Between Wage Labor and Vocation: Child Labor in Dutch Urban Industry, 1600-1800

By van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise; Schmidt, Ariadne | Journal of Social History, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Between Wage Labor and Vocation: Child Labor in Dutch Urban Industry, 1600-1800


van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise, Schmidt, Ariadne, Journal of Social History


Introduction

Francoise Loeram was only twelve years old when the Leiden draper Piere Blisijn employed her to spin for him for two years in 1640. In exchange, the girl received food, lodgings and a set of clothes, and at the end of her contract the sum of 15 guilders. (1) Francoise was not an exceptional case; in the seventeenth century many thousands of children worked in the Leiden textile industry. Nevertheless child labor is usually associated with the rise of industrial factory labor in the nineteenth century. This interpretation has dominated, because only from that time contemporaries started to perceive large-scale child labor as a social problem. Degrading conditions in the factories, such as long working hours, physically heavy labor and miserable working circumstances caused opposition among parts of the bourgeoisie and representatives of various political tendencies. In the course of the nineteenth century, moral indignation ultimately led to protective legislation in the area of child labor. (2)

Historical research on child labor has until now focused mainly on the industrial era. Because the effects of industrial factory labor were most visible, historians through most of the twentieth century considered child labor a 'social problem of industrialization'. Moral condemnation played an important role in this interpretation. (3) Influenced by new ideas about the course of the Industrial Revolution, and by attention given to the 'family economy', historians in recent decades have modified the dominant interpretation. They now recognize that child labor occurred not just in factories, but existed on a large scale in--for example--agriculture and pre-industrial crafts; also prior to industrialization, child labor was very common. (4)

In their well-known overview study, Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude define the early modern Dutch Republic as 'the first modern economy'. Already in the pre-industrial period, the Dutch economy was in their view characterized by high productivity and a great demand for labor. De Vries and Van der Woude assume that large numbers of children helped to meet this demand. To a considerable degree, they worked in export industries that were organized in an early capitalist fashion, such as textiles, pipe-making and pin-making. (5) Leo Noordegraaf and Jan Luiten van Zanden likewise suggest that child labor may have been of great importance for the economic growth of the Dutch Republic. (6) Nevertheless little research has been done about child labor in the pre-industrial period in the Netherlands. Only a few historians, and quite some decades ago, analyzed the subject. Quite similar to the traditional international literature they emphasized the exploitation of children by capitalist employers. (7)

However, by judging the immoral exploitation of children as an effect of the (early) capitalist production system, the whole story of child labor is by no means told. Recently historians have pointed to the importance of 'survival strategies' of families or households. (8) To survive, it was essential for large groups in society that all family members contributed to the family income. The earnings of children were therefore in many cases indispensable. (9) The authorities moreover had a vested interest in child labor, because it reduced the need for poor relief. (10) In the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, the labor intensive industries offered plenty opportunities for poor children to work. However, when the economic trend declined in the eighteenth century, it was presumably exactly these groups who first suffered from unemployment and increased poverty. In this light, we might also understand initiatives to set up workhouses for the poor in the second half of the eighteenth century. (11) Of course, these projects were undertaken in many European countries in this era, inspired by new ideas about the approach of poverty by Philosophes of the Enlightenment. …

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