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:
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