How the Power of Pictures Helped End Child Labor in the United States

During the early decades of the twentieth century, child labor reached a peak in the United States.

American children worked in large numbers in mines, glass factories, textiles, agriculture, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers.

Social activism and political reform were sweeping across the country, and many states enacted laws to improve the conditions under which people lived and worked.

At the urging of prominent social critics, child labor laws were strengthened, age limits raised, and the work-week shortened—restricting night work and requiring school attendance.


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When asked how old, she hesitated, then said “I don’t remember.” Then confidentially, “I’m not old enough to work, but I do just the same.”
One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. N.C. She was 51 inches high. Had been in mill 1 year. Some at night. Runs 4 sides, 48 cents a day. When asked how old, she hesitated, then said "I don't remember." Then confidentially, "I'm not old enough to work, but I do just the same." Out of 50 employees, ten children about her size.
One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. N.C. She was 51 inches high. Had been in mill 1 year. Some at night. Runs 4 sides, 48 cents a day. When asked how old, she hesitated, then said “I don’t remember.” Then confidentially, “I’m not old enough to work, but I do just the same.” Out of 50 employees, ten children about her size.

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formed in 1904 to promote “the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.”

But children were being exploited for cheap labor in secret, hidden from public view. So in 1908, the NCLC hired Lewis Hine as an “investigative photographer” to document working and living conditions of children across the United States.

Name: Jo Bodeon. A "back-roper" in mule room. Burlington, Vt. Chace Cotton Mill. Location: Burlington, Vermont.
Name: Jo Bodeon. A “back-roper” in mule room. Burlington, Vt. Chace Cotton Mill. Location: Burlington, Vermont.

Hine would gain access to factories under assumed identities—one day a bible salesman, another day a fire inspector, a postcard vendor, or even an industrial photographer saying he was making a record of machinery.

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.

Undeterred by threats of violence and even death by factory police and foremen, if he couldn’t get inside a building, he would wait outside and photograph the children in groups as they entered or left.

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.
Groups of workers in Clayton (N.C.) Cotton Mills. Every one went in to work when whistle blew, and I saw most of them at work during the morning when I went through. Mr. W.H. Swift talked with a boy recently who said he was ten years old and works in the Clayton Cotton Mill, also that others the same age worked. Here they are. I couldn't get the youngest girls in the photos. Clayton is but a short ride from the State Capitol. (The Superintendent watched the photographing without comment.) Clayton, North Carolina.
Groups of workers in Clayton (N.C.) Cotton Mills. Every one went in to work when whistle blew, and I saw most of them at work during the morning when I went through. Mr. W.H. Swift talked with a boy recently who said he was ten years old and works in the Clayton Cotton Mill, also that others the same age worked. Here they are. I couldn’t get the youngest girls in the photos. Clayton is but a short ride from the State Capitol. (The Superintendent watched the photographing without comment.) Clayton, North Carolina.

His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the US.

We can all relate to the plight of this little girl who stares longingly out of the window of a cotton mill, watching the childhood she should’ve had slip away.

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.

Reminiscent of a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, the little girl below probably thinks she’s done something wrong and can’t understand why Lewis Hine is asking her to stand still while pointing the camera at her.

… after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, “She just happened in.” Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that “just happened in,” or ” are helping sister.”
A little spinner in the Mollahan Mills, Newberry, S.C. She was tending her "sides" like a veteran, but after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, "She just happened in." Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that "just happened in," or " are helping sister." Dec. 3, 08. Witness Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina
A little spinner in the Mollahan Mills, Newberry, S.C. She was tending her “sides” like a veteran, but after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, “She just happened in.” Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that “just happened in,” or ” are helping sister.” Dec. 3, 08. Witness Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina

We can probably all remember our grandparents saying “kids today don’t know they’re born”—we’ll probably say the same thing because each generation thinks they had it tougher than the current one.

But the young lads below really did have it tough. They worked the night shift from 5 pm to 3 am along with thousands of other children in the dangerous glass making industry.

Glass works. Midnight. Location: Indiana.
Glass works. Midnight. Location: Indiana.

Exposed to the intense heat (3133 °F) needed to melt glass, the boys could suffer eye trouble, lung ailments, heat exhaustion, not to mention constant cuts and burns.

Paid by the piece, they had to work as fast as they could for hours without a break. Many factory owners preferred boys under 16 years of age.

Boys at Lehr, Economy Glass Works. Location: Morgantown, West Virginia.
Boys at Lehr, Economy Glass Works. Location: Morgantown, West Virginia.

Eight-year-old Leo worked in a cotton mill and picked up bobbins for 15c a day. Already feeling the responsibility of contributing like the grown-ups, he said he didn’t do it just to help his sister or mother, but for himself.

Leo, 48 inches high, 8 years old. Picks up bobbins at 15 cents a day in Elk Cotton Mills. He said, "No, I don't help me sister or mother, just myself." Location: Fayetteville, Tennessee.
Leo, 48 inches high, 8 years old. Picks up bobbins at 15 cents a day in Elk Cotton Mills. He said, “No, I don’t help me sister or mother, just myself.” Location: Fayetteville, Tennessee.

Breaker boys worked in the coal mining industry. Their job was to separate impurities from coal by hand. It was midday when this photo was taken, and already the lads are covered from head to toe in coal dust.

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.
Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.

A couple of the lads below muster a smile, while others are probably just relieved to get a few minutes respite.

Breaker boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pa. Coal Co. Smallest boy is Angelo Ross, (See labels #1953 + #1951.) Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Breaker boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pa. Coal Co. Smallest boy is Angelo Ross, (See labels #1953 + #1951.) Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Three-quarters of all child laborers worked in agriculture. Many of them were children of sharecroppers or seasonal workers who didn’t own their own land.

Paid by how much they picked, the only way for families to survive was for everyone in the family to join in with the work.

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

Waking when it was still dark, families would pile into trucks headed for the fields where they would work until the sun went down, often without a break.

Fighting to stay awake, come rain or shine, the children would pick cotton until their hands bled.

Millie, four years old and Nellie five years old. Cotton pickers on a farm near Houston, Millie picks eight pounds a day and Nellie thirty pounds. This is nearly every day. Home conditions bare and bad. Houston, Texas.
Millie, four years old and Nellie five years old. Cotton pickers on a farm near Houston, Millie picks eight pounds a day and Nellie thirty pounds. This is nearly every day. Home conditions bare and bad. Houston, Texas
Frequently, the children lost weeks of schooling before the picking season ended and it was too late for them to catch up.

Four year old cotton picker. Children come out to this farm from the town to pick cotton outside of school hours. Ages range from four and six years (ages of the two youngest boys who pick regularly) up to fifteen and more. Two adults. Location: Waxahachie [vicinity], Texas.
Four-year-old cotton picker. Children come out to this farm from the town to pick cotton outside of school hours. Ages range from four and six years (ages of the two youngest boys who pick regularly) up to fifteen and more. Two adults. Location: Waxahachie [vicinity], Texas.
Like agricultural work, cannery jobs were seasonal. Whole families would move on site for the season, living in squalid temporary quarters provided by the employers.

The day began at 3 am, with six- and seven-year-olds working alongside their parents. Payment was piecework and speed was everything.

Daisy helps at the capping machine, but is not able to “keep up.” She places caps on the cans at the rate of about 40 per minute working full time.
Daisy Langford, 8 yrs. old works in Ross' canneries. She helps at the capping machine, but is not able to "keep up." She places caps on the cans at the rate of about 40 per minute working full time. This is her first season in the cannery. Location: Seaford, Delaware.
Daisy Langford, 8 yrs. old works in Ross’ canneries. She helps at the capping machine, but is not able to “keep up.” She places caps on the cans at the rate of about 40 per minute working full time. This is her first season in the cannery. Location: Seaford, Delaware.

Shucking oysters at a seafood cannery, children might manage two four-pound pots per day while their parents filled eight or nine.

Piled up on the ground, the shells made it exhausting to keep a footing and their jagged edges cut into fingers.

The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife.
Rosy, an eight-year-old oyster shucker who works steady all day from about 3:00 A.M. to about 5 P.M. in Dunbar Cannery. The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife. Location: Dunbar, Louisiana.
Rosy, an eight-year-old oyster shucker who works steady all day from about 3:00 A.M. to about 5 P.M. in Dunbar Cannery. The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife. Location: Dunbar, Louisiana.

Eighteen-hour working days were not uncommon and children using sharp knives were especially likely to hurt themselves toward the end of the day, when they were exhausted.

The salt gits in the cuts an’ they ache.
Shows the way they cut the fish in sardine canneries. Large, sharp knives are used, with a cutting and sometimes a chopping motion. The slippery floors and benches, and careless bumping into each other increase the liability to accident. "The salt gits in the cuts an' they ache." Location: Eastport, Maine.
Shows the way they cut the fish in sardine canneries. Large, sharp knives are used, with a cutting and sometimes a chopping motion. The slippery floors and benches, and careless bumping into each other increase the liability to accident. “The salt gits in the cuts an’ they ache.” Location: Eastport, Maine.

In vegetable and fruit canneries, produce had to be canned quickly before it wilted. Children would haul boxes to the weighing stations—some weighing between 30 and 60 pounds.

Salvin Nocito, 5 years old, carries 2 pecks of cranberries for long distance to the "bushel-man." Whites Bog, Browns Mills, N.J. Sept. 28, 1910. Witness E. F. Brown. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey
Salvin Nocito, 5 years old, carries 2 pecks of cranberries for long distance to the “bushel-man.” Whites Bog, Browns Mills, N.J. Sept. 28, 1910. Witness E. F. Brown. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey

In comparison, selling newspapers was relatively easy work and a good education in the ways of business.

Children would buy as many newspapers as they thought they could sell. Their own salesmanship came into play, but so did the drama of the headlines and how kind the weather was.

Most “newsies” attended school all day and had decent homes to go to at night. They were the lucky ones.

After midnight April 17, 1912, and still selling extras. There were many of these groups of young news-boys selling very late these nights. Youngest boy in the group is Israel Spril (9 yrs. old), 314 I St., N.W., Washington D.C. Harry Shapiro, (11 yrs. old), 95 L St., N.W., Washington, D.C. Eugene Butler, 310 (rear) 13th St., N.W. The rest were a little older., 12th St. near G [or C?] Sundays. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
After midnight April 17, 1912, and still selling extras. There were many of these groups of young news-boys selling very late these nights. Youngest boy in the group is Israel Spril (9 yrs. old), 314 I St., N.W., Washington D.C. Harry Shapiro, (11 yrs. old), 95 L St., N.W., Washington, D.C. Eugene Butler, 310 (rear) 13th St., N.W. The rest were a little older., 12th St. near G [or C?] Sundays. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
Joseph Bernstein, 1518 Fifth St. N.W., a 10 yr. old news-boy who had been selling in saloons along the way, says he makes a dollar a day, sells until 8:30 P.M. Is a bright Jewish boy. Location: [Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia]
Joseph Bernstein, 1518 Fifth St. N.W., a 10 yr. old news-boy who had been selling in saloons along the way, says he makes a dollar a day, sells until 8:30 P.M. Is a bright Jewish boy. Location: [Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia]
Tootsie, six yr. old news-boy, sells every day and Sunday for a young uncle who had to spend a good deal of his time driving Tootsie back on the job. Harry Murphy, 809 4-1/2 St., S.W., Washington, D.C. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
Tootsie, six yr. old news-boy, sells every day and Sunday for a young uncle who had to spend a good deal of his time driving Tootsie back on the job. Harry Murphy, 809 4-1/2 St., S.W., Washington, D.C. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.

The National Child Labor Committee’s work to end child labor was combined with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children, and culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set federal standards for child labor.

References
Library of Congress
Smithsonian Institution
Wikipedia

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