounded in due process.” While a few state court

decisions overturned occupational regulations during this period, these

decisions were clearly the exception to a norm that permitted legislatures to

interfere with the employment relationship. This norm survived in part because

legislatures were disinclined to engage in much more than minor tinkering with

the prevailing laissez-faire bent of labor law.

Next, came the “era of specific balancing,” from 1898-1910, which saw a

significant increase in legislative initiative regarding labor relations.

Courts began to focus on the types of labor legislatures sought to regulate,

distinguishing between the prototypical male laborer in an “ordinary”

occupation on the one hand, and classes of labor considered legitimately in

need of government assistance on the other. In cases such as Lochner v. New

York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), the Supreme Court held that the states’ police

power did not encompass passing regulations that protected males working in

ordinary occupations. Ordinary occupations were those that posed no special

health risks to the workers themselves or to the public at large. However, the

Supreme Court and lower courts held that states could use their police power to

aid through legislation women, children, and men in especially unhealthful

occupations such as underground mining. For example, just seven years before

Lochner invalidated a maximum hours law for bakers, a profession deemed

ordinary, the Supreme Court upheld a maximum hours law for miners, Holden v.

Hardy, 169 U.S. 366 (1898). Just three years after Lochner, the

Court upheld a maximum hours law for women — Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S.

16 (1908).

In the ensuing period of “labor-centered analysis” between 1911and 1923, courts

focused on “the justifications that could be used to show that protective labor

legislation for women was legitimate” (33). During this era, which coincided

with a spate of relatively Progressive appointments to the Court, the Supreme

Court was favorably inclined toward protective legislation, and almost

overturned Lochner itself. Only Justice Brandeis’ recusal in Bunting

v. Oregon, 243 U.S. 426 (1917), prevented this result, leaving the Court

deadlocked 4-4. Courts were content to uphold protective legislation for woman

based on stereotyped views of women’s role in society, supported by dubious

social science authored by Progressive reformers purporting to show that women

were incapable of competing in the workplace with men.

Finally, the period from 1923 through 1937 was an era of “gendered

rebalancing.” Discussion of protective labor legislation continued to center on

laws that applied to women only, especially minimum wage laws. The era began

with the Supreme Court overturning a minimum wage law for women on the grounds

that women have the same right to liberty of contract with men — Adkins v.

Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923). It ended with the Court upholding

a similar law, accepting the Progressives’ argument that allowing workers with

unequal bargaining power to fend for themselves in contractual negotiations

cannot be considered liberty at all.

In preparing her book, Novkov apparently read every reported federal and state

case on protective labor legislation during the relevant time period. This is a

useful corrective to the all-too-common approach of many scholars of relying

solely on the most famous Supreme Court cases, as if they encompass the entire

range of constitutional decisionmaking. Having read and tabulated these cases,

Novkov finds that in each of the four eras she discusses, both federal and

state courts were more likely, often far more likely, to uphold women’s

protective legislation than general protective labor legislation.2 This is a

significant finding, but one that, as Novkov implicitly acknowledges, is not

especially remarkable. Even during the height of the Lochner era,

courts, and especially the United States Supreme Court, were generally

reluctant to strike down labor legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due

process clause.

At least through the early 1920s, most decisions striking down labor laws

involved legislation that courts believed had no rational explanation beyond an

attempt to aid labor unions. For example, several decisions invalidated

legislation banning “yellow dog” contracts that prohibited workers from joining

unions. Legislation primarily benefiting labor unions was problematic on two

fronts. First, such legislation conflicted with libertarian “free labor”

ideology that arose out of the abolitionist movement and that permeated

post-Reconstruction America. Pro-union legislation also conflicted with courts’

more ancient hostility to “class legislation” that benefited an identifiable

group at the expense of the public at large. But while the Supreme Court

overturned legislation clearly benefiting labor unions, including the maximum

hours law involved in Lochner itself, it, along with lower courts,

upheld labor laws when a plausible argument was made that the law was

public-spirited.3 Reformers successfully argued that women’s lesser physical

strength, inability to bargain equally with men, and the need to protect

women’s role as mothers to the next generation, all argued against seeing

protective legislation as class legislation that illegitimately restricted

women’s liberty. (See, e.g., Muller v. Oregon, supra.)

Eventually, advocates of protective labor legislation for women were forced to

make a more radical argument. The Supreme Court declared in 1923 in Adkins

v. Children’s Hospital that henceforth it would not presume that women

could be restricted in their liberty of contract when men could not be.

Protective legislation would therefore be presumptively considered to be class

legislation. Defenders of protective legislation were therefore forced to

abandon their reliance on the argument that women were especially necessitous,

and instead argue that the courts misunderstood the true meaning of liberty of

contract. Liberty was not, they argued, the mere absence of state intervention

in contractual relations. Rather, liberty consisted of the ability of workers

to bargain on an equal footing with their employers, a circumstance that,

according to progressive reformers, required government intervention on behalf

of women workers. In the absence of such intervention, public aid to these

workers would be required, placing a burden on the government. This argument,

if accepted, would bring protective labor laws for women well within the

states’ police power.

Moreover, the obvious corollary to this argument was that male workers also

needed government assistance in order to exercise liberty, especially during

difficult economic times when workers were said to be willing “to accept any

wage to avoid starvation” (204). Minimum wage laws, rather than interfering

with liberty of contract, prevented unconscionable employers from relying on

the social safety net to subsidize their immoral wage policies. The Supreme

Court eventually adopted this argument in 1937 in West Coast Hotel v.

Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937). As Novkov notes, “[t]he initial focus on

women as particularly vulnerable workers had enabled the logical extension of

the argument that the state could intervene in any relationship of employment”

once the legal system “acknowledged inequalities in bargaining power as

potentially burdensome for the state” (224). While Parrish specifically

endorsed a minimum wage law for women, its reasoning clearly signaled that the

Court believed that more general regulations of the labor market were also

within the government police power.

Novkov, however, exaggerates the historical importance of Parrish.

First, in focusing exclusively on protective labor legislation, she neglects to

recognize that by the New Deal era, Lochnerian jurisprudence had gone well

beyond its origins in labor cases and spread to a host of other areas. The

statism and civil liberties violations of World War I unleashed a reaction on

both the left and the right. On the left, it led to the formation of the

American Civil Liberties Union, and a focus on expanding protection for civil

liberties under the First Amendment. On the right it transformed

Lochner, which, as noted, had nearly been overruled in 1916, into a

broader, more vigorous doctrine attempting to police the boundaries of

appropriate government action. In the 1920s, the Supreme Court overturned laws

segregating private housing, banning German language instruction, closing

private schools, restricting entry into businesses, and regulating a host of

other economic activities. The Great Depression, combined with two Supreme

Court appointees by Progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, halted this

libertarian trend. The Lochner era effectively ended not in 1937 with

West Coast Hotel, but in 1934, when the Supreme Court upheld an obscene

New York law fixing an above-market price for milk at the height of the

Depression — Nebbia v. New York. With that case, the argument that the

limits of the police power were a significant constraint on economic regulation

effectively vanished. Novkov discusses Nebbia briefly in the course of a

literature review in the beginning of the book (9), but it never appears again.

In fairness, the Court did overturn a minimum wage law in 1936, but only on

stare decisis grounds — the defendant refused to argue that earlier

precedents declaring minimum wage laws unconstitutional should be overruled.

Regardless, Novkov argues that Parrish‘s reasoning permitted the Court

to uphold broader workplace legislation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act

(FLSA). In fact, however, the reasoning of Parrish became almost

completely irrelevant well before the FLSA reached the Supreme Court in 1941.

In 1937, when Parrish was decided, the swing votes on the U.S. Supreme

Court still adhered to classical constitutional reasoning, which required

economic regulations to be justified as exercises of the government’s police

power. Within the next several years, however, the Court was taken over by a

wave of Roosevelt appointees, all of whom were chosen because they could be

relied upon to uphold both federal and state economic regulation under almost

any circumstance, and because they saw no implicit limitations on the

government’s regulatory authority. As early as 1938, the Court famously

announced its view that economic regulations did not impinge on fundamental

rights, and that only laws threatening civil liberties and civil rights would

receive anything more than the most limited scrutiny. Contrary to the

implications of Novkov’s thesis, this reviewer has no doubt that had the debate

over protective legislation for women never occurred, the Roosevelt Court would

still have upheld the FLSA and other New Deal labor legislation with no


Other problems with the book should be noted. Novkov clearly sympathizes with

Progressive reformers who challenged libertarian legal doctrines, and she is

certainly entitled to this perspective. However, her sympathies seem to distort

her analysis at times. For example, Novkov acknowledges that she approached her

research from a feminist perspective (276), and her book contains lengthy

discussions of internal debate among women’s rights advocates on the wisdom of

pursuing special protective laws for women. It’s odd, then, that Novkov

neglects to note that two of the strongest judicial pronouncements in favor of

equal rights for women before the modern feminist era came in cases in which

courts overturned protective labor laws.

First, in Ritchie v. People, 155 Ill. 98 (1895), the Illinois Supreme

Court discussed at length its view that the legislature may not arbitrarily

regulate the conditions of employment based on the sex of the workers involved.

The court concluded that “sex is no bar, under the constitution and law, to the

endowment of woman with the fundamental and inalienable rights of liberty and

property, which include the right to make her own contracts.” This is a rather

strong statement favoring legal equality for women, announced not too many

years after an era in which married women could not even own property. But

Novkov fails to quote the opinion, and instead states tepidly only the court

“denied that gender should make a difference in the outcome or reasoning of the

case” (61). Novkov thereby implies that the court’s opinion reflects a general

hardheartedness, while a more generous reading suggests that the author of the

opinion had a principled belief in women’s equality.

Even more striking is Novkov’s treatment of the United States Supreme Court’s

opinion in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital invalidating a minimum wage law

for women. Justice George Sutherland wrote for the Court:

the ancient inequality of the sexes, otherwise than physical . . . has

continued ‘with diminishing intensity.’ In view of the great — not to say

revolutionary — changes which have taken place since that utterance, in the

contractual, political, and civil status of women, culminating in the

Nineteenth Amendment, it is not unreasonable to say that these differences have

now come almost, if not quite, to the vanishing point. In this aspect of the

matter, while the physical differences must be recognized in appropriate cases,

and legislation fixing hours or conditions of work may properly take them into

account, we cannot accept the doctrine that women of mature age, sui juris,

require or may be subjected to restrictions upon their liberty of contract

which could not lawfully be imposed in the case of men under similar

circumstances. To do so would be to ignore all the implications to be drawn

from the present day trend of legislation, as well as that of common thought

and usage, by which woman is accorded emancipation from the old doctrine that

she must be given special protection or be subjected to special restraint in

her contractual and civil relationships. (Emphasis added.)

Justice Sutherland’s strong endorsement of women’s equality cannot be dismissed

as disingenuous. He was a longstanding advocate of women’s rights, including

the Equal Rights Amendment, dating back to his earlier tenure as a Republican

Senator from Utah. Yet rather than praise the Supreme Court’s endorsement of

women’s rights in Adkins, Novkov sees only a reactionary opinion

allowing women to be “subject to the same deprivations” as men (226).

The irony in Sutherland’s opinion, according to Novkov, is that because women

had gained the right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment, “they could no

longer be protected by the legislative process.” But Novkov never stops to

ponder whether labor legislation was likely to have truly “protected” female

workers at a time when women were disfranchised and therefore had no say in the

political process. A public choice analysis would suggest that the odds that

legislation pertaining to women who could not vote would have had favorable

consequences to those women was slim indeed. Legislators had little if any

incentive to “protect” the non-voting single, often immigrant, women who

typically bore the brunt of the negative consequences of labor laws that

discriminated based on sex.

Indeed, Novkov, pays almost no attention to either political economy or

economics, much less to public choice specifically, even though there is no

inherent contradiction between feminist and economic analysis. Not

surprisingly, Novkov’s narrowed purview weakens her analysis. She thoroughly

recounts the role of Progressive public interest organizations such as the

National Consumers League in promoting protective legislation for women, and

the internal debates within the women’s equality movement (anachronistically

dubbed “feminism” by the author) over whether such legislation promoted women’s

equality. However, as Novkov mentions in passing, protective legislation was

also promoted by labor unions that excluded women to prevent women from

competing for jobs held or sought by union members.

The coalition between Progressive activists and self-interested labor unions is

an example of a classic “Baptists and Bootleggers” coalition,4 in which

do-gooders and special interests combine forces to endorse legislation (such as

Prohibition) that the “Baptists” believe to be morally worthy, and the

“Bootleggers” believe will benefit them economically. In the context of

protective labor legislation, the National Consumers League and its allies were

the Baptists, and the labor unions were the Bootleggers. The typical result of

Baptist/Bootlegger coalitions is that the specific interests of the

Bootleggers, with their lack of ideological naivete and direct economic

interest in the outcome of the legislation, tend to dominate the political

process, shaping the drafting and enforcement of the relevant legislation to

their liking. Novkov not only fails to tell the reader whether the interests of

the labor movement dominated the drafting and enforcement of protective

legislation for women, it apparently never occurred to her to ask the question.

Nor does Novkov ever seriously consider whether economic logic suggests that

maximum hours laws or minimum wage laws that apply only to female workers

actually aids them. Novkov acknowledges that some women’s rights advocates

argued that applying minimum wage laws to women only would benefit male

competitors who could work for less. But, despite the fact that her

bibliography contains a reference to a 1933 article by a classical liberal

feminist entitled “Wage Laws Result in Unemployment,” (288) Novkov never

considers an even more basic case against special minimum wage laws — that in

a free labor market, workers are paid a wage close to their marginal

productivity. Regardless of competition from men, employers faced with a

minimum wage law will necessarily dismiss their employees who are covered by

that law if the mandated wage exceeds marginal productivity.5 Rather than

address the economic consequence of “protective” legislation, Novkov seems

instead to uncritically accept the position of Progressive propagandists that

in the absence of wage legislation protecting necessitous workers, such workers

will accept any wage short of starvation, even when their productivity should

dictate a much higher wage. Yet if there is any evidence that workers, even

during the Great Depression, were getting paid significantly less than their

marginal productivity, Novkov fails to present it.6

Finally, the readability of this book, like many academic works, could have

been improved dramatically through better editing. Stylistically, the book too

often reads like a Ph.D. thesis, which it originally was. The author sometimes

digresses into discussions of literature that is at best marginal to her

thesis, and too often argues from authority (e.g., “Famous Professor So and So

has shown,”) rather than making a cogent argument and relegating the supporting

sources to endnotes. Needless academic jargon pops up here and there, most

annoyingly in the author’s consistent reference to “nodes of conflict,” a

phrase this reviewer found entirely superfluous. Perhaps most important,

needless repetition pervades the book. At least one-third of the 276 pages of

text could likely be eliminated with no harm done to substance, and with much

gain to readability.

Despite these flaws, Constituting Workers, Protecting Women is

recommended for readers interested in constitutional and women’s history. While

it does not deliver everything the author promises, or that this reviewer would

have liked to seen, it is a cogent account of an important legal/historical

controversy. The caveat for EH.Net members is that they are likely to be put

off by the book’s utter lack of an economic sensibility.

Notes: 1. While the advocates of such laws claimed that their purpose was to

protect workers, opponents of the laws believed them to be some combination of

unduly paternalistic, counterproductive, and mercenary.

2. Unfortunately, however, she neglects to provide an appendix listing the

cases she classifies as involving protective labor legislation.

3. The maximum hours law at issue in Lochner was intended to aid

unionized German bakers, who worked a standard sixty-hour week, at the expense

of more recent immigrant Italian and Jewish immigrant bakers, who were on call

for longer hours under a different system of production.

4. See, e.g., Bruce Yandle, “Bootleggers and Baptists in Retrospect,”

Regulation 22, no. 3 (1999).

5. The reader is told that “supporters of [women’s] equality largely

rejected the laissez-faire model of the labor marketplace” (198) (emphasis

added). This suggests that some advocates of equality supported laissez-faire,

but these libertarians are effectively written out of Novkov’s feminist

history, making no further appearance in the text.

6. Novkov also fails to discuss the empirical evidence regarding the effect of

sex-specific labor laws. Admittedly, this evidence is scanty, but Novkov does

not even cite, either in the text or her bibliography, economist Elizabeth

Landes’ well known article arguing that maximum hours laws for women created

unemployment, especially among immigrant women, “The Effect of State

Maximum-Hours Laws on the Employment of Women in 1920,” Journal of Political

Economy 88 (June 1980): 476-94. For criticism, see Claudia Goldin, “Maximum

Hours Legislation and Female Employment: A Reassessment,” Journal of

Political Economy 96 (February 1988): 189-205.

David E. Bernstein is an associate professor at the George Mason University

School of Law. He is author of Only One Place of Redress: African Americans,

Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal (Duke

University Press, 2001).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines

Author(s):McIntosh, Robert
Reviewer(s):Tuttle, Carolyn

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)


Robert McIntosh, Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. xxviii + 305 pp. $34.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7735-2093-7.

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

Robert McIntosh (National Archives of Canada) offers a completely new and bold perspective on the issue of child labor during the industrialization period of a country. Boys in the Pits: Child Labour in Coal Mines examines the socioeconomic and political conditions of boys employed in the Canadian coal mines during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book departs dramatically from the ongoing debate between the pessimists and optimists regarding the exploitation of children during the Industrial Revolution of Great Britain, the industrialization of the United States and the development of Latin America. McIntosh puts forth the interpretation that the boys who worked in the pits during Canada’s Industrial Revolution were not victims of economic growth but instead mature young men who wanted to work and fought for their rights as workers. This archival study complete with photographs and contemporary testimonies contributes to the current body of literature by offering a nontraditional approach to child labor, a statistical record of the employment of boys in coal mines located in Nova Scotia and a chilling account of the conditions of work both above and below ground in coal pits. McIntosh weaves the use of primary sources throughout the book in supporting his main hypothesis that “despite some individual testimony to the contrary, the weight of evidence is that boys entered the mine happily” (p.176). He uses industrial publications, union publications and records, the press and travelers’ accounts of their visits to mines, the publications of students of the industry, royal commission inquiries and provincial Department of Mines’ published annual reports to show that the pit boys were not powerless, immature, incompetent children but instead courageous, mature, independent workers who wanted to work.

McIntosh is extremely successful in accomplishing two of the three main objectives of this book. Unfortunately, the research presented falls short of obtaining his first and most important objective — to introduce, develop and support an entirely new hypothesis of why children worked. His examination of all the factors that affected the demand and supply of boys for employment in the coalmines is quite interesting and well supported with historical facts. His hypothesis– that the boys wanted to work — is clearly stated and developed but the evidence provided is insufficient, making his argument unconvincing. He is extremely successful, however, in achieving his other two objectives. The photographs, testimonies of workers, and commission inquiries provide a detailed description of the type of work and conditions of work in the mines as well as exploring the relationships of the pit boys to their employers and their co-workers (chapters 3 and 4). Lastly, he places the pit boys in the context of their families and communities to explain their role in the family, community and local economy (chapters 6, 7, and 5, respectively).

While telling the history of the boys in Canadian coal mines, McIntosh applies the theory of the labor market to explain the increase and then eventual decrease in the employment of pit boys. The increase in the employment of boys to work above and below ground occurred due to primarily economic and social factors. He attributes the increase in the demand for pit boys to: (1) the termination of the General Mining Association monopoly in 1858 (p. 45); (2) railway construction which lead to the development of new coal fields (p. 47); (3) technological advances (the steam engine, extensive division of labor and specialization) (pp. 65-68) and (4) the expansion of surface work (p. 70). He attributes the increase in the supply of pit boys to: (1) the tradition of family-based labor (p. 48); (2) the custom that working as a young boy was training for an adult occupation (p. 175); (3) the establishment of security for the family where the boys’ wages provided insurance and pensions (pp. 106, 115) and (4) the boys’ desire to enter the mines over attending school (p. 175). The identification and discussion of each of these factors is succinct and convincing except the last reason for an increase in supply, the boys’ desire to enter the mines. The problem with this analysis is discussed at greater length below. It would have been beneficial to comparative economists, economic historians and development economists if McIntosh had developed the comparison with Great Britain more fully to identify what factors were country-specific and what factors were shared by Great Britain as well. This additional analysis would have contributed nicely to the current examination of the employment of child labor in developing countries today in coal and metal mines.

In his concluding chapter, McIntosh briefly touches upon the reasons for the disappearance of the pit boys from Canadian coalmines. As in Great Britain, the changes in technology and the newly reconstructed view of childhood gradually removed boys from the coalmines. Unlike Great Britain, a decline in the demand for coal due to competition from the United States, the Great Depression and the emergence of alternatives (natural gas and electricity) caused a decline in the mining industry in Canada. The role of mining and schooling legislation in the employment of boys, however, was not clear. At one point McIntosh claims that child labor laws and schooling laws had little impact on the decrease in child labor (pp. 89, 90). This stands in direct conflict with his statement that the legislation that raised the minimum wage and established compulsory schooling attendance contributed to the decrease in pit boys (p. 172). The impact of child labor laws and schooling laws on the use of child labor should have been developed further with the aim to make a defendable decisive claim.

The controversial stance that McIntosh takes in this book that the pit boys were not victims exploited by their parents or capitalists, although provocative, is not entirely compelling. McIntosh offers three main arguments to support his thesis. His first argument rests on an in depth examination of wage and income data for the Sydney Mines from 1871-1901 (chapter 6). Quite convincingly he shows that the conventional links between child labor and subsistence did not hold in Sydney. In Tables 6.6 and 6.7 the data reveal that boys in high-income households were almost as likely to be employed as boys in low-income households (pp. 119-121). This is a very important finding and should be further investigated using wage and income data from other cities and provinces. McIntosh then uses this data on wage and income from Sydney to conclude that in Canada the pit boys wanted to work and were not forced by parents or mine owners (p. 122). This seems plausible but certainly not exhaustive of the possible interpretations of this finding. Furthermore, one should not make a generalization for the whole country based on one city in one province. As he mentioned in earlier chapters, it could be that boys worked to help their family achieve a higher standard of living (p. 125), security in times of crisis such as death or old age (p. 106), or an occupation for adulthood (p. 123). Consequently, this argument, although interesting, is only partially persuasive in revealing boys overriding desire to work.

In his second argument, McIntosh identifies the inherent characteristics associated with the pit boys to demonstrate that they were valued independent workers whose “experience in the mine is a record of achievement” (p. 179). Miners viewed them as valued co-workers and important contributors to family income. The pit boys, moreover, did not define themselves as victims but instead they were proud of their role in the family and the economy. They were productive members of the working-class who opted for work because in society it was identified as manly over school, which was identified as effeminate. In opposition to the traditional view of child labor as one of “a record of blighted childhood” (p. 178), these boys and young men had self-respect and fought for their rights as workers. McIntosh successfully provides both direct and indirect evidence to show that the boys were mature, self-reliant, courageous individuals who displayed initiative.

The third argument carefully develops how the socially stimulated “web of solidarity” among the pit boys created a political response of action (p. 149). Socially the movement from childhood to manhood for boys was marked by their entry into the mines. Fathers had experienced this and now their sons went through the same process. As McIntosh stated, “in the mining family, boys learned not simply that certain work was women’s; they also learned that men’s work warranted both women’s respect and the lion’s share of the available food, drink, and leisure time” (p. 123). Once in the mines, moreover, the evidence undeniably illustrates a collective loyalty among the pit boys. They talked back to adults, whether parents or managers, until they were organized as a branch of the miners’ union. If they were not satisfied that their grievances were being heard, they would strike. McIntosh helps the reader to appreciate the significance of their action by pointing out that the entire mine had to shut down when the boys walked out because their duties were essential to the safe and productive operation of the mine. Therefore, the fact that there were 47 strikes in Nova Scotia from 1880 to 1926 makes this argument convincing (p. 120).

In conclusion, Boys in the Pits offers a new view of child labor that is sure to create discussion and additional research among historians and economic historians alike. In sharp contrast to Great Britain’s fragile young victims of exploitation, young pit boys in the mid-nineteenth century were described by Canadian newspapers as “cheerful imps” and the older ones as “happy,” “bright,” “animated” young men whose contributions to the family, the mine and the economy were highly valued (pp. 90-91). McIntosh does a superb job of documenting and describing the employment of child labor in Canadian coalmines while developing the hypothesis that the pit boys were anything but victims.

Carolyn Tuttle is author of Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. Oxford and Boulder: Westview, 1999. In addition, she is the most recent winner of the Economic History Association’s Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History


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