Top 10 jobs that were once practiced by children in France

When we were children, we spent our days at school and playing happily in the grass, but it would have been very different if we had lived 200 years earlier. In the 19th century, the exploitation of children was the norm; children worked in the factory or in the mines from the age of 6 or 8. They worked more than 12 hours a day to be paid three to four times less than adults. Ten years before the Jules Ferry law on compulsory secular education, hundreds of thousands of children were still working every day. In 1868, one in ten workers was under 15 years old. It’s still less tiring to sleep in math class…

1. Little Savoyard chimney sweeps

From the 17th century until the beginning of the 20th century, children were employed to sweep the chimneys of European cities because adults were too large to fit into the flues. The vast majority of these children came from Savoy (a region that was not French at the time) because their workers were known to be hardy and not dizzy.

As the Savoyard families were very poor, they rented their children from the age of 6 so that they would go to work in Paris. The bosses promised the families that their children would be fed and housed, but that was not the case. The children were harshly exploited (they worked 12 to 14 hours a day) and often had to beg to survive. Many of these little chimney sweeps would die very young, due to an accident or illness.

2. Children in the mines

It was in the metal mines of the Vosges that the first child miners were hired in the 1570s. Children were valuable employees since they were the only ones able to squeeze through the narrowest galleries. The boys pushed the carts filled with coal at the risk of being run over and the girls climbed the ladders with hoods on their backs at the risk of falling. These children worked from the age of 5 or 6 and for more than 12 hours a day. Sometimes they were even asked to stay underground for two days in a row for a pittance.

3. Children in textile factories from the age of 4

Children were employed in all types of manufacturing, but in France it was the textile factories that recruited the most. The small size and flexibility of children are very useful for cleaning looms and sneaking behind to reattach threads. In the region of Tourcoing in 1790, nearly half of the employees were children and it happened that some drowned in the pits where the wool was washed. The smaller the company, the less controlled it is, so it happens that girls aged 4 or 5 are forced to sew lace for more than 12 hours a day.

4. Children exploited in circuses

In the 19th century, when school was still very rare, children were hired in circuses (sometimes against their will) to escape life on the streets. These children, sometimes very young, are placed there by their parents who recover their salary or are picked up by circuses and theaters after being abandoned.

5. Children in the factories at the forge, in the printing and glass works

All over the world, children are considered cheap labor and 19th century France is no exception. Child labor makes it possible to hire the whole family at the same time, which allows manufacturers to create a break with more traditional rural work. In addition, the low wages of children put downward pressure on the wages of adults. In metal forging factories, children are hired from the age of 4 to train them as early as possible. In the printing works of Ardèche, the bosses ask adults to come as much as possible with their children.

6. The little Parisian ragpickers

In the middle of the 19th century, the dustbin had not yet appeared and waste piled up in the streets of the capital. It is the scavengers who take care of recovering the waste, sorting it and reselling what they can. They are considered pariahs but are paid more than some workers and occupy a central position. At the time, 30 or 40,000 people, men, women and children, engaged in ragpicking every day.

7. The street vendors who slept outside

Under the Old Regime, the abandonment of children had become more than common. In 1787, the number of abandoned children out of 26 million inhabitants is estimated at 40,000. These children are often entrusted to institutions but many still live from begging or street sales: fruits, flowers or objects of all kinds. Some vendors work on behalf of their parents and can only return in the evening if they have collected enough money.

8. Those who worked in the countryside

Since Antiquity, child labor has been trivialized. Long before children were hired in factories or construction sites, rural children worked with their parents on farms, fields or businesses. The work was as difficult as for the adults, but they were sometimes assigned tasks that required more dexterity or agility. Some country children were placed as servants in town with the wealthiest families.

9. Child sellers at the capital’s auction

Until the 1950s, newspaper sellers were most often boys who started working at the age of 6. The newspaper owners employed these children to claim the front page and attract the curious. Unlike the kids in the mines, these kids were pretty well treated and didn’t work all day but were obviously very poorly paid.

10. Shoe shiners

Before 1950, the job of scraper was to clean the shoes of city dwellers and help them avoid mud with wooden boards. After the construction of cobblestones and sidewalks in Paris, the scrapers became shoe shiners and it was often old people or little boys who held these positions. They are very poorly paid but the work is less hard than elsewhere.

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