Click on any link below to learn more about the French worker of the 18th & 19th Centuries

Workers' Organizations

Worker & State Relations

Working Conditions

Living Conditions

Workers' Personal Experiences

Bibliographic Credits


Education in the Early Industrial Era

Jenae Spry

    Because of the many hardships the working class of the early industrial era endured, education was rarely considered anything but an unattainable luxury. Education at this time was of course nothing like what we see today. In the early nineteenth century, nuns or priests ran most schools, that is if a community even decided to establish one. It was not even until 1833, less than two centuries ago, that a law, though not enforced, was established making it mandatory that all French communes have public schools for boys. The girls, however, were not required to attend any type of school until the 1880ís!

    Few people were lucky enough to attend schools to learn to read and write. These two modern day necessities were taught separately and an extra fee was added if parents wished their child to learn to both read and write. Schools would sometimes board students who did not live close enough or who needed a place to stay. The cost of one boarding school described by Jeanne Bouvier in her autobiography was twenty-five francs a month for students who were fed at the boarding school and those children who had food supplied to them from their parents were charged only about four francs a month.

    When most people think of education especially in recent times, the question is raised of higher education, as it is often assumed now that a student will go to college. Higher education in the early industrial era, however, was the equivalent of what we would associate with middle school. At this time period, children did not even dream of attaining any type of higher education but rather planned on going out to get a job after primary education. The male and female children were taught separately until relatively recently because administrators thought that they should be taught separate things. For example, a man should know about science and math and about machinery in order to attain a job in a factory while a woman should know how to sew, knit, etc. in order to attain a job as a seamstress or domestic servant. Education does not necessarily have to be formal, however, as informal education was extremely prevalent at this time and extremely important.

    Apprenticeships were the main form of education, as formal education typically went no further than primary school. Children would typically begin their working careers at the age of twelve, though often this step into the working world occurred at a much younger age. As they entered a shop to learn a trade as an apprentice they would be paid very little to take home to their families; however, as they attained skills they were supposed to receive increasingly more. Unfortunately many employers saw apprentices as a way of getting work almost for free. Eventually most children would realize this and leave to find another job; however many children were forced to sign on to these apprenticeships for a year or more. Nevertheless the idea of learning a trade by working in a shop was not all bad. In fact, many young men would go on what was called the "Tour of France" and travel around where they would not only receive the informal education of an apprenticeship but also gain experience in regional variations throughout the country. In addition, because many regions had their own dialect, those who went on the Tour of France many times would be able to learn "proper French".

    Education, a scarce commodity during the industrial era, was important, though not as important as we consider it today. Most of the female working class was not literate though male children typically received some education in the 19th century. However, even if parents realized the importance for education, it was hard for them to provide such formal education for their children, as they could not afford to forgo the income the children could provide. This unfortunate condition caused the poor to stay poor and the rich to stay rich.



All design copyright Sara Hinds 2002

All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

Comments? Comments on this site should be sent to Professor Jeremy D. Popkin, 

Department of History, University of Kentucky, email