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Lewis Hine’s Photography and The End of Child Labor in the United States

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Image credits: Photographs by Lewis Hine courtesy of the Library of Congress


 
 
  • Peter gg

    america has successfully outsourced child labor to india and china…

  • Menchu Pichu

    don’t worry. they are outsourcing their Syria-issue too now… the American can sleep well, as always.

  • Zos Xavius

    The picture of the boys in the mine sucking up coal dust makes me especially sad. They knew it was bad for them back then, but this country was built up during the industrial revolution on pure greed and seeing humans as a disposable resource. Someone commented that we outsourced child labor. Its not that simple. China has exploited child labor because from what I can gather they have a lot of the same growing pains the united states went through. They also have different attitudes. Let’s not even get into all the baby girls that are killed there….

  • Norshan Nusi

    Powerful images.

    And in 1908, I’m not sure is this film or glass plates (presumable film, since carrying around glass plates camera is a hassle).

    Look at that DR…..It doesn’t clips like CCD and CMOS sensors did.

    Just amazing…

  • herzco

    Few people know that Lewis Hine died in abject poverty. Really sad for him to have contributed so much to both photography and social welfare and still to have died penniless.

  • Woody ONeal

    By “successfully”, I assume you mean the outsourcing was somehow intentional or planned?

    If that is indeed your thought, I kindly offer another view.

    Economist Arthur Lewis’ Dual Theory Model accurately describes the ebb and flow of the global labor supplies from developed to under-developed countries.

    While admittedly based on capatalistic principles, the notion that this naturally occuring event, i.e. supply-demand, was a preconceived and conscious effort by the business leaders of USA is rather myopic and baseless…this dynamic simply has happened for thousands of years and is, well, the essense of economics.

    What it’s not is a trade policy of the USA. China and India’s human rights policies, well, that’s another story.

    It is sad commentary that child labor, and such severe conditions, were part of the USA’s evolution in the industrial revolution. However, conditions are of course much, much better as we have laws to protect children today.

    What will be truly interesting is to see if China and India continue to develop and if they indeed progress on their policies regarding child labor.

    Who knows? If they do, and cheap labor supplies “run out” in both those countries, where will the next iPhone be made?

  • Micah

    Are children better off today after these laws have been passed? Are children better off living in poverty while mother and father, if they’re still together, are working to make ends meet under an air conditioned roof? Are children better off by being exposed to externalities that may ruin their life? Do ALL kids succeed when they are put into our public education system? Can all kids afford a private education? Do all kids LOVE being at school learning, or are we suffering a crisis of bullying? This article and its comments make me sick. You’re a bunch of ideologues. And the funny thing, is that you all think you are somehow compassionate to these children, who live outside the U.S., working for their families. HA, I deride you all! What makes you think these children will get A/C in their broken down shack, compared to at work? What makes you think you know the solution to these family’s economic situation who live in absolute poverty (a dollar a day)? What makes you think a family wouldn’t starve if an extra worker was not allowed to work because of a nonsense law? All you guys have as evidence is a bunch of pictures of children working. No substance whatsoever. Surprise! Children in other countries don’t have the economic standards or wealth as we do in the U.S. Think past stage one, and maybe your beliefs and ideas will be better for society.

  • Ummm.

    Well alrighty, then.

  • Gman

    Seeing how you can type formed sentences, it would appear that you had the privilege of an education, which is far more than these children sucking on cigars or the fine particles of coal dust ever got.

  • Micah

    Well considering my true education didn’t really come till college, your comparison is moot. High school to me was a game of popularity, not a think tank for making our kids responsible adults. A job does that, especially when a family is in poverty. Furthermore, consider the medical science of the day. How many people the health effects of smoking and the coal mines?

  • Ken

    That is an uneducated view.

  • MS

    Wow, amazing photographs.

  • A_Lwin

    Thank you, I didn’t know that. Perhaps we should honor what he did by remembering his birthday every year. I had seen many of his photos but never realized Lewis Hines was the photographer until this article.

  • http://www.vincentmorretino.com/ fast eddie

    Most likely plates, not film. One of the captions says “On account of the intense darkness in the mine, the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until plate was developed.” Also, Daile Kaplan mentions the Hine’s “fifty pounds of photographic equipment.”

  • Norshan Nusi

    Dang….that clears up why it has large DR…

  • Paul

    already seen in Switzerland :)

  • Ben

    What is an interesting thought experiment is if you would ever allow your children to work in these conditions. I think not. People who put forward these thoughts are always ok with someone else’s kids working in abject poverty, but not them or their own. There are many other answers to protect children from poverty then repealing these hard won labor laws of the late 1800s/early 1900s, but as long as we have market worshiping capitalists who mistakenly believe the current system is some kind of immutable natural framework, and that other people can suffer through the flaws, we won’t make any progress.

  • kldgfsdfsdf

    Dick