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In the 19th century, the British Parliament passed a series of acts to regulate the employment of children, adolescents and adult women in factories. The 1833 Factory Act, which aimed at improving the working conditions of children in textile factories, is considered the first effective act. Although the general belief was that the factory acts were the result of humanitarian considerations, the underlying motivations of the politicians who supported the 1833 Factory Act have been questioned since then. In a letter he wrote in 1837, Nassau W. Senior argued that operatives pushed for restricting the work hours of children to increase the price of their labor. Putting Senior’s argument in the center of their debate, a group of economists argued that they provided a public choice perspective emphasizing the role of pressure on the part of an interest group (operatives in this case) in the legislative process. Karl Polanyi, on the other hand, presented a totally different, if not completely opposite approach. He put forward the idea that the laboring people were hardly effective in this legislative activity which primarily reflected the resistance of the landlords to mill owners whose interests conflicted on the issue of food prices. This paper searches for evidence to support these arguments by rereading four factory guide books written in the twelve-year period following the 1833 Factory Act. To this end, Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), Peter Gaskell’s Artisans and Machinery (1836), William Cooke Taylor’s Factories and the Factory System (1844) and Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) are reviewed.
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