Surplus Population

In A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is trying to get rid of the men soliciting charity donations, he declares, “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population!” Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present hurls that line back at Scrooge, when Scrooge is worrying about Tiny Tim’s health. The notion of people’s lives being a surplus to be disposed of sounds harsh to us, but it was an accepted notion to many people at the time.

Long before Dickens wrote that line, in fact, before Dickens himself was born, the British Parliament passed the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788, which, among other things, forbid Chimney Sweeps from “hiring” apprentices less than eight years of age. Climbing boy (sometimes girls) where small children essentially sold by families too poor to feed all their kids to Chimney Sweeps. They climbed up through the elaborate and dirty ducts of industrial chimneys to clear and clean them. It was a hard and dangerous life. Most died before puberty. Virtually all that live past puberty died in their late teens from “a most noisome, painful and fatal disease” called Soot Wart, which was eventually identified as Chimney Sweep’s Cancer, the first identified industrial-caused cancer.

But a lot of them didn’t live long enough to succumb to the cancer, since the soot they literally lived in (one master chimney sweep once famously disparaged another because he actually allowed his climbing boys more than two baths a year) contains all sorts of nasty substances, including arsenic. Others got trapped in chimneys where if they were lucky they would die of asphyxiation before they were literally cooked to death.

Then there was the habit some bosses had of setting a fire once the boy was up to make sure he moved fast (if he didn’t work fast enough, he died from smoke inhalation).

Being a climbing boy wasn’t truly an apprenticeship. The only skill one learned was climbing chimneys, and that didn’t lead to better employment. They were never paid wages. And their room and board included a nightly routine of standing close to a fire and while having elbows and knees scrubbed with brine on a stiff brush (which toughened the skin into something that resembled an insect’s carapace). In Scotland Chimney Sweeps didn’t use climbing boys at all, but rather pulled sets of rags and specially designed brushes up through the chimneys one ropes. In 1803 a man named George Smarts invented a mechanical sweeping machine, but virtually no one in the U.S. or U.K. used it.

But the climbing boys system was cheaper. The 1788 act was never really enforced, neither were subsequent acts (1834, 1840) that set the age higher and called for various health and safety measures. One reason they weren’t enforced is because the enforcement mechanisms proposed in each bill were always amended out in order to get enough votes to pass. A very few Master Chimney Sweeps switched to the mechanical brush system. From time a politician or other somewhat prominent person would take up the cause, but sending boys up the chimneys was cheaper and mostly worked. The price of the suffering and death wasn’t factored in because, well, there were always more boys.

It wasn’t until 1875 when a Coroner’s Inquest first ruled the death of a boy in a chimney as manslaughter (rather than “death by misadventure”) that anything really changed.

Then there were the baby farming scandals of the 1870s, in which people who were supposed to be fostering children (many orphaned, but most were the children of unwed or widowed mothers who had to work in grueling factory conditions, and couldn’t care for their own children) were systematically murdering them.

Or people like H.H. Holmes, who’s “murder hotel” was shut down in 1894, but not before he murdered (then either dismembered and sold to medical schools, or incinerated) between 100 and 200 people (modern serial killers are amateurs by comparison).

We live in this delusion that our modern world is more brutal and uncaring than “the good old days.” An event like a theatre shooting happens, and we tut-tut about how much more dangerous our modern world is.

Never mind that murder rates have been going down for centuries. The murder rate, as a percentage of the population, is far, far lower in 2012 than it was in 1812. Never mind that in the 18th and 19th century the overwhelming majority of deaths were due to violence, accident, or illness that is now preventable. It is only in relatively recent times that most people can look forward to the probability of dying of old age, rather than any of those other things.

The times are not getting more brutal. People are not more uncaring than we used to be.

And the solution is definitely not to turn back the clock. We’ve been steadily decreasing the number of deaths suffered through violence, industrial accident, and so forth for a couple of hundred years by incrementally improving how we do things—and sometimes that means imposing regulations with real penalties.

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