During the Industrial Revolution it was common for children to work full time jobs. This was before there were laws against child labor. Children often worked long hours each week for little pay. Some of these jobs were dangerous causing children to be injured or even killed while working.
Three typical jobs worked by children included breaking coal, making matches, and selling newspapers. Children working these jobs earned the nicknames "breaker boys", "matchgirls", and "newsies."
Breaker Boys Photograph by Lewis Hine
Breaker boys worked in the coal mines. Their main job was to separate chunks of coal by hand. As coal came down the conveyor belt, they would break up the coal into uniform sized pieces and also separate out any impurities (like rocks, clay, and soil).
Most breaker boys were between the age of 8 and 12 years old. They would sit on wooden seats separating coal with their bare hands for hours at a time. A typical work week for a breaker boy was 6 days a week and 10 hours a day.
Being a breaker boy was a tough and dangerous job. The sharp stones in the coal would cut up their fingers. The buildings they worked in were filled with coal dust. Many of them developed asthma or lung cancer. There were few safety measures and many breaker boys lost fingers or limbs that got caught in the conveyor belts.
Matchgirls Working by Robert Sherard
Matchgirls worked in match factories. One of their jobs was to dip the tips of wooden matches into a chemical called phosphorous. Most of the workers in match factories were women and many of them were young girls between the age of 13 and 16. They became known by the nickname "matchgirls."
Working in a match factory was hard work and dangerous. Match dippers stood throughout much of a 12 hour workday and barely made enough money to eat. They were sometimes beaten by their bosses and injured their fingers in the machinery. However, the most dangerous part of being a match girl was the phosphorous chemicals. These chemicals made them sick and caused many of the girls to lose their teeth.
Newsies sold newspapers in the big cities. They were usually homeless orphan boys who had no other way to make money. Newsies weren't hired employees. They ran their own business. Each morning they would get up and buy newspapers. Then they would find a good corner with lots of traffic and sell the papers for a profit. Hopefully they could sell all the papers. If they didn't, they might actually lose money.
Newsies by Lewis Wickes Hine
In 1899, some of the newspapers in New York raised the prices that they charged the newsies for papers. The newsies banded together and went on strike to fight the raise. They did all they could to prevent the sale of the newspapers. Eventually, the two sides came to a compromise. The newspapers didn't lower the price of the papers, but they did agree to buy back unsold papers from the newsies.
Interesting Facts about Breaker Boys, Matchgirls, and Newsies
Lewis Hine's famous photos of breaker boys at a Pennsylvania coal mine (see above) helped bring an end to child labor.
In 1888, thousands of matchgirls went on strike in London to protest working conditions and low wages.
Kid Blink was one of the leaders of the newsie strike in 1899. He got the nickname "Kid Blink" because he wore an eye patch over one eye.
Disney made a movie about the newsie strike in 1992 called Newsies. The Broadway musical version of Newsies debuted in 2012.