Apprenticeship in the Middle Ages

Child labor has existed throughout the course of human history. Children were slaves in ancient civilizations and serfs in the Middle Ages. Even in places where slavery had been abolished, children still existed as domestic servants.  The system of apprenticeship, in which children leave their families to work for a mentor of a certain profession, has existed since the Middle Ages. In pre-industrialized eras, children were expected to help out on their families’ farms or businesses; if necessary, their labor was contracted out for more income.

In the eyes of employers, youth were generally preferred to adults, because children worked for lower wages, were easier to manage, and were less likely to protest to poor working conditions. Although child labor has always existed, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, which showcased the horrors of child labor, that people pushed for reform.

By the 18th Century, innumerable American children worked in the mining, glass, textile, canning, agriculture, and home industries and took service jobs such as newsboys, messengers, and peddlers.

Working conditions were absolutely revolting. Children as young as six years of age often slaved for anywhere from twelve to nineteen hours. Breaks were short and few; often children received a mere one-hour break per day. Large, heavy, and dangerous equipment was used, which led to several accidents, often fatal. Punishments were severe, humiliating, and cruel.


Children were only paid a small fraction of what adults received. At times, employers got away without paying the children at all, justifying their actions by claiming that they provided meals, clothing and shelter, all of which were disgustingly below par. Factory owners supported the notion of child labor by claiming that it helped everything, from the economy to “building character.” Orphans were easy targets for exploitation. Parents of child factory workers often could not publicly object to the exploitation, for there was no other way of obtaining the income.

However, in the early 20th Century, child labor began to decline as a result of labor reform movements. The working class, with the aid of social reformers, began to insist on legislation for the regulation of child labor. Various organizations, such as the National Consumers’ League (established 1899) and the National Child Labor Committee (est. 1904) opposed child labor through various movements, including anti-sweatshop campaigns. The National Child Labor Committee also focused on providing obligatory education, free of cost, for all children. In 1833, the Factory Act was passed, which limited the number of hours that children could work. The efforts of the National Child Labor Committee concluded successfully with the sanction of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which further placed federal regulations on child labor.

female labor inspectors of the National Child Labor Committee


2 responses

4 01 2012

I have a website about child labor also. I woul like it if you coud tell me more about America’s reaction to child labor laws. I need it by january 10th. please post any information in the blog. I have to site you so please also leave some of this website’s information. thanks a bunch

7 01 2012


Sorry, but I don’t really have more information about America’s reaction to child labor laws in recent years. This website has been inactive for a good two years, and like you guys (I’m guessing), we also did it as part of a high school project. You can cite the stuff on that site if you want, but it’s basically a combination of info we found in the links on the sources page. Good luck on your website though!

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