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The Jungle and Child Labor

In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, written in 1906, the abominable conditions of working life in a meat-packing town near Chicago are exposed in the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis, trying to succeed in America. Along with Jurgis' tale, Sinclair, having spent seven weeks in Chicago researching through personal experience the nature of labor, gives a firsthand account of many aspects of the life of labor in the Gilded Age, including examples of child labor. He describes the practices of children working in factories and children going into the city to sell newspapers (next page) to help support their family.

Child Factory Labor

The story of "little Stanislovas" in The Jungle depicts the horrid nature of child factory labor. Stanislovas is packed off to a factory to help his family pay rent on the house. He is firstly taken to a priest to obtain a certificate "to the effect that he was two years older than he was" to avoid conflict with the "law" (see government involvement) on minimum working age. Stanislovas, upon arrival at the factory entrance, is eagerly ushered into the factory and given a task, described in the excerpt below:

"To attend to [the machinery]...and fill several hundred cans of lard per hour, there were necessary two human creatures, one of whom knew how to place an empty lard can on a certain spot every few seconds, and the other of whom knew how to take a full lard can off a certain spot every few seconds and set it upon a tray...and so was decided the place in the universe of little Stanislovas, and his destiny till the end of his days. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, it was fated that he should stand upon a certain square foot of floor...making never a motion and thinking never a thought, save for the setting of lard cans." (26)

This excerpt illustrates the monotony and tiresome nature of child factory labor and the effects of such labor on a child. Stanislovas is reduced to a piece of machinery, repeating motions and cycles without end, becoming forever lodged in the machine, "destined" to remain a part of the factory. His childhood experiences and elementary education are replaced with mindless work, holding him back from opportunities to grow and develop as a person. Sinclair also describes various conditions under which Stanislovas must work:

"In summer the stench of the warm lard would be nauseating, and in winter the cans would all but freeze to his naked little fingers in the unheated cellar...And for this, at the end of the week, he would carry home three dollars to his family, being his pay at the rate of five cents per hour-just about his proper share of the total earnings of the million and three-quarters of children who are now engaged in earning their livings in the United States." (27)

Sinclair communicates the unrelenting harshness of factory conditions and the excessively meager salary allotted to children utilized in the labor force. He also states that almost 2 million children were employed in such labor during the Gilded Age in America.

Thus, child factory labor in the Gilded Age, as described in The Jungle, and depicted in various photographs from the time, stunted the physical and mental growth of children and caused a deterioration of their lives. Conditions of labor were inhumane and neglected, further contributing to the fleecing of the children's health and growth.

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