Tag Archives: child labor

And the Living Wasn’t Easy

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

When reformers first began to champion the use of insane asylums in the 1830s, these institutions really did tend to operate as the havens they were meant to be. Life was harsh everywhere for most people: there were few protections for workers, public aid for the weak or disabled scarcely existed, and bodily comfort might mean no more than a slice of bread and a straw-filled sack to sleep on.

It was an age when a professor at the Paris Faculty of Medicine could safely state: “The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it . . . Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.”

When surgeons scoffed at the idea of easing pain for (presumably) paying patients, what comfort could lunatics–who supposedly did not feel pain, cold, or hunger–expect? When Dorothea Dix began her crusade to provide compassionate care to the insane, she wrote graphically about the filth and misery she found in jails and outbuildings where the mentally ill were held as prisoners. Once asylums were established, however, these patients could expect decent food, clean bedding, warmth and ventilation, and human attention.

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Conditions deteriorated quickly as families filled asylums with relatives they either did not want or could not handle. Some asylums became little better than the dark and filthy jails they had replaced, and certainly did not help their patients to recover. Coming full circle, reformers again began to agitate on behalf of the insane–to release or “de-institutionalize” them.

 

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Whose Responsibility?

Children Working at a Textile Mill

For much of history, dependent persons–children, the sick, poor, elderly, and disabled–were considered the entire responsibility of the family. That family (or probably the head of household) could choose how it wanted to deal with that person and was usually free to act upon its¬† decision. Thus, officials had no reason to interfere if a family sent a six-year-old child off to work ten hours a day, ignored or neglected an elderly¬† parent, or allowed a blind relative to waste away emotionally and intellectually. The poor were often allowed to starve; towns were so anxious not to incur unnecessary expenses that they often banned newcomers who couldn’t prove they had work and could provide for themselves. Independent charities, religious groups, or individuals sometimes offered aid to these dependent groups, but society largely washed its hands of them. Thus, a family member who would not or could not work due to mental problems might be allowed to wander around the countryside as best he could. Violently disturbed members were often chained to prevent their wandering or interference with the rest of the family’s tasks.

This laissez faire treatment of the insane continued into relatively modern times. In Connecticut, for instance, Mary Weed, of Stratford, stated in 1786 “that for 20 years her husband had been so insane as to be kept ‘chained.'” Whether he was chained at home or in a jail is unknown, but one place was as likely as another. Even when towns did try to help dependent citizens, they often wound up in dismal environments. The poor and sick might find a place to stay at an almshouse or workhouse, while an unruly person–no matter what the cause for the behavior–would end up in jail. Eventually, towns were forced to expend more effort to help the helpless, which I will discuss in my next post.

The Empty Cupboard, courtesy Sheffield Libraries, Archives and Information

The Madman by Sir Charles Bell, 1806, courtesy of The Wellcome Library

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