World History 2 150 - 10.1.3 The Family in the Industrial Age

As people moved from small farms and country villages to cities and factory towns, their lives changed in ways both small and profound. On farms and in artisans’ workshops, women and children had labored alongside husbands and fathers and contributed to the family’s income. They did not always have similar opportunities in the industrial city.

Early in the Industrial Revolution, women and children worked in factories, but by the end of the nineteenth century, this situation had changed. Although increasing mechanization meant that workers needed less physical strength, the presence of women and children in the workplace declined. Because wages were low, adult men still often needed the assistance of wives and children to pay the rent and purchase necessities, but less of this work now took place in factories. It became a point of pride for working-class men to keep their wives at home as the middle class did, even if the women were working. Married women also preferred to stay home when possible; tending to home and children was difficult while also working long hours in factories.

Indeed, many male laborers blamed women’s willingness to accept low wages for keeping their own pay low, and they sought to push women out of the workplace. In the United States and western Europe, children also had largely ceased working in most factories by the beginning of the twentieth century. Greater mechanization of the workplace eliminated the jobs that children had once been employed to do. Increasingly, too, governments passed laws that attempted to ban child labor. In some cases, this effort was motivated by the desire of upper-middle-class politicians to protect children while failing to understand the extent to which a working-class family might rely on their wages. At other times, politicians worried that children whose days were spent in factories would become physically inadequate soldiers or illiterate and uneducated citizens.

Britain, the first nation to industrialize, led the way in eliminating child labor. The Factory Act of 1819 limited children’s work to twelve hours a day. The Factory Act of 1833 prohibited children younger than nine from working in textile factories, the most common type of factory in Britain at that time. Children under fourteen were restricted to working eight hours a day and were required to receive two hours of schooling each day. Those fourteen and older could work only twelve hours a day. All children were given an hour for lunch.

In 1839, Prussia’s Child Labor Act banned factory employment for children under nine and limited shifts for factory workers under sixteen to ten hours. Children were also banned from working in factories at night. Such laws were widely evaded, however, by working-class families who needed children’s income and by employers who sought inexpensive labor. Many politicians also opposed such legislation, not only because it interfered with business but also because it deprived men of the right to govern their families.

In the face of such opposition to limits on it, child labor continued until laws requiring compulsory education helped to move children from factories to schoolrooms. By the end of the nineteenth century, new laws in the United States and western and central Europe mandated schooling, largely eliminating formal wage work by children under the age of fourteen. In places like Russia and Japan, where industrialization had begun later, married women and young children continued to work outside the home. In Japan, for example, more than 70 percent of married women from the lowest level of the working class (the hinmin) worked outside the home in 1911, but just ten years later, only 44 percent did.

The result of these changes was that by the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany, working-class wives tended to supplement the family’s income by working at home, not outside it. Unmarried women and those whose husbands were disabled or absent still sought factory work, but married women more commonly earned money in ways that did not require them to leave the home. Some cared for the children of working neighbors and took in laundry. If the family’s living space were large enough, they might take in boarders, who often slept with the children, and the woman of the house would cook and clean for them as well as for her own family. Many women did piecework at home, compensated based on the number of items produced. They collected materials from local businesses and assembled small items like toys, costume jewelry, or artificial flowers. Some stitched together items of clothing. They were often joined by their children, who might also hawk newspapers and peddle wares on the street (Figure 10.7).

Photograph (a) shows a family working in their apartment. The mother works at a sewing machine. The three children are working with their hands. Painting (b) shows a girl standing with the help of a crutch. She has a basket filled with books of matches. She appears to be selling the matchbooks.
Figure 10.7 Children contributed to the income of working-class families in many ways. (a) In this photograph, a mother and her children are doing piecework in their nineteenth-century New York City apartment. Perhaps the older boy, sitting at the table with his mother, has just returned from school. (b) In the painting Matchstick Girl from about 1900 by Dutch painter Floris Arntzenius, a girl with a disability sells matches near the entrance to a shopping arcade in The Hague. (credit a: modification of work “Sewing work at home” by The New York Public Library/The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Matchstick girl” by Haags Historisch Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Family size was also affected by these changes in the nature of work. In the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany, by the beginning of the nineteenth century middle-class families had reduced the number of children they had. On the farm, in craft shops, and in early factories, children’s labor was still valuable, so the working classes continued to have large families. By the second half of the century, however, children could no longer earn their keep alongside their parents in the factory and instead had to be fed and clothed during their school years from a smaller pool of money. They then became an expense many working-class families could not afford. The inadequate and overcrowded urban housing available to the industrial working class also made large families undesirable.

Innovations in birth control at this time enabled working-class parents to limit the number of children they had, just as the middle-class did. Vulcanized rubber made for more comfortable and reliable condoms, as well as cervical caps and early forms of diaphragms called “womb veils.” New printing techniques allowed the mass-production of pamphlets instructing women in how to limit family size. In 1877, the Malthusian League, which advocated the use of contraception, was founded in Great Britain. It was named for Thomas Malthus, who had advocated limiting births in the late eighteenth century in order to prevent the human population from growing beyond the capacity of the land to support it. Although Malthus himself had opposed the use of contraceptive devices, Britons like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in the 1870s, and Marie Stopes in the early twentieth century, advocated for their use. In the United States, Margaret Sanger, a visiting nurse who cared for working-class women in New York and witnessed the detrimental effects on their health of repeated pregnancies, championed birth control, a term she popularized, as Stopes was doing the same in Britain.

In those parts of Europe where the Catholic Church was powerful and the use of contraceptive devices was frowned upon, women married later in order to avoid early childbearing. Beginning in the 1870s, working-class families began to shrink in size, and by the start of the twentieth century, the average family size for laborers had dropped from four to six children to two to four, only slightly larger than among the middle class. This reduction in family size caused by falling birth rates in industrialized nations is called the demographic transition.

The main job of nearly all city children at this time was education. The industrialized world called for skills that could be learned only in school. Achieving middle-class status depended on obtaining a job for which at least a secondary school education was needed, and providing one for their children was an important goal for middle-class parents seeking to maintain their position in the world. By the end of the nineteenth century, some members of the middle class, especially young men, attended college, but education beyond secondary school was reserved largely for the sons of the wealthy.

Aspirational members of the working class sought to keep their children in school until they had completed the elementary grades, where they acquired basic literacy and learned arithmetic. Some children also attended a few years of secondary school, where they were introduced to mathematics, history, and perhaps a modern or classical language like Latin. A job that required little beyond a basic education, such as store clerk, cashier, or bookkeeper, could raise a child into the higher levels of the working class. If a daughter were to complete secondary school and become a teacher, she crossed the threshold into the lower ranks of the middle class.

By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialized societies had created systems of public education that were able to instill basic literacy in a majority of their populations. In Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, nearly all people were literate by 1910. Ninety percent of adult Japanese men could read. More than 80 percent of the French and Belgian populations could as well. Even in countries that were slower to industrialize, like Italy, by the beginning of the twentieth century, more than half the population could read.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax