These photos of young miners helped curb child labor in the U.S.

Picture above – Coal miners


Child labor was especially common in the late 18th century, during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The cities were overcrowded with people looking for work in the newly developed factories and mines. Poor sanitation, disease and pollution made them miserable places to live. Workers barely made enough to pay for food or rent. As a result, many children were put to work to make the extra income for their family.

Working conditions faced by working-class people, including children involved 12-16 hour shifts and wages that barely covered the cost of living. Children often faced incredible hardship and abuse.

Factory owners wanted to hire children for several reasons. They were able to work for between 10-20% of what they paid adult workers. They accepted punishment better, not like adults who might fight back. John Fairbrother, interviewed in 1819, commented that he had seen his master “with a horsewhip standing outside the mill when the children have come too late [and] he lashed them all the way to the mill.”

The factories were dangerous places with few safeguards. Spinning machines in the textile mills were often left unguarded and posed a serious risk. This caused children to become injured as they worked dangerously close to spinning belts and shafts that powered the machines. In the textile mills, for example, their fingers and hands were small enough to unclog machines when they jammed or became clogged.

The machines in the cramped unventilated conditions caused the temperature to rise dramatically. After a visit to such a factory in1824, William Cobbett, a British Parliamentarian, commented “What must the situation of the poor children who are doomed to toil fourteen hours a day, in an average of 82 degrees? Can any man, with a heart in his body and a tongue in his head, refrain from cursing a system that produces such slavery and such cruelty?”

Other children worked in the coal mines. Their small bodies were ideal for going into deep channels to carry coal to the surface. They were connected to a coal cart with a strap so that they could pull it behind them. It was dangerous work. The mine shafts were always susceptible to collapse and the poor air quality led to breathing problems.

Throughout the 1800’s the British Parliament passed a series of Factory Acts placing limits on child labor. For example, in 1819, the workday for British children was limited to 12 hours. By 1833, it became illegal for children under 9 years old to work, and children under 13 were not allowed to work more than 9 hours a day.


[1] Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution, Elias Brick, History Crunch (

This has been Part 14 of the series A LIFE WORTH LIVING. Read Part 15 – Charles Dickens.