When we were kids, we spent our days at school playing happily in the grass, but it would have been very different if we had lived 200 years earlier. In the 19th century, the exploitation of children was the norm; children worked in the factory or in the mines from the age of 6 or 8. They worked more than 12 hours a day to be paid three to four times less than adults. Ten years before the Jules Ferry law on compulsory secular education, hundreds of thousands of children still worked every day. In 1868, every tenth worker was under 15 years of age. It is still less tiring to sleep in math classes …
1. Little Savoyard chimney sweep
From the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century, children were hired to sweep the chimneys of European cities because adults were too big to fit in the flues. The vast majority of these children came from Savoy (a region that was not French at the time) because their workers were known to be hardy and not dizzy.
When the Savoyard families were very poor, they rented their children from the age of 6 to go to work in Paris. The bosses promised the families that their children would be fed and placed, but that was not the case. The children were severely exploited (they worked 12 to 14 hours a day) and often had to beg to survive. Many of these little chimney sweeps would die very young due to an accident or illness.
2. Children in the mines
It was in the metal mines of the Vosges that the first child miners were hired in the 1570s. Children were valuable employees as they were the only ones who could squeeze through the narrowest galleries. The boys pushed the carts filled with coal at risk of being run over, and the girls climbed the ladders with hoods on their backs at risk of falling. These children worked from the age of 5 or 6 and for more than 12 hours a day. Sometimes they were even asked to stay underground for two days in a row for small change.
3. Children in textile factories from the age of four
Children were employed in all forms of manufacturing, but in France it was the textile factories that recruited the most. Children’s small size and flexibility are very useful for cleaning looms and sneaking behind to attach threads again. In the Tourcoing region in 1790, almost half of the employees were children, and it happened that some drowned in the pits where the wool was washed. The smaller the company, the less controlled it is, so it happens that girls of 4 or 5 years are forced to sew lace for more than 12 hours a day.
4. Children exploited in circuses
In the 19th century, when school was still very rare, children were hired in circuses (sometimes against their will) to escape street life. These children, sometimes very young, are placed there by their parents, who get their pay back or are picked up by circuses and theaters after being abandoned.
5. Children in the factories at the smithy, in the printing house and the glassworks
All over the world, children are considered cheap labor, and 19th-century France is no exception. Child labor makes it possible to employ the whole family at the same time, allowing producers to create a break with more traditional farm work. In addition, children’s low wages put pressure on adults’ wages. In metalworking factories, children from the age of 4 are hired to train them as early as possible. In the printing house in the Ardèche, the bosses ask adults to come as much as possible with their children.
The little Parisian cloth pickers
By the middle of the 19th century, the rubbish bin had not yet appeared, and rubbish piled up in the streets of the capital. It is the sheds that collect the waste, sort it and resell it as much as they can. They are considered pariahs, but are paid more than some workers and occupy a central position. At that time, 30 or 40,000 people, men, women and children, were engaged in cloth picking every day.
7. The street vendors sleeping outside
Under the old regime, it had become more than common to leave children. In 1787, the number of children left out of 26 million inhabitants is estimated at 40,000. These children are often entrusted to institutions, but many still live off begging or street sales: fruits, flowers, or objects of any kind. Some salespeople work on behalf of their parents and can only return in the evening if they have raised enough money.
8. Those who worked in the countryside
Since ancient times, child labor has been downplayed. Long before children were employed in factories or construction sites, children worked in the countryside with their parents on farms, fields, or businesses. The work was just as difficult as for the adults, but they were sometimes given tasks that required more dexterity or agility. Some peasants were placed as servants in the city with the richest families.
9. Child sellers at the capital’s auction
Until the 1950s, newspaper dealers were most often boys who started working as 6-year-olds. The newspaper owners hired these children to assert the front page and attract the curious. Unlike the kids in the mines, these kids were pretty well treated and did not work all day, but they were obviously very poorly paid.
10. Shoe polishers
Before 1950, the task of the scraper was to clean the shoes of the townspeople and help them avoid mud with wooden boards. After the construction of cobblestones and sidewalks in Paris, the scrapers became shoemakers, and it was often old people or little boys who held these positions. They are very poorly paid, but the work is less hard than elsewhere.