Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Children at work

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that life was simpler in the past, “in the good old days”….

In some ways, of course, it’s obviously true: in 1215 and in 1620 and in the late 18th century no one had to worry about keeping track of the recharging cords for the iPhone and the tablet and the Kindle and the laptop.

Mostly, though, simply, life was different in the past.

Prof. Patricia Crone makes this searingly obvious in her book, Pre-Industrial Societies. She writes broadly and with insight about the differences between our contemporary industrial society and all of the pre-industrial societies that nurtured and framed the lives of all the human beings who lived before the Industrial Revolution changed almost everything, barely more than 200 years ago.

For instance, childhood.

Crone says:
“…modern society is distinctive in its perception of children as creatures who must be shielded from adult secrets…on the grounds that they are innocent, and exempted from adult responsibilities (especially work) on the grounds that they are busy with their education…Childhood is perceived as a long and glorious holiday from adult society…

But in pre-industrial societies the infantile holiday was exceedingly short…Children learnt the ‘facts of life’ by watching and hearing just as they learnt anything else…Nor could they be exempted from adult responsibility for long. There was little, if any, formal schooling for the majority. Boys would usually start participating in adult work at about the age of seven, girls might begin to acquire domestic tasks even earlier.

Coal mine workers, Pittston, PA (Photo by Lewis Hine)
Adult status was conferred by physical maturity, real or presumed, at least as far as boys were concerned…Still, they might not be seen as fully adult in either law or custom until they had married (or reached an age where [sic] they ought to have done so); and marriage was usually indispensable for social recognition of adulthood in a girl, whatever her legal position.”

N. B. Britain passed the first child labor laws restricting work hours and working conditions for kids in the early 19th century. In 1836 Massachusetts enacted the first American child labor law, requiring that young workers under 15 must attend school for at least three months each year.
Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (1989; repr., Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 110.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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