EVERY YEAR, busloads of schoolchildren take field trips to the mills at Lowell National Historical Park. While chaperone mothers tote tankards of iced coffee and admire the charming red-brick factories that date from the 1820s, students examine spinning and weaving machines operated by “mill girls” as young as 10 and envision the roar and sweat of fiber-saturated rooms in full production. Properly horrified, young visitors draw the conclusion that only mean, bad people make children work. Then they retreat to their own world of school and play.
Children do not belong in factories; it is good that American children no longer toil in mills. We are embarrassed to realize how much of our industrial world was built by nimble little fingers, embarrassed that our own sneakers and plastic toys now made elsewhere may be assembled by children. But good insights can come from imagining mill life in Lowell and other New England cities: that children can do meaningful work, and their labors can contribute to the well-being of the family to which they belong. For most kids, the most obvious place for them to do that work is at home.