The United States Government is publishing a report of nineteen volumes on the condition of woman and child wage-earners in the United States. The size of this report suggests the vastness of the labor problems of the present day. The textile industry, aside from being one of the greatest manufacturing industries, employs a large percentage of woman and child laborers. A study of textiles would therefore be incomplete which did not at least touch upon the problems of these laborers and tell of some of the reforms which have been or are now being accomplished.
Ever since the development of the modern factory system it is the women and children who have been least protected and who have suffered most from the system. Unorganized, without a voice in the making of laws, physically at a disadvantage, they have been able to do little for themselves. Labor unions and power in legislation have been able to demand certain rights for men, but even they have not accomplished all things, as is shown by the prevalence of strikes and the fact that we have a "submerged tenth" in our population. It remains for the twentieth century to realize more fully that the people as a whole, the community, the state, and the nation, must protect the working man, woman, and child, and through them protect the future citizenship of the country.
Investigation of the problem shows that it concerns not merely the age at which the law shall allow a child to work, but where, when, and under what conditions the child, the woman, or even the man shall work. What wage shall the worker receive? what protection from machines? how many hours a day? If the child is shut out from the mill, how much time must he spend at school and what shall the school teach him? These are a few of the questions which have arisen. To understand them it is necessary to have some appreciation of conditions. Although the old systems of hand industry abroad often meant poverty, filth, disease, and all sorts of human suffering, in some respects the modern factory system has made conditions worse. There have been added the congestion of population in tenements and the never ending routine of highly specialized work for the individual, the nerve-racking noise of the factory and the terrible rush of competition. The possibilities of machinery are boundless, but if machinery is to do the greatest good for the human race it must not be at the expense of the bodies and souls of the human beings who tend the machines.
In Europe and in America the factory system in a simple form came into existence long before the invention of machinery. In England, after the Flemish weavers had introduced fine weaving in the time of Henry I, these weavers lived and worked together in communities. Guilds had their beginning before the Norman conquest and flourished all through the Middle Ages. They were organizations of different trades, and became very powerful. They controlled industries, regulated prices and wages, and frequently took the initiative in suggesting laws for the benefit of trade. The craft guilds protected the workman and the interests of the various crafts, much as the trade unions protect the interests of the workingman today. Often there was bitter feeling between guild members and non-members. So restrictive had the power of guilds become by the time of Henry VIII that they then began a rapid decline.
The wealthiest manufacturer of this time was said to have had a hundred looms, but very few improvements had been introduced in the methods of manufacture. The introduction of improvements from abroad was strongly opposed, the protection of home industries and hand labor being intense. Laws limited the size of the flocks one might own, the amount of time which it took to tan leather was not allowed to be lessened, and many other similar regulations existed. While the living conditions of those who spun and wove were frequently very miserable, it was not at all uncommon for a laborer to rise to be a successful merchant and become a knight of trade. In the reign of Elizabeth conditions were better in England than in surrounding countries. The eighteenth century brought in the use of machinery and revolutionized methods. By 1812 and 1813 in England the introduction of machinery, together with continual wars, had brought about terrible suffering among the laborers. Doubtless the factory system alone would have done much, for the English capitalists saw here increased opportunity for becoming rich.
"The factory system that was then established completely changed English industrial methods; the workers were huddled together in unhealthy factories, compelled to work from early morn till late at night, and, what was the worst feature of the system, young children of tender years were set to toil in the mills under such hard and repellent conditions that their constitutions were undermined, and a race of working people grew up stunted in body and weak of constitution. So bad had things become that, in 1802, an act was passed for the benefit of the 'health and morals' of apprentices and others employed in mills, and the hours of work were reduced to twelve per day." 1
This law of 1802 related to cotton mills and was the first factory act. The abolition of slaves in 1807 freed the negro, but the slavery of the factory worker was not broken for many years. In 1847 the Ten Hours Bill, which was debated for fourteen years before it could be passed, became a law, and since that time legislation in England has advanced continually.
Factory legislation in this country came much later, partly because factories were not erected so early here and bad conditions did not develop so rapidly. The long struggle for legislation and the attitude towards these problems may be better understood if we trace briefly the development of this field of labor for women and children in the United States. In the early days women had a place in the home which demanded all their attention. Children as well as grown women helped with the spinning and the many other household tasks.