Michigan State University

Child Labor, Orphans, Poverty

American Sunday schools derived from English models that explicitly sought to instruct the poor and orphaned and so when they took hold in the United States they, too, paid special attention to those children. Industrialization and the rise of factory work in urban centers like New York and Philadelphia and textile mill towns like Lowell led to a new population of working young people and child labor. Factory work clearly demarcated work life from home life and compelled workers to live by the clock. This also had a distinct impact on family life as adults, children and teenagers, left the farm to work in factories. Children were regarded as laborers and it became common to forego education for factory work or to consider education irrelevant to the prospects of factory work. By the 1830s, as factory work began to control every aspect of the lives of its laborers, organized labor struggles became more common.

In the Sunday School literature that deals with these developments, one will not find much in the way of accurate descriptions of factory work (Ragged Homes, an English import, is a notable exception). Rather, Sunday schools books typically saw child labor and poverty as part of a cultural problem of secularization and evidence of spiritual decay. A. I. Cummings' The Factory Girl makes a direct plea to the reader for compassion on behalf of female operatives in Lowell along the lines of the Lowell Offering, an operatives' literary magazine of the period. But it is not a particularly evangelical work, and like much of the fiction published in the Offering, conveys the difficulties of working girls by way of melodrama. Didley Dumps describes the urban newsboy as a figure who is part of the new world of mass communication living an unsupervised existence of iniquity on the streets of Philadelphia. It tells the story of a home erected for the reform of newsboys.

These books do not so much as offer a direct view of poverty as a record of the class-inflected scriptural filter through which the poor were perceived. "I Wish I Was Poor" worries about the problem of poverty and salvation. The book takes the form of a dialogue between two pious invalids, the well to do Mrs. Lawrence and her niece Lucy. The little girl worries over the Biblical verse, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." She longs to be poor so as to improve her chances of salvation. In this text, like The Factory Boy, the poor do not so much appear as exemplify concerns of social and economic difference and how middle-class or well-off Christians might understand their own prosperity in the face of human suffering and socioeconomic inequality.

Orphans run through this literature like a crimson thread and the figure of the orphan is one of the most pervasive in all of nineteenth century literature, from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations to Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. There can be little doubt that orphaning was a reality more present to nineteenth-century Americans than it is today but it also true that the orphan was a stock convention of moral fiction. In many of the stories in this collection orphans are powerful symbols of those in need of religious guidance and development. At once idealized and rooted in tragedy, in their pitiable vulnerability, the orphan came to express the very stakes of shaping the values of youth, and seemed to cry out for the surrogate nurture that Sunday schools sought to provide.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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