Snow White-washing Child Labor, Then and Now
Is Snow White's truth stranger than fiction? As 5 million kids toil in mines globally and battle lines are drawn for and against US child labor, now's as good a time as any to take stock.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has its share of chilling moments, though Disney sanitizes the darkest details of its source material — the 19th century Grimm Brothers’ version. Perpetuating white lies, so to speak, may be inherent to a tale’s retelling: Even the earliest versions of Snow White, arguably based on a true story, apparently glossed over a human tragedy — child labor — that plagues us to this day.
The animated classic, you’ll recall, is about a beautiful princess banished by her step-mother. She takes refuge with seven dwarfs who work in a mine. Eventually, the step-mother catches up with Snow White and poisons her.
This post is an installment in a series about work, workplaces, and worker wellbeing through the lens of Snow White. Scroll down for previous installments.
The scholarly Grimm Bros learned the Snow White story, like many fairy tales, through the oral folklore tradition — generations passing it down via spoken word.
[If you’re curious, I’ve posted a Grimm version of Snow White. Note that, among other dissimilarities, the Grimms’ dwarfs are undeveloped characters. Their names and quirks were Walt Disney’s idea.]
Small, Impoverished Workers
Since the 1990s scholars have argued that the story is based on the life of German Countess Margaretha von Waldeck, born near the city of Bad Wildungen in the 1500s.
Margaretha, like Snow White, was known for her beauty. Her father, Count Philipp IV, sent (banished?) the 16-year-old countess to Brussels to cement political connections, ideally by marrying a prince. Some day, her prince did come: the charming Crown Prince Philip II.
The prince’s dad, Emperor Charles V, objected to the courtship, deeming Margaretha beneath his son’s noble class. When 20-year-old Margaretha suddenly got sick and died, the word on the street was that, like Snow White, she’d been poisoned. In Margaretha’s case, the murderous crime was not committed by her step-mother, but by a perp acting on the Emperor’s order.
Margaretha’s hometown was a mining community (and, of course, in the Snow White fairy tale, a mine is where — heigh ho, heigh ho — off to work the dwarfs go). The job of digging out the copper and gold fell to workers small enough to navigate the mines’ crevices, impoverished enough they had no choice. Children were deemed the ideal fit.
Utah State University’s Claudia Schwabe leaves no stone unturned mapping the similarities between the sagas of Margaretha and Snow White, including the dwarfs’ backstory:
Even the lankiest boys must have suffered from the narrowness of the tunnels, constantly threatened by falling rocks since their woolen or leather headgear, the Gugel — a type of hood with a trailing point — provided little protection. The labor below ground caused many chronic illnesses and physical deformities, not to mention the mental damages and psychological distress… Due to a lack of sunlight and hard work in awkward positions, the children’s bodies gradually withered away and became stunted… One can easily imagine that in the 16th century, when the miners came out of the mines with their headgear on, they must have looked like dwarfs.”
Another parallel Schwabe describes: “In the 16th century, the miners of the small town [near Margarethe’s home] usually shared one small house… The unique architectural design of the houses, as well as the shared living community of the miners, resembles the living situation of the dwarfs in ‘Snow White.’”
In Snow White, the dwarf characters were likely derived from real-life child miners.
But that’s not the end of our story…
In 2023 America, States and Industries Demand Fewer Child Labor Laws to Violate
Child labor isn’t a vestige of days gone by. In fact, media outlets quote Department of Labor administrator Jessica Looman on a recent conference call announcing a child labor crackdown:
“This isn’t a 19th century problem, this isn’t a 20th century problem, this is happening today. We are seeing children across the country working in conditions that they should never be employed in the first place.”
Overshadowed last month by 4-day workweek hubbub, battle lines are drawn in campaigns for and against US child labor.
The number of kids US companies employ illegally increased 69% since 2018, the Department of Labor tells us. The maximum civil fine for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child.
Some industries are pushing for more access to kids. While rates of violations skyrocket, 10 states have introduced or passed legislation loosening child labor restrictions, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
Minors as Miners
Child labor is widespread globally, and nowhere is this truer than the mining industry. Five million children, according to some estimates, do the grueling, life-threatening work of miners in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. They’re often victims of human trafficking and if they're paid anything at all it’s as little as 1-3 dollars a day.
Developed nations such as the US and the UK are a far cry from the most egregious perpetrators of child labor. We are, however, among the largest consumers of products made from the material dug out by small hands.
Addendum: Sometimes… Dwarfs are Dwarfs
There are other interpretations of how the Snow White story depicts the dwarfs’ livelihood — some arguing the miners symbolize collectivism at its best while others say its marginalization at its worst. Either way, the tragedy of child labor persists.
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Previously, in this series…
Schwabe, C. (2014). The Grimms’ “Snow White”: Tracing the Legendary Fate of Hessian Countess Margaretha von Waldeck. Contemporary Legend, 4, 75-101.
Allan-Blitz, L. T., Goldfine, C., & Erickson, T. B. (2022). Environmental and health risks posed to children by artisanal gold mining: A systematic review. SAGE Open Medicine, 10, 20503121221076934.
Also see: US DOL 2022 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (pdf)