Statistical data of the time just before the outbreak of the First World War still show a considerable amount of children below the age of 14 at work in Vienna. This seems proof of a very slow retreat of child labour in Vienna. The phasing out of child labour was more due to a change in work technology than social protest. Another important impetus for the end of child labour in Vienna was the introduction of the “Reichsvolksschulgesetz” of 1869. This law extended compulsory schooling from six to eight years. Although it has to be noted that the law stipulated several exceptions because especially working class families depended on the income of the children and a loss of this income would have jeopardised their existence. Many working class parents considered obligatory school attendance a nuisance and refused to have the state prescribe what they were supposed to do with their children. Most considered three years of schooling as sufficient. In the late 19th century compliance with obligatory school attendance was the exception rather than the rule in Vienna. Before the turn of the century the authorities executed more rigid supervision, so that by 1900 the start of work for Viennese working class children had been postponed to 12 – 14 years of age.


A special characteristic of the Viennese working class family at the end of the 19th century was the absence of a complex family and household constellation, a concentration on the nuclear family and the lack of a network of relatives. In this way the Viennese working class family was radically different from family structures in other parts of industrialised Europe and North America., where complex family networks and a dense social structure, which supported the individual, could be found. Very often also not related members were included in the family structure, such as tenants. “It takes a whole village to raise one child” is an African saying that stresses the importance of an extended social network. The lack of such a complex social structure in Viennese working class families caused a special risk for children in Vienna. This singular development was caused by four factors. Firstly, the above mentioned wave of migration of single individuals, not whole families to Vienna; secondly, the Viennese structure of small- and medium-sized industry, which did not promote the employment of relatives in the same firm; thirdly, the lack of a tradition of a Viennese working class family and finally, the high percentage of persons living without their families in Vienna. It seems that the lack of family bonds among Viennese workers fostered the tendency to establish a complex social network of working class organisations to compensate the absence of family support. From the end of the 19th century until 1934 a highly sophisticated organisational structure of working class organisations was established that covered every aspect of working class life. This high concentration of social relationships inside the working class culture corresponded with a growing distance to other social strata in Vienna.


The care of children at risk, mainly of poverty and neglect, was taken over, especially in Vienna, by a variety of youth welfare institutions and some private charities. By the end of the 1920s numerable communal child care services had been established in Vienna and several private, religious and political child care facilities operated there as well. A large number of working class children for instance took their meals regularly in one of these institutions free of charge or for a small fee. The Catholic Church played a prominent role in the feeding of poor working class families. Increasingly also the schools became a source of support for poor families as they offered free of charge school meals for deprived children. Poor children further acquired nourishment at school through begging, accepting small food presents and secretly collecting scraps from peers. So, for deprived children school was not just a place of relaxation from work, of learning and social interaction with other children, but also a place that contributed to their physical survival. In this way children not only learned to cope with the risk of hunger and deprivation, but developed a specific class consciousness. An interesting aspect is the role of teachers who adopted a caring role for children in a moral and economic way by organising free food, clothing and Christmas presents for needy children and sometimes even taking those children home for lunch or dinner. By attending school, children at risk of poverty encountered new sources of subsidy, not just formally via free school meals, but also informally. Anthony Hall ranked school teachers among the functionally specific patrons operating from within positions of authority.


In an 1883 amendment of the “Reichsvolksschulgesetz” of 1869, mentioned above, the various provisions for exemption from obligatory school attendance were even extended. This was due to pressure from various groups opposing the eight-year obligatory school attendance, such as the Catholic Church, which had to cede school supervision to state authorities and the farmers, small businesses and low-income groups who relied on the work force of children. Girls were much more at risk of missing out on school education, even without official exemption from attendance, as they were recruited for house work and the care for younger siblings more often than boys. According to a statistic of 1898/99 girls in Vienna missed school on 28.5 days per year on average and boys only 22.9 days. Parents, and especially foster parents of children born out of wedlock, preferred paying a small fine or even spending a few days in prison to foregoing the work force of the child. At the second Austrian Child Protection Congress of 1913 it was claimed by some speakers that farmers sent their children to school, but not their foster children. Missing school and hard labour of course had serious effects on the children’s performance at school. Some teachers showed understanding for these circumstances, others not. Some teachers as members of teacher associations and in publications for teachers raised awareness for the issue of official school exemptions and child labour and carried out small surveys on the living conditions of their pupils. Especially teachers, organised in teacher associations, and with support from the school reform policy of Otto Glöckl, who enjoyed a more favourable financial and social position in the 1920s in Vienna, became activists against school exemption and child labour. Already in 1896 a group of young Social Democratic teachers demanded in a conceptual paper the abolishment of child labour and at the second Austrian Child Protection Congress 1913 the Social Democratic school teachers Isidor Kraus and Theodor Neumann demanded an end to all general and individual exemptions from school attendance.


The mostly negative attitude of working class parents to school attendance and their disinterest towards their children’s performance at school cannot just be explained by the bad economic situation of the families and the need for the child’s income, but also the fear of a loss of authority of the fathers. Only politically active Social Democratic fathers and skilled workers promoted the school education of their children.  An increase in interest in their children’s achievements at school can be registered in Vienna in the context of the spread of the working class organisation and Glöckel’s school reform in Vienna, which introduced parents’ associations. A boost in prestige of school attendance among workers dates back to the end of the First World War and the reform movements of “Red Vienna”. Parents then saw school as an institution with a disciplinary function and offering a basic education for daily life.


The worsening economic crisis in the 1930s contributed to an increase in begging children in Vienna. Babies were carried around to stress the economic need of begging women for example. But also children themselves were sent into the streets of Vienna to beg, which was not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, begging children made up half of the beggars since the late 18th century because they were viewed by the authorities as the worthy poor in justified need of support and by that were “excused” and not harassed by the authorities. Yet, legislation for the protection of children since the end of the 19th century tried to eradicate the phenomenon of professional and systematic child begging and was by and large successful. Another aspect of risk-taking of children with respect to the violation of the law was petty crimes they committed, such as pick pocketing and small thefts. Especially during the First World War and the interwar years theft by children constituted a vital form of income for Viennese working class families. Small thefts of food, coal, wood, etc. were considered morally acceptable and a form of redistribution of income to the Viennese poor. Why children were used to commit those petty crimes and why children were put at risk in this way can be explained by the fact that they could expect lighter punishment, such as beatings, when they were caught. Furthermore small theft was a taboo for adults, and finally, children could remain undetected more often as they were small and nimble.

In low-income underclass families children were brought up under a strict regime of their parents: obedience, discipline, work and thrift dominated their upbringing. In general the children’s work and their consumption habits were strictly checked. Even if parents showed some interest in the performance of their children at school, which was rare, this was seen more in the context of disciplining the children at school. As the percentage of unwed mothers was very high in Vienna, many children were given away to foster parents, often in the country, where they were used as cheap source of labour. Many foster children spent their childhood in different foster families. Economic motives were in the foreground when a foster child was taken into a family, not so much emotional or social ones. They constituted a source of income for the foster families, as cheap labour on the one hand and/or the money compensation paid for foster care by the mother or the municipality. Foster care was not always characterised by exploitation of the foster children, in a few cases foster children also experienced emotional warmth and care, especially if the foster parents were of the rural underclass themselves.


In 1911 youngsters destroyed street lanterns, burst into schools and fought street battles with the police in the suburbs of Hernals and Ottakring. In front of the schools they burnt the books and registers they had thrown out of the classroom windows. There was destruction everywhere. The grammar school on Schuhmeierplatz was stormed, looted and burnt. Children and youths aged 12 to 14 occupied other schools in this area and threw stones at the police and the army. The riots started after a price rise of bread and the press spoke of the “boys’ revolution”. The police reports stress that the youngsters were supported by the local population. The youths were from the lowest rung of the social ladder, children of unskilled labourers, the unemployed and servants. They had no future; a poverty-stricken life awaited them, just like the ones of their parents. They were migrants to the city from Bohemia and Moravia with no prospects of social advancement and had to face widespread rejection and racism among the indigenous Viennese population. Their living conditions were abysmal. Beds were rented by the hour. The living areas of the rich and the poor were segregated in so far as the rich lived inside the “Ring”, the middle class inside the “Gürtel” and the migrants, unemployed temporal workers, prostitutes, etc. in the suburbs. The centre and the periphery were separated by an invisible barrier. The young rioters in Vienna spoke “Rotwelsch”, a special slang of social outcasts with lots of Jiddish expressions. The rioters were very young, often still children and their aggression was directed against public institutions and symbols of everyday consumer culture. Prospects of social advancement were lacking and strict segregation of living areas was prevalent. They both felt discriminated against and their self-esteem was destroyed. Their social group was neither represented publicly nor politically nor in the media. A male macho code of honour guided the rioters. Their parents were no role models because they were “losers”, they had achieved nothing. There was no political or religious background to the revolts, just “nothing to lose”.


Ehmer, Josef, Familienstruktur und Arbeitsorganisation im frühindustriellen Wien

John, Michael, Mosaik oder Schmelztiegel? Bemerkungen zu Migration, Multikulturalität und Assimilation im Zeitalter Kaiser Franz Josephs, Beiträge zur historischen Sozialkunde 2/91