02 January 2017

Childhood 200 Years Ago (when it was outrageous to limit work days to 12 hours or offer 30 minutes a day of education)

This little tidbit from Chris Jennings' fascinating Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. The Owen mentioned is Robert Owen who became fabulously wealthy operating factories using the new spinning jenny that boosted productivity enormously. This little excerpt is just a reminder of what childhood was like the early days of the Industrial Revolution and how viciously opposed people are even to the changes that strike future generations as obviously positive.

Owen used his newfound celebrity to back progressive legislation in Parliament. In 1815, he drafted a bill for the "Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices ... in Cotton and other Mills." The bill had three central provisions: children under ten should be prohibited from working in mills; workers under eighteen should not work more than twelve hours a day; and young millworkers should receive a half hour of schooling each day.
Owen to Parliament expecting an enthusiastic response. Instead, the committee assigned to review the bill met him with startling hostility. "The employments of these Children in Cotton Mills is not sedentary [suggesting they were getting opportunities for physical activity]," one of the bill's opponents insisted; "it is neither laborious, nor such as tends to cramp their limbs, to distort their bodies, or to injure their health. Generally speaking those who are introduced young are most orderly, as might be expected from early habits of industry, attention, regularity, cleanliness, and subordination." A coalition of mill owners lobbied against the bill. In familiar language, they decried the proposed intrusion of big government into their industry. "Legislative interference betwixt the free labourer and his employer," they insisted, "is a violent, highly dangerous, and unconstitutional innovation." If children work fewer than twelve hours a day, some critics pointed out, their families will end up on the dole. As for the outlandish notion of providing young workers with thirty minutes of reading and arithmetic lessons each day, the claimed that "the unnatural mixture of education with work proposed by [Owen's] Bill, would not only be expensive and vexatious to the employer but impracticable in execution." Owen's proposed reforms would merely deprive the "heads of families of their natural control over their children," and "reduce the prohibitive labour of the Country." In short, the bill was an unpatriotic, antifamily job killer that would erode the morals of the working class by "throwing them idle and disorderly on the community too early in the evenings."

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