Menu Close

Labor Day

Author John Cech
Air Date 9/6/1999
The Chimney Sweeper

Labor Day Transcript

America didn’t have lasting child labor laws until the 1930s, when the Great Depression made work so scarce that adults were taking the jobs that children had previously done. Among the many social reforms of that decade, was a heightened consciousness of how children should be treated, including whether or not they should be sent to work in coal mines or textile factories. FDR’s White House Conference on Youth in a Democracy, held in 1940, made a sweeping statement about the nation’s role in protecting and helping to advance the lives of all children, the privileged and the underprivileged alike. One of the leaders of the conference, Homer Folks, proclaimed in his opening remarks that “what we might wish to do for …[a] future President, we must be willing to do for every child.”

This movement toward a more enlightened view of children began in England over a hundred years earlier, with the Romantic writers of the late 18th century. One of the most poignant reflections on the nature of child labor, and perhaps one of the first, was William Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper” from his Songs of Innocence of 1789 . The speaker in the poem is a trusting young child, who sees the facts of his life — its drudgery, dangers, and early death — without irony and with heartbreaking candor. Here’s the poem, so that we may be reminded of all the unprotected children in other countries and in our own — so that we may remember all the chimney sweepers who are still at work:

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Posted in Holidays, Poetry