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In the new factory system, machines
transformed people just as they transformed the workplace, creating a new, more
self-conscious social class of workers—the “Proletariat”.
Workers in the water-powered mill, steam-driven factory and mines
experienced work conditions harsher than those that rural workers knew in their
village, cottages, and fields. Workers of all ages and both sexes labored long days,
in poor light and bad air, with little time to eat or rest. They were unprotected from
dangerous equipment and subject to the will of owners. Many workers lost fingers
or limbs in the machinery, unshielded, unregulated by any law. In the mills, rows
of large machines wound new spun yarn on multiple spindles. Little was expected
of their human operators, who were there to provide fresh raw fiber, realign yarn
that had wandered or snapped, and keep up with the relentless pace of the
machine. The machine became a tyrant. Battalions of workers streamed in the
factories at a set hour, announced by the clocks and bells and whistles that
governed precious industrial time. Strict rules enforced by a system of fines and
punishments disciplined this large labor force. Workers were required to report to
work and depart at a certain set hours with time cards. They were to avoid
aggressive behavior, keep their own workplace clean, and meet a work schedule.
Corporal punishment, especially for children, kept the tired or the resistant
properly at work, with summary dismissal as a final sanction.
The labor of children (technically those under age twenty, but in practice
as young as eight or nine) was also essential in the early years of industrialization.
One British historian has judged their exploitation “one of the most shameful
events” of his nation’s history, while a French scholar has termed it not only the
exploitation but “martyrdom” of the young. Many children entered the factories
5
alongside their parents. Owners would find a regular and plentiful source of child
workers by contracting with local orphanages and poorhouses. Children could be
given simple jobs, such as sweeping or loading and switching bobbins of yarn.
Their labor, like that of their mothers and older sisters, was cheap—a child earned
about one-fourth the wage of an adult male. Like women, they were pliable and
obedient to the commands of the foreman. If resistant, they could be punished (see
picture on the left). Such abuse was only one aspect of their exploitation. The long
hours of work, the lack of exercise, the absence of
instruction and access to the open air, led to
permanent physical and mental injury, especially
for these children working in mines. The dark
universe of these mines had always been a place of
horror for those who dug the earth for tin and
copper, gold and silver, iron and coal. In antiquity,
slaves were employed to work the mines—a
workforce that could be subjected to heavy loads,
noxious gases, and frequent cave-ins and
explosions. The same risks attended mining during
the IR, when increased demand for iron and coal required deeper pits. In this
context, children were frequently assigned to dig from the deepest mine tunnels
because their slight bodies could more easily maneuver in narrow tunnels. Child
labor was not officially prohibited in the Western world until the 20th century. It
was, however, gradually restricted, at first in Britain and France. In 1833, the
British Factory Act set a maximum of a nine-hour workday for children under
thirteen. In 1847, further legislations reduced the workday of women and older
children to ten and a half hours. Yet in Britain (as elsewhere), child labor remained
an important part of the workforce as late as 1874 when 14% of textile workers
were children, and even in 1900, when thousands of children under 14 labored in
mines and factories

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