The Overlooked Workforce

Child labor was crucial to a growing nation, says Sundue.

History Department Chair Sharon Braslaw Sundue has written the first in-depth analysis of U.S. child labor before industrialization.

In her new book, Industrious in Their Stations: Young People at Work in Urban America, 1720–1810 (University of Virginia Press, 2009), Sundue, an associate professor of history who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, provides a comparative study of child labor in three major 18th-century cities: Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston, S.C.

You write that children’s contributions to the early American economy have been overlooked. Why?

Labor historians have tended to lump children in with all other laborers, and historians of childhood tend to be more concerned with social, cultural and intellectual questions. The two needed to be brought together to understand both the economy and how families operated.

What kind of labor are we talking about?

Children were essential in the fields, in house­hold production, in taking care of babies. In urban environments, children were working as domestic servants, in pre-industrial manufacturing and in what we would consider white-collar work today—tending the shop, collecting debts and even keeping books.

How did the exclusion of the poor from schooling limit the potential of the American Revolution?

Since poor children did not have access to education, they were denied the tools that theorists argued were essential for citizenship—revolutionary Americans weren’t living up to their own stated ideals. It’s the beginning of social inequality through access to education that haunts us to this day.

Did you find any first-person accounts by children from that time?

I found an amazing journal from a 12-year-old boy in Massa­chusetts, Quincy Thaxter. It was an account of what he did every day in terms of his education and working on his father’s farm. It’s clearly the work of a little boy, but it allowed me to figure out how much formal schooling he got versus how much work he did, and to calculate the economic value his labor had for his father.

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