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Omaha Steve Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Oct-05-08 04:17 PM
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Vermont children once worked long days

October 5, 2008

At the end of a long argument between four men over who had the toughest childhood, one tops the others with this line: "I had to get up in the morning at 10 o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing 'Hallelujah.' "

The line comes from a Monty Python comedy skit in which exaggeration drives the humor, but as in all good comedy, the sketch had its basis in reality. The men were riffing on the difficult facts of life for children who once slaved in English factories. They could just as easily been talking about Vermont children.

The economy of the mid-19th century redefined Vermont childhood. As factories and mills grew, children became more than their parents' pride or extra sets of hands to help around the farm; they became wage earners. They worked grindingly long hours in dangerous factories. They might not have paid the mill owner for permission to work, but their wages certainly were meager.

Their slender pay envelopes did, however, provide their families with much-needed income. But despite the economic benefits of having children work, reports of factory conditions shocked Vermonters and spurred state lawmakers to intervene ways that ran contrary to their generations-long practice of refusing to regulate businesses.

In Vermont, as in the rest of the nation, children had always worked on family farms. The idea that another child was an extra mouth to feed didn't really come into play. From a young age, children were able to do more than simply earn their keep. The prevalence of large families can be attributed to the dictates of religion or the fear of high infant mortality, but it also had an economic basis. Many saw children as a path to prosperity. The push to maximize the productivity of child workers, however, led to excesses that couldn't be ignored. Not that the state Legislature acted quickly.

Vermont legislators didn't act on the issue of child labor until 1867, when they limited the hours children could work in factories. Thus, Vermont became the last New England state to regulate child labor. Thirty years earlier, lawmakers had voted that they had no business policing the issue. At the time, the Legislature followed a strictly conservative philosophy that control should be in local hands on every issue possible, including the regulation of child labor.

FULL story and photo at link.

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