The Availability of Child Labor
Children had worked during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Parents wanted their children to work for a number of reasons. For many working- class families it was a matter of survival. The children's contribution to the family income provided more food and more coal for the fireplace. For most families it was a necessary step in their child's development. Parents knew their children needed to obtain training in a craft or trade if they were to become independent, self-sufficient adults. For others, it was what society sanctioned. Society believed that the poor and working class must adopt a strict work ethic to climb their way out of poverty and, therefore, a busy child was a "good" child.1 By the end of the eighteenth century, however, and well into the nineteenth century the nature of child labor changed. Children were no longer merely auxiliary workers in a family enterprise; they were essential primary workers in manufactories and mines. Children who had traditionally accompanied their parents to work, now went off to work as independent wage earners. Although children had always worked, the number of children working outside the home seemed to increase dramatically during the period of industrialization. Child labor, moreover, had become a major contributor to the work forces of many textile factories, coal, copper and tin mines. The early rural textile mills imported child labor in the form of parish apprentices. Factories, once located in urban centers, continued to employ a high proportion of children and youths, mostly from families (called "free labor"). The coal mines employed miners' children underground and on the surface while the copper, tin and lead mines used youths mainly on the surface. Why were so many children and youths working in the textile factories and mines during Britain's Industrial Revolution? What sorts of explanations has the literature given for the plethora of children and youths who became independent wage earners?
The literature has offered many different explanations for the increase in the employment of children during the British Industrial Revolution. Historians have identified poverty, greed, parental abuse, large-scale operations, technological innovation and profit maximization as leading culprits for the increase in child labor.