Child Care and Working Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Joyce Burnette, Wabash College

Much attention has been paid to the rise in the labor force participation of women over the last few decades. We must resist the temptation, however, to project this trend back in time and conclude that the need for child care is uniquely modern. The working mother is not a new invention. The labor force participation rates of women have not followed a linear path throughout history. In 19th-century Britain, many mothers worked. This paper examines the child care choices these women faced, and how these choices affected their labor market roles. I will examine the women of the working class; upper-class women did not face the same conflict between work and child care.
If child care is an economic burden, why do women, and not men, bear this burden? To some extent, the answer is obvious. Women give birth and breast-feed infants because they are biologically equipped to do so. Given their high fertility rates, married women of the 18th century spent a great deal of time in these tasks. For other child-care tasks, however, men are as capable as women. Women took responsibility for these child care tasks as well because both custom and income maximization suggested that they should. Since women earned about half as much as men in the labor market, their opportunity costs were lower, so economic as well as cultural motives led women to be given the responsibility for child care.
Given that they were responsible for the children, mothers needed child care in order to work. This paper explores the forms of child care available to the 19th-century mother. The forms of child care used in the early 19th century are surprisingly similar to the forms of child care used today. This paper will also show that women responded to economic incentives when deciding whether to care for their own children or work.
Sometimes child care and work were compatible. Independent artisans had the freedom to take care of their children while working. For example, James Hopkinson praised his wife for her business sense and claimed, "How she laboured at the press and assisted me in the work of my printing office, with a child in her arms, I have no space to tell, nor in fact have I space to allude to the many ways she contributed to my good fortune" (Hopkinson, 1968, p. 96). Women were even able to combine agricultural work with child care. In Sussex in 1835, "the custom of the mother of a family carrying her infant with her in its cradle into the field, rather than lose the opportunity of adding her earnings to the general stock, though partially practiced before, is becoming very much more general now" (quoted in Pinckbeck, 1930, p. 85). Shorter hours often helped women to combine work and family responsibilities; in agriculture it was common for women to start an hour later than men, so they could get breakfast for their families, and return home sooner in the evening.
The movement of work from artisanal shops into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and child care. Factory work required long hours and was much more disciplined; women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will. In spite of these difficulties, though, many mothers were able to take advantage of various types of child care in order to continue working. Child care was widely available and widely used during the early 19th century, and the options available resemble to the choices available to today's mother.
Modern women use three basic forms of child care: relatives, informal paid care, and daycare institutions. A 1988 survey of young mothers in the US reveals that 39% of children aged 2 to 4 are cared for by relatives, 25% are cared for by a non-related person, and 28% are cared for in a child care center (Veum and Gleason, 1991, p. 12). Child care options available to the 19th-century mother were much the same. Children were sometimes cared for by relatives; if none was available the child was sent to an "infant school," or a neighbor was hired to provide care.
In 19th century Britain, one of the most common alternatives to care by the mother was care by another relative. As today, grandmothers sometimes provided child care. Elizabeth Leadbeater, who worked for a Birmingham brass-founder, worked while she was nursing and had her mother look after the infant (B.P.P. 1843 XIV, p. 710). Mrs. Smart, an agricultural worker from Calne, Wiltshire, noted, "Sometimes I have had my mother, and sometimes my sister, to take care of the children, or I could not have gone out" (B.P.P. 1843 XII, p. 66). More commonly, though, older siblings around the ages of nine or ten provided the child care. In a family from Wales, containing children aged 9, 7, 5, 3, and 1, we find that "The oldest children nurse the youngest" (Eden, 1797, vol. iii, p. 904).
Leaving younger children in the care of "older" siblings sometimes became indistinguishable from leaving them without care, such as in the case of a mother who "has two children, the youngest a baby, that is tended by the other, a little older" (Engels, 1926, p. 143). However, leaving young children alone had real dangers that seems to have dissuaded most parents from dispensing with child care entirely. One mother who admitted to leaving her children at home worried greatly about the risks:
I have always left my children to themselves, and, God be praised! nothing has ever happened to them, though I thought it dangerous. I have many a time come home, and have thought it a mercy to find nothing has happened to them. . . . Bad accidents often happen. (B.P.P. 1843 XII, p. 68)
Leaving young children home without child care had real dangers, and in fact most working mothers paid for child care suggests that they did not consider leaving young children alone to be an acceptable option.
When a relative was not available, paid child care was. As today, paid child care was available both inside and outside the home. If a daughter was not available, some one else's daughter, or a neighbor, could be hired. Elizabeth Leadbeater of Birmingham claimed that, "It is a common custom for infants to be fed by the hand whilst their mothers are at the shop; they are under the charge of either young girls, 7, 8, or 9 years old, or put out to some neighbors" (B.P.P. 1843 XIV, p. 710).
The closest counterpart of today's day-care center was the dame school. Dame schools were small schools run out of a the teacher's home. The quality of the instruction was not high, and many considered these schools to be, in fact, child care arrangements. In 1840 an observer of Spitalfields noted, "In this neighborhood, where the women as well as the men are employed in the manufacture of silk, many children are sent to small schools, not for instruction, but to be taken care of whilst their mothers are at work" (B.P.P. 1840 XXIII, p. 261). Critics of dame schools who focus on how little children learned there are ignoring their other important function. Dame schools thrived because they provided day-care, along with some minimal instruction.
Mothers might use a combination of different types of child care. Elizabeth Wells, who worked in a Leicester worsted factory, had five children, ages 10, 8, 6, 2, and four months. The eldest, a daughter, stayed home to tend the house and care for the infant. The second child worked, and the six-year-old and two-year-old were sent to "an infant school" (B.P.P. 1833 XX, C1 p. 33). Mary Wright, an "over-looker" in the rag-cutting room of a Buckinghamshire paper factory, had five children. The eldest worked in the rag-cutting room with her, the youngest was cared for at home, and the middle three were sent to a school; "for taking care of an infant she pays 1s.6d. a-week, and 3d. a-week for the three others. They go to a school, where they are taken care of and taught to read" (B.P.P. 1843 XIV, p. 46).
In the 19th-century, as today, the cost of child care was substantial. Davies (1795, p. 14) quotes the price of child-care at 1s. a week, which was about a quarter of a woman's weekly earnings in agriculture. In 1843, in the south-west, girls were hired for child care at 9d. per week plus food, and women working in agriculture earned 8d. per day, so even without counting the food the cost of child care was one-fifth of a woman's wage (B.P.P. 1843 XII, p. 26). In 1843 Mary Wright paid a total of 2s.3d. for her four children; she earned 10s.6d. per week, so her total child-care payments were 21% of her wage. Today, poor women pay approximately the same fraction of their earnings for child care; Catton (1991, p. 7) finds poor mothers spending 26% of their income on child care. The non-poor, however, spent only 8% of their income on child care. Child care costs are less of a burden for today's average woman than they were for 19th-century mothers.
Child care was available, but it was expensive. While child-rearing did not prevent women from working, it did influence their decisions. I examine first the influence of child care costs on labor force participation, and then its influence on occupational choice.
A mother has a choice between remaining at home, where she provides child care herself, and going out to work, which requires a expenditure on child care. The mother will decide to work if the benefits exceed the costs. Women might take other factors besides the cash cost of child care into consideration, such as the fact that hard work required more calories, or that the quality of the child care was not the same if someone else was hired to do it. One woman told a parliamentary investigator that she thought the net benefit of agricultural work as very small:
I do not think a great deal is got by a mother of a family going out to work; perhaps she has to hire a girl to look after the children, and there is a great waste of victuals and spoiling of things; and then working in the fields makes people eat so much more. I know it was so with me always. I often say there is not fourpence got in the year by my working out. (B.P.P. 1843 XII, p. 67-68)
Having estimated the net benefit of working at only four pence, it is not surprising to hear her say that, "Sometimes the children have prevented my going out."
This hypothesis leads to some straight-forward conclusions. The higher the market wage available, the more likely the mother is to work outside the home. The higher the cost of child care, the higher the mother's reservation wage, and the less likely the mother is to work. The evidence, while limited, is consistent with this. Female labor force participation was highest in factory towns, where women's wages were also the highest.
The higher the wage, the less time mothers spent out of the labor market after a birth. A nursing child kept agricultural women at home; in 1843, one woman reported that she frequently worked in the fields, but that "Last year I could not, owing to the birth of the baby" (B.P.P. 1843 XII, p. 66). Women who could earn higher wages commonly returned to work much sooner. Women who worked in factories could earn twice as much as those who worked in agriculture, and often returned to work within a few weeks of a birth. Women in mining also earned high wages, and also returned to work a few weeks after giving birth. In 1842, women in Lancashire mines were making 2s. per day, more than twice what women earned in agriculture, and women returned to work within two weeks of giving birth (B.P.P. 1842 XV, p. 30, 38). High female wages resulted in high female labor force participation, in spite of these women's responsibility for child care.
If child care costs differ among occupations, then these costs will influence women's choice of occupation. Women will be most likely to chose those occupations that are most easily combined with child care. This is one of the reasons that women were so heavily concentrated in cottage industry.
Many women worked in cottage industries, where they earned very low wages. In Devonshire, women working in lace factories averaged 5s.4d. per week, but those making lace by hand at home made only 6d. per day, or 3s. per week. Why did women continue to work in cottage industry if they could earn nearly twice as much in the factories? There are many reasons why women were so concentrated in cottage industry. Cottage industries such as lace-making and straw-plaiting were particularly suited to women's skills; they required no strength, and they took advantage of a type of skill that women in particular developed, dexterity. Factory employment and cottage industry were available in specific locations, and women often did not have both available where they lived. In addition to these reasons, I suggest that women chose to work in cottage industry, in spite of the low wages they received there, because child care costs were low.
In cottage industry, work was done in the home, and the mother could be physically present with the children. Part of child care is simply being present to prevent the accidents, the fear of which prevented most women from leaving their children home alone. Of course, this is not all there is to child care, and child care costs were not zero for women in domestic industry. Women could lose income if distracted from their work by their children. To solve this problem, mothers often used laudanum to quiet their babies and give them time to work. This method of coping with child care, though harmful to the children, had low immediate costs for the mother; a woman who worked at home could reduce her expenses to about 2d. per week for laudanum (B.P.P. 1843 XIV, p. 630). Cottage industry allowed mothers to earn a (somewhat lower) market wage without paying the relatively high costs to hire child care. The fact that women earned low wages in domestic industry does not necessarily mean they had no other choices. If the ability to work at home was an advantage to a woman, allowing her to reduce her child care expenses, then the supply curve for work in the home would lie below the supply curve for work outside the home. The fact that the low wages paid in cottage industry cottage industry coexisted with higher wages in work outside the home can be explained by the difference in child care costs.
In 1825, William Thompson (1970, p. x) claimed that, "Two circumstances - permanent inferiority of strength, and occasional loss of time in gestation and rearing of infants - must eternally render the average exertions of women in the race of the competition for wealth less successful than those of men." While technological change has eroded the importance of strength, modern women still share with their 19th-century sisters the need for child care, and the labor market disadvantages that come with it. The quality of child care has improved, but the types of care available to mothers have changed little in 200 years. Fortunately, though, responsibility for child care did not and does not prevent women from working.

Catton, Peter. 1991. "Child-Care Problems: An Obstacle to Work," Monthly Labor Review, 114:3-9.
Davies, David. 1795. The Case of Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered. London: Robinson.
Eden, F. M. 1797. State of the Poor. London: Davis.
Engels, Frederick. [1845] 1926. Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Hopkinson, James. 1968. Victorian Cabinet Maker: The Memoirs of James Hopkinson, 1819-1894 . ed. Jocelyne Baty Goodman. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1930. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850. London: George Routledge.
Thompson, William. [1825] 1970. Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men to Retain them in Political and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery. New York: Source Book Press.
Veum, Jonathan, and Gleason, Philip. 1991. "Child Care: Arrangements and Costs," Monthly Labor Review, 114:10-17.
British Parliamentary Papers:
1833 (450) XX. First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories. 1840 (43) XXIII. Reports from Assistant Hand-Loom Weavers' Commissioners.
1842 (380) XV, XVI. Children's Employment Commission: First Report of the Commissioners (Mines).
1843 (510) XII. Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture.
1843 (431) XIV. Children's Employment Commission: Appendix to the Second Report of the Commissioners (Trades and Manufactures).