Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made…. They were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

Industrial reforms of the type Dickens mentions here were met with strong resistance from manufacturers, who consistently contended that changes would be too expensive and would drive them out of business. The 1844 Factory Act required children in factories to attend school for three hours each working day, and various acts regulated factory safety. The smoke produced by factories was another controversial issue, as laws began to require factories to install equipment that limited or "consumed" the incredible amounts of smoke they produced.

terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life

At the time of the book's publication, the Home Secretary—the minister responsible for dealing with manufacturing and labor—was Lord Palmerston. Palmerston was known for equivocating in his attitude to both industry and labor. Just before the publication of Hard Times, he had rescinded an order that shafts in factories be fenced after a group of manufacturerrs came to him to protest the order. Similarly, during the Preston cotton strike, her went back on assurances to labor that he would support their proposals. Except for a brief period in December 1853, Palmerston held the position of Home Secretary from 1852 to 1855.

the breath of the simoom

A hot, dry wind that carries sand across the deserts of North Africa and Asia in the spring and summer.

Mrs. Sparsit sat in her afternoon apartment at the Bank, on the shadier side of the frying street. Office-hours were over…. The Bank offered no violence to the wholesome monotony of the town. it was another red brick house, with black outside shutters, green inside blinds, a black street-door up two white steps, a brazen door-plate, and a brazen door-handle full stop.

Office hours for the Bank of England were 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Bounderby's bank is clearly a smaller affair than the large and imposing Bank of England. A new branch of that institution in Manchester was depicted in the Illustrated London News on March 6, 1847.

a truckle-bed that disappeared at cockcrow

A "truckle bed" is a small bed on wheels, which can be pushed under a higher bed during the day. The common American term for this type of bed is a trundle bed.

Uniting, and leaguing, and engaging to stand by one another

Labor unions and the right to unionize were controversial in Dickens's day, and Dickens's often ambivalent attitude toward them in Hard Times reflects this fact. Unions had been banned outright until 1824, and in 1825 an act was passed to limit their sphere of operations to the most basic of labor rights: wages, prices, and work hours. However, unions flourished, despite general mistrust of their aims during the 1830s and 1840s, decades marked by serious labor unrest. By the 1850s, however, unions were attempting to build a more mainstream and less militant image. Many middle-class Victorians, however, retained the view that unions were likely to be violent and revolutionary, as we see in Mrs. Sparsit's characterization of workers as "restless wretches," and Bitzer's answer that they are forming a union. And, of course, unions remained anathema to manufacturers such as Bounderby, who mistrusted their aims and were not eager to pay workers more, reduce their hours, or improve their working conditions.

a shower-bath of something fluffy

The process of carding cotton, prepatory to spinning it, produced fine dust. Workers who inhaled it often suffered lung problems and emphysema; these consequences are represented in the character of Bessy Higgins in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1854-5). This offhand, flippant remark indicates the speaker's callousness.

A chit

This word, a somewhat disparaging way to refer to a young woman, is a rare moment of frankness from Mrs. Sparsit.

Cornet of Dragoons

The officer of a cavalry troop. It was not uncommon for well-to-do young men such as Harthouse to bounce from career to career, at least if novels of the day are to be believed. This dilettante type recurs in later novels by Dickens in such characters as Henry Gowan, in Little Dorrit, and Eugene Wrayburn, in Our Mutual Friend.

If you are one of those who want us to consume it

The Town Improvements Clauses Act of 1847 required manufacturers to construct fireplaces and furnaces with special equipment that "consumed" the smoke produced, rather than releasing it into the air. However, this had not solved the problem of air pollution in the industrial cities, as many manufacturers simply did not comply with the act.

Turkey carpets

Turkish carpets, a luxury good.

An English family with a charming Italian motto. What will be, will be.

A translation of the familiar phrase Che sarà, sarà—the family motto of an aristocratic English family, the Russells.

blue coaching

Studying from blue books.

polonies and saveloys

These are types of sausages, normally made from pork but sometimes including horsemeat, which made the sausages firm. Adulterating food in this manner was a common Victorian practice.

rarer tobacco than was to be bought in those parts

The best tobaccos, mainly from the Middle East, were found in London.

flat as a warming-pan

Flat is used here to mean inexperienced or dull; a warming-pan was a long-handled copper or brass pan with a cover, which was filled with coals and used to heat a bed. This illustration of a warming-pan is taken from the Dictionary of Daily Wants: