originally published February 11, 2012
If you had been lucky enough to have lived a hundred years ago, you might have been able to snag (there may a pun here, I’m not entirely sure) a job using a mule spinner. This was a large piece of machinery, invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779-ish, that spun cotton and other fibers. The mule spinner allowed weaving to move into the industrial realm, and gave lucky kids an honest 12-hour workday for slave wages. The rest of the poor saps had to go to school or die of cholera – there was literally nothing else for children to do in the 18th century.
Different spinners worked different fabrics. The technology is long out of date now, but at the time this was the most efficient way to produce cotton, wool, and… I’m going to say burlap? Did people wear burlap back then?
The machines ran hot, especially the cotton spinners. This was dangerous, but fortunately they had figured out that lubricating the equipment can allow it to spin away without combusting. What they didn’t know is that this would actually kill people. It would kill them with their own balls.
The spindles on a cotton spinner needed to be lubricated a lot, using vegetable and mineral oils. Shale oil, one of the oldest mineral oils to have been used by mankind, was commonly used in the mix of lubricants.
A little background on how these monstrous machines worked: You’d have one guy, the ‘minder’, who handled the buttons, knobs, Tesla coils, or whatever the hell ran the thing. Then you’d have two kids – children around age 12 to 14 – who worked as ‘piecers’. Piecing takes place while the machine is operating. Any broken pieces would be grabbed by one of the kids, then pressed into the clean roving coming through the spinner, allowing it to weave back together. While the boy was leaning in to do this, the spindles would be right around the height of his crotch.
Yes, that’s right. His crotch. This article, lest my subtlety hath been overwhelmed by my flowery snippets of history, is about the crotch.
While the spindles were running, they sprayed out a light mist of oil. Kids back then wore light cotton pants and no underwear (it was a very sexually liberating century, at least for those who had avoided cholera, dink-rot and Napoleon). The oil would soak through the pants, and this is where the fun would really begin.
Shale oil, it turns out, is a carcinogen. It took a while to piece this all together, but eventually, in 1887, they linked the cancer in one boy’s scrotum to his workplace. Specifically, they linked it to the oils being huffed out in a long, slow exhale onto the kid’s junk.
The cancer is similar to what they had been calling ‘soot wart’ or ‘chimney sweeps cancer’ for the previous century – the first industrial-based cancer on record. I’m going to get into some gory details in this next bit, so anyone who either has a scrotum or does not wish pain and suffering upon all scrota of the world may want to flip to another page on this site. Maybe the article about penmanship, that one is pretty popular.
The cancer first attacks the ‘inferior part of the scrotum.’ I’m not sure what that is exactly – I guess it’s the part that isn’t as good at… scrotuming. Anyway, the cancer produces a superficial, painful ragged ill-looking sore with rising edges. It eventually passes through the skin, the dartos (or ‘nut-muscle’ in layman’s terms), and into the testicle. The testicle enlarges and hardens (ladies), then creeps up into the abdomen.
Wow, I’m going to need a drink to get through these next 381 words. To cut to the point, the skin’s natural oils are washed away by sweat (AC was unheard of in your average 19th century sweatshop – hence the name), and the cancer-causing oil-mist gets free ball-sack access every time the kid leans forward into his pants.
There was actually a bit of controversy when this disease was announced. Some – and here I’m going to guess the mill owners – blamed poor bodily hygiene, not the oil mist. Fortunately, science prevailed.
By 1925 the British government decided something needed to be done. It was recommended that metal guards be placed along the ‘faller bar’ (or at jewel-eroding-spray level) of all spinning mules. Research was to be undertaken to find some kind of lubricant that would keep the machines running and not kill the people running them. Some way of controlling the mist was advised, as were regular medical check-ups for the workers. Oh, and to appease the dissenters (owners), mandatory education about personal cleanliness would also be provided.
So what came of all this? Well, for the chimney sweeps, the solution was simple. First of all, stop sending naked boys up the chimneys to clean them. No really, they used to do that. This was, after all, jolly old England. In Germany they didn’t have this problem; they outfitted their chimney sweeps with tight-fitting protective clothing, actually believing that these men had the right to reproduce someday. This faith in the propagation of the chimney-sweeping species would not catch on in England until much, much later.
As for the mule piecers, they were saved, first by the replacement of shale oil with vegetable oils and white mineral oils, then by the eventual dismantling of spinning mules when 20th century technology provided better equipment. This wasn’t much comfort to the kids whose lives were shortened by the design of these machines. Between 1911 and 1938 there were 500 deaths in England from mule spinners’ cancer. Five hundred. That doesn’t count any deaths that came before (and there were as many as 35,000 mule spinners in England at the height of the Industrial Revolution). In contrast, there were only three deaths from this disease among boys who worked with wool mule spinners.
The shocking part of all of this is how long it took the government to make any recommendations, or even to acknowledge that this was a real thing. I for one am going to grab my favorite cotton shirt tonight, hold it close, and be thankful that no kids had to give up their cojones for it to exist.