The Ice Cream Man Cometh
An evolution of free range kids in the neighborhood, from coarse rough necks to soft and feeble captives of safety-first parents.
Your children are overrated and overvalued. You’ve turned them into little cult objects. You have a child fetish and it’s not healthy.
— George Carlin
At the turn of the past century, the people of the northern working-class industrial towns of England were as hard as they come. Before child labor laws were strictly enforced, the iron smelts and coal plants churned out rough necks of all ages.
In early 19th century Britain, the average age that children started to work in factories or fields was 10 years old. The average in the northern industrial centers was as young as 8 years old. Life expectancy in towns of factory production and industrial manufacturing in the 1840s was just 29.1
A few started as scavengers, crawling beneath the machinery to clear it of dirt, dust or anything else that might disturb the mechanism. In the mines, children usually started by minding the trap doors, picking out coals at the pit mouth, or by carrying picks for the miners.2
Child labor in Britain sparked a library of literary works from Dickensian classics A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, to lesser-known works in Frances Trollope's The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, and Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies.
The campaign against child labor culminated in two important pieces of legislation—the Factory Act (1833) and the Mines Act (1842). The Factory Act prohibited the employment of children younger than nine years of age and limited the hours that children between nine and 13 could work. The Mines Act raised the starting age of workers to 10 years.
Neither piece of legislation did much to improve working conditions or the abusive treatment of child laborers. Rampant poverty that forced children into the workforce meant that parents knew about the harsh treatment of their own children, but out of desperation were powerless to stop it.