It’s hard to imagine it, but in the early 1900s, child labor was still extremely common in the United States. All across the nation children would spend their days slaving away in mines and cotton mills, far away from the school rooms that the National Child Labor Committee wanted them to be in.
The NCLC had been trying to put a stop to child labor since it was founded in 1904, but statistics weren’t having the effect they had hoped. So, in 1908, they decided to enlist the help of Lewis Hine and his camera to get their message out.
Over the next decade and a half, Hine traveled to half of the continental United States, taking photos of everything from the Breaker boys in the mines of Pennsylvania — whose job was to separate coal from slate — to the children working in cotton mills in Georgia and Alabama.
Hine later called what he did for the NCLC “detective work,” and in many ways he had to be as discreet and sneaky as a detective. Photo historian Daile Kaplan offers some insight into how Hine operated:
Nattily dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas — including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery — to gain entrance to the workplace.
When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace.
Here’s a selection of photos from the Library of Congress‘ NCLC collection, complete with the original, often very detailed captions:
Glass works. Midnight. Location: Indiana.
Vance, a Trapper Boy, 15 years old. Has trapped for several years in a West Va. Coal mine. $.75 a day for 10 hours work. All he does is to open and shut this door: most of the time he sits here idle, waiting for the cars to come. On account of the intense darkness in the mine, the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until plate was developed. Location: West Virginia.
Young Cigarmakers in Englahardt & Co., Tampa, Fla. There boys looked under 14. Work was slack and youngsters were not being employed much. Labor told me in busy times many small boys and girls are employed. Youngsters all smoke. Location: Tampa, Florida.
Interior of tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in foreground are 8, 9, and 10 years old. The 10 yr. old makes 50 cents a day. 12 workers on this farm are 8 to 14 years old, and about 15 are over 15 yrs. Location: Hazardville, Connecticut.
Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner. A moments glimpse of the outer world Said she was 10 years old. Been working over a year. Location: Lincolnton, North Carolina.
Nan de Gallant, 4 Clark St., Eastport, Maine, 9 year old cartoner, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Packs some with her mother. Mother and two sisters work in factory. One sister has made $7 in one day. During the rush season, the women begin work at 7 a.m., and at times work until midnight. Brother works on boats. The family comes from Perry, Me., just for the summer months. Work is very irregular. Nan is already a spoiled child. Location: Eastport, Maine.
Amos is 6 and Horace 4 years old. Their father, John Neal is a renter and raises tobacco. He said (and the owner of the land confirmed it) that both these boys work day after day from “sun-up to sun-down” worming and suckering, and that they are as steady as a grown-up. Location: Warren County –Albaton, Kentucky
Jewel and Harold Walker, 6 and 5 years old, pick 20 to 25 pounds of cotton a day. Father said: “I promised em a little wagon if they’d pick steady, and now they have half a bagful in just a little while.” Location: Comanche County, Oklahoma
Lunch Time, Economy Glass Works, Morgantown, W. Va. Plenty more like this, inside. Location: Morgantown, West Virginia.
Charlie Foster has a steady job in the Merrimack Mills. School Record says he is now ten years old. His father told me that he could not read, and still he is putting him into the mill. Location: Huntsville, Alabama.
488 Macon, Ga. Lewis W. Hine 1-19-1909. Bibb Mill No. 1 Many youngsters here. Some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins. Location: Macon, Georgia.
2 A.M. February 12,1908. Papers just out. Boys starting out on morning round. Ages 13 years and upward. At the side door of Journal Building near Brooklyn Bridge. New York, New York.
Some of the younger boys working in the Brazos Valley Cotton Mill at West. One, Charlie Lott was thirteen years old according to Family Record, another Norman Vaughn apparently twelve years old was under legal age according to one of the other boys there, Calvin Caughlin who did not appear to be fifteen years old himself. These and two girls that I proved to be under legal age were all working in this small mill. It was an exceptional case, but it it [i.e., is] likely that as the children become tired of school later in the year, there will be many more at work. Location: West, Texas.
“I cut my finger off, cutting sardines the other day.” Seven year old Byron. Location: Eastport, Maine.
A view of the Pennsylvania Breaker. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrates the utmost recess of the boy’s lungs. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Shuckers in the Varn & Platt Canning Company. This 4 year old in the foreground was helping some. Six of the shuckers were 10 years and up to twelve. Location: Younges Island, South Carolina.
Little Julia tending the baby at home. All the older ones are at the factory. She shucks also. Alabama Canning Co. Location: Bayou La Batre, Alabama.
A little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill. Augusta, Ga. The overseer admitted she was regularly employed. Location: Augusta, Georgia.
John Tidwell, a Cotton Mill Product. Doffer in Avondale Mills. Many of these youngsters smoke. Location: Birmingham, Alabama.
It was these photos, along with the detailed captions, that the NCLC distributed to try and educate and convince the public that child labor should be illegal. They would put the photos in newspapers, progressive publications, circulars and stereopticon slide shows.
In all, the Library of Congress has over 5,100 photos taken for the NCLC between 1908 and 1924, the majority of them taken by Hine. To learn more about Hine’s important work in stopping child labor, head over to the collection’s main page. And afterwards, be sure to browse through the 5,100+ photos in the collection by clicking here.
Image credits: Photographs by Lewis Hine courtesy of the Library of Congress