Netta Green, review of Miranda Sachs “An Age to Work: Working-Class Childhood in Third Republic Paris”

Miranda Sachs. An Age to Work: Working-Class Childhood in Third Republic Paris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. 256 PP. $83.00 Cloth. ISBN 9780197638453.

Book cover

Miranda Sachs’ latest monograph, An Age to Work, represents a significant contribution to the field of the history of childhood. In a meticulously researched work focused on Third-Republic France, Sachs tackles the critical question of how childhood emerged as a distinct, chronologically defined category. Central to this process, she argues, was the role of labor, or more precisely, the recognition of children’s limited labor capacity by nineteenth-century French reformers. The book demonstrates that the Third Republic’s campaign to regulate child labor ultimately created segregated spaces for children, codifying childhood as “a distinct, standardized stage of life” (1).

Sachs’ work takes up the challenge recently posed by historian Sarah Maza, who invited scholars to write history through children and not of children.[1] Taking childhood as a tool of analysis, the book reconstructs Third-Republic France’s paternalist republicanism, with its contradictions regarding class, gender, citizenship, and social improvement. The work aligns with recent scholarship that has sought to unpack these contradictions. Much like how the Republic trumpeted equal rights yet excluded women and non-Europeans, Sachs demonstrates how social reformers’ drive to universalize a singular model of childhood clashed against their determination to reproduce prevailing social hierarchies. The universalist rhetoric collided with the government’s exclusionary policies that differentiated opportunities available to working-class youth from those of the bourgeoisie.

The book’s nuanced analysis also reveals that the French state’s attempt to impose its conception of childhood was met with resistance from employers and working-class parents alike. It brings to life the key actors in these disputes, from the labor inspectors tasked with enforcing the new laws to the working-class children caught in the crosshairs. In particular, it illustrates how labor inspectors, as agents of the government’s ideology, played a pivotal role in both producing knowledge about childhood and children’s capabilities and disseminating this knowledge to the working classes. However, she suggests that it was ultimately the parents who held the most sway in determining when childhood ended for their sons and daughters. Driven by the pressing need for their children’s labor to support the family economy, these parents subverted the state’s agenda by removing their sons and daughters from apprenticeships and schooling before the legally sanctioned age. Moreover, they adopted the medicalized language and vocabulary of care employed by bourgeois reformers to petition for exemptions from the law.

Alongside the actors, the author emphasizes the importance of institutions in creating these separate spheres. Reformers founded vocational schools and programs to train children for specific professions. These programs were in part a response to the apprenticeship crisis that emerged as a consequence of industrialization. As new industries required a steady supply of minimally trained workers, the apprenticeship system, long crucial to France’s economy and its renowned handcrafted luxury goods sector, began to break down. Many members of the working class welcomed this shift, as it enabled them to send their children into the workforce at a younger age. Yet the government combated this trend by establishing vocational schools, which provided professional training alongside lessons aimed at shaping children into disciplined, loyal citizens.

As the Republic aimed to teach adolescents the principles of citizenship, it also established institutions to punish those who deviated from their intended path, giving rise to the modern juvenile penal system. The study unveils that the juvenile delinquent was primarily guilty of unproductiveness, whether it was vagabondage, begging, or theft. Unlike the idleness of bourgeois youth, working children’s laziness was criminalized as a threat to the economic system. Surprisingly, in matters of economic wrongdoing, the government and parents found common ground, both fearing that children would fail to contribute sufficiently to the family’s economy and, by extension, to the economy as a whole.

One of the book’s central arguments is that the state interventions in regulating childhood ultimately reinforced class divisions rather than challenging them. The training programs, Sachs contends, were designed to produce a steady supply of well-trained, disciplined, and morally upright workers who would not participate in the illicit economy. As a result, the opportunities opened to working-class children did not provide genuine avenues for social mobility. Denied the opportunity to pursue secondary education, these children were channeled into professions that would help keep their families afloat, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Furthermore, the book exposes that the definitions of childhood not only maintained class divisions but also reinforced gender inequalities. Reformers approached girlhood and boyhood in starkly different ways: while boys’ work, which primarily took place in industrial settings, was subject to supervision and regulation, girls’ labor, often hidden within the domestic sphere, went largely unnoticed and unregulated. As Sachs incisively notes, girls tended to work in “spaces that blurred the divisions between work and home” (102). Despite regulators’ fixation on female bodies and reproduction, girls’ employment remained largely unchecked, subject to the whims of their family members. As a result, girls often entered the workforce at a younger age than their male counterparts and endured longer hours of labor.

Drawing on a rich array of sources, the author invites readers into the world of working-class children. Although the children’s firsthand accounts are scarce in the archives, Sachs skillfully employs postcards, memoirs, police reports, and inspectors’ testimonies to construct a vivid portrait of their desires and concerns. The skillful use of sources complements the argument. Despite the overwhelming dominance of state archival material on children and childhood, Sachs refuses to let the state’s perspective guide her narrative. Rather than presenting a one-dimensional account of the state’s encroachment into a previously unregulated domain, the book uncovers how parents actively participated in shaping this contested sphere through letters, petitions, and, most significantly, their actions—finding loopholes in the laws to raise their offspring according to their own values and circumstances.

By analyzing working-class children’s lives, the work challenges the notion that care and affection were the exclusive domain of the bourgeoisie. Although proletarian parents were often financially dependent on their daughters and sons’ labor, the book uncovers instances where, despite the economic hardship, parents chose to keep their children in school or fought against their removal from the home. By bringing these stories to light, Sachs avoids the dichotomy that portrays working-class parents as solely focused on their children’s economic value while presenting the bourgeoisie as uniquely concerned with their offspring’s emotional well-being. Instead, she presents a nuanced picture of the laboring classes, one that acknowledges the complex interplay of economic necessity, new cultural expectations, and parental affection in shaping attitudes toward children and childhood.

An Age to Work beautifully reconstructs the world of working-class children as a meaningful subject for historical analysis while also using the lens of childhood to shed light on the paradoxes of republican universalism. As the book makes clear, proletarian children problematize the seemingly self-evident modern category of childhood, since for these youngsters, childhood did not readily signify a realm of play and exploration as we conceive it today. In a timely observation, the book underscores the merciless conditions of industrial life that compelled all family members from the poor classes to seek work. However, work was not simply forced upon these families; as Sachs argues, it was also an integral part of their communal identity, which they were reluctant to relinquish without resistance. Engaging and thought-provoking, Sachs’ work is a must-read for anyone interested in the social history of France, the complexities of childhood, and how industrialization shaped the lives and identities of working-class families.

[1] Sarah Maza, “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” The American Historical Review 125(4) (2020): 1261–1285, 1263.

Netta Green headshot

Netta Green is a historian of France and the French Empire, specializing in economic and legal history, gender and women’s studies, and history of the social sciences. She earned her Ph.D. from Princeton University in September 2022 and is currently a Martin Buber Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is working on a book manuscript entitled “Revolutionary Succession: Egalitarian Inheritance and the Unequal Distribution of Wealth, 1750-1850,” which explores the paradoxes of modern-day inheritance norms and reconstructs their intricate history.


Leave a Reply