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Chemistry LibreTexts

12.6: Childhood under Attack

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  • The mid-19th century witnessed a moral panic over the condition of, and the perceived threat posed by, children in the streets of British North America’s major cities. The same situation existed in British and American cities at the time, sparking campaigns to improve the lives of children. (Charles Dickens’ novel, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, published in serial form from 1838 through 1839 served as an inspiration for increasing policing and philanthropy alike.)

    Street arabs or urchins, as impoverished children were known, were viewed as criminals or criminals-in-the-making. They fell below contemporary hygiene standards (which were, by all accounts, pretty low to begin with) and were perceived as unsupervised. Many “child-savers” believed a solution was to put them to work; better to have them spend long days in a factory or be fostered out to a household, even if they would be exploited and ill-treated, rather than let them remain on the streets, or so the thinking went at the time. As one review of the literature put it:

    The child-savers … made proper parenting in a natural family setting the central precept of their endeavours; yet, in practice, their programmes seldom allowed such a relationship. In the final analysis they expected the regeneration of children to take place through work: for the evangelicals hard, manual labour shaped appropriate personal discipline and morality, and for the child-savers, it turned aimless street arabs into productive workers.[1]