Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”


Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

4 responses to “Work hard for a living”

  1. Not a classic, but from the American Girl library, Samantha from 1906, meets a neighbor girl named Nellie, an orphan that works for her living.


  2. Joe Willard was fourteen when he started working at the Creamery. Fourteen! He also worked in Willard’s Emporium, of course, and that’s the angle you don’t cover here–family businesses and farms. It’s out of your range, but I’ve seen a picture of my grandfather driving a mule wagon at seven years old, in 1926. Does that kind of work seem like it doesn’t “count”? It would be interesting to explore why, if so. Almanzo and Royal were doing a man’s work at a pretty young age… but then, so were Eliza and Alice. It wouldn’t have occurred to me offhand to think of the very hard work that Eliza and Alice did as being quite on the same level as farm work, which has a direct economic result. (The girls did sometimes participate in money-earning activities, though, like the apples and potatoes and chickens.) Is that the difference, the money-earning? None of it seems to compare to working at the Creamery, but certainly all four Wilder kids’ work was vital to the success of the Wilder farm.

    And, of course, I know history is your thing, but in many or most countries, kids are still going out to work so they can earn money for their families. Seven-year-old nannies, like Anne. I suppose that doesn’t fit into the mission of the event, but I kind of wish it did. I look forward to hearing more about the event!


  3. We’re purposely avoiding farms for this event, simply because we talk about about chores and work on farms so often.
    And I wanted to focus on things where kids did earn money–we have done various versions of bartering/earning “money” activities at the museum, and they work really well. And I don’t think people think about how early kids enter into the greater economic world.
    But kids in family businesses (off the farm) is something I didn’t touch on–and that is interesting to think about.
    Will probably not get into modern child labor issue (or even go too deep into factory life in 1900) because this event is targeted at homeschool families. I do try to push them, but there are limits!


  4. There’s also Tony Cioppino in ROLLER SKATES; the Italian boy who helps his father sell fruit. Polly in THE FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS helps her mother sew, and her brother Ben is a chore boy for a local man; he mostly chops wood. Later, when the family is adopted by the wealthy Kings, Ben turns down an offer to send him to college and starts out as an office boy.


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