restricted access 1. Origins of Child Industrial Labor
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12 1 Origins of Child Industrial Labor Child labor in Russia was hardly a product of late nineteenthcentury industrialization. Children’s engagement in productive activities had existed well before modernized factories began to appear in Russia’s primarily rural landscape. From time immemorial, children had worked in agriculture, as well as in cottage industries and all other types of domestic manufacturing. In addition, Russian children worked in manorial and state factories and mines. The principal goal of having children engage in productive labor during these earlier times seems to have been less economic than educational. Child labor had been a widely accepted and common practice, aimed at teaching children adult occupations and thus preparing them for adult life. Eighteenth-century travelers to Russia often commented on child apprenticeship in their descriptions. When the German geographer Johann Georg Gmelin visited the Demidov Nizhne-Tagil’sk metallurgical works of western Siberia in 1742, he noted with some admiration that “in the wire shop children from ten to fifteen years old performed most jobs and did them not worse than adult [workers].” In the Nev’iansk mill, the geographer observed how seven- and eight-year-old boys made copper cups and various kitchen wares and “were rewarded according to their work.” Gmelin claimed that in some workshops, the number of children even exceeded the number of adult workers.1 Another famous German traveler, Peter S. Pallas, who visited the Urals’ mines and metallurgical works (in western Siberia) during the 1770s, wrote that he was “highly delighted to see that young ten- and twelve-year-old children work in the blacksmith shop and receive a salary” on a par with adult workers. Pallas pointed out that the number of children employed in the works reached the thousands.2 As troubling as they may appear to modern sensibilities, these almost adoring portrayals of the phenomenon of working children reflect widespread contemporary perceptions of child productive labor. How did child productive labor emerge? What was its nature and extent before industrialization? To track the origins of this phenomenon, it is necessary to explore the role of child labor in the countryside and children ’s employment in state and manorial enterprises, along with popular notions of childhood and the influence of these notions on child labor and state policies regarding children. Child Labor in the Countryside Most scholars of the history of the family and childhood suggest that child labor was common throughout the history of the household, especially when the household was the basic unit of production. Customarily , children worked in agriculture and in cottage industries. Poor economic conditions usually receive emphasis as the major cause of child labor. Some scholars also point out that the use of children in production reflected traditional beliefs about and practices of child rearing and education .3 All of this was true of Russia. In most social strata, particularly in peasant families and the lower urban orders, initiation of children into some kind of productive labor “appropriate to their strength and ability” was perceived as a form of education and apprenticeship and aimed at preparing children for adult responsibilities. Ethnographers note that in peasant families, teaching household activities and agricultural occupations was considered the most essential duty in the upbringing and education of children. The surviving evidence suggests that in cases when foster parents reported to the village commune about fulfillment of their parental duties, they usually underscored their efforts to teach the children they had adopted all common household and agricultural occupations . Peasants believed that “if a child is not initiated into productive Origins of Child Industrial Labor    13 14    Origins of Child Industrial Labor work from an early age, it would hardly develop the ability for work in the future.”4 Here I would like to emphasize that child labor as form of preparation for adult life, a practice common before industrialization, is also perhaps the most important characteristic of children’s regular employment in industry after the beginning of industrialization. Child labor’s crucial educational aspect aside, its widespread acceptance also signifies the extent to which most families of preindustrial Russia depended for their economic functioning on labor contributions from all family members, including children and elders. Here, however, is where this account differs from scholarly views that emphasize the impoverishment of peasant families as the primary cause of child labor in the countryside.5 This commonly held view hardly seems adequate. Rather than poverty, the origins and development of the local peasant economy within the context...


Subject Headings

  • Children -- Russia -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Industrialization -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Manufacturing industries -- Employees -- Supply and demand -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Child labor -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
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