A camera made an improbable weapon against the growing evil of child labor in the early 20th century. Then, children as young as five years old worked long hours in dirty, dangerous canneries and mills in New England.
Lewis Wickes Hine, a former schoolteacher, cleverly faked his way into places where he wasn’t welcome. Then he took photos of scenes that weren’t meant to be seen. He traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, exposing himself to great danger. His exertions ultimately received their reward with a law banning child labor in 1938.
He was born in Oshkosh, Wisc., on Sept. 26, 1874, and came late to photography. He was a 30-year-old prep school teacher at the Fieldston School in New York City when he got a bright idea: He would bring his students to Ellis Island to photograph the thousands of immigrants who arrived every day. Over five years he took more than 200 plates. More importantly, though, he realized he could use photography to try to end child labor.
“There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated,” he said.
Child Labor Committee
In 1908, Hine got a job for the National Child Labor Committee, reformers who fought the growing practice of child labor.
Between 1880 and 1900, the number of children between 5 and 10 working for wages had increased by 50 percent. One in six small children were then mining coal, running spinning machines, selling newspapers on the street or otherwise gainfully employed. They were robbed of an education and a childhood, trapped in a downward spiral of poverty.
Newsies, telegraph messengers and young mill workers were exposed to vice and abused by their employers, their customers and even their parents.
Over the years, Hine photographed children working in gritty industrial settings that inspired a wave of moral outrage. With a new camera called the Graflex he took photos of child labor throughout New England.Hine traveled far beyond the giant textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence, Mass. He went to silk and paper mills in Holyoke, Mass., textile and upholstering plants in Manchester, N.H., a cotton mill in North Pownall, Vt., and cotton mills in Scituate, R.I.
He also went to the canneries in Eastport, Maine, where he saw children as young as seven cutting fish with butcher knives. Accidents happened — a lot. “The salt water gits into the cuts and they ache,” said one boy.
One day in August 1911 Hine saw an 8-year-old Syrian girl, Phoebe Thomas, running home from the sardine factory all alone. Her hand and arm were bathed with blood, and she was crying at the top of her voice. She had cut the end of her thumb nearly off, but her boss sent her home alone, because her mother was busy working.
Employers didn’t want their practices exposed, so Hine used subterfuge.
Photo historian Daile Kaplan described 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.
Hine might tell a plant manager he worked as an industrial photographer taking pictures of machines. Then at the last minute he would ask if a child laborer could stand near the machine to show its size. He also interviewed mill owners, parents and local officials, pioneering tactics still used by 60 Minutes.
Hine confronted public officials with evidence and asked for a response. He also asked the children about their lives. He told one heartbreaking story about a child laborer who worked in a cannery, so young and beaten down she couldn’t tell him her name.
Russell Freedman, in his book, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, wrote, “At times, he was in real danger, risking physical attack when factory managers realized what he was up to…he put his life on the line in order to record a truthful picture of working children in early twentieth-century America.”
That picture included child labor in rural New England, such as in Connecticut’s tobacco fields and on Western Massachusetts farms. Hine photographed eight-year-old Jack driving a load of hay and taking care of livestock. He was “a type of child who is being overworked in many rural districts,” wrote Hine.
By 1912, the NCLC persuaded Congress to create a United States Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and Department of Commerce. The Children’s Bureau also worked closely with the NCLC to investigate abuses of child labor.
Years of political battles followed, until finally in 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law prohibits any interstate commerce of goods produced by children under the age of 16. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on June 25, 1938.
By then, the public had lost interest in Lewis Hine’s work. He died two years later, broke, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. His son offered to donate his photographs to the Museum of Modern Art, but MOMA rebuffed him. Today, Hine’s photographs of child labor belong to collections at the Library of Congress and the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.
The National Child Labor Committee Collection at the Library of Congress consists of more than 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives.
And today a Lewis Hine award goes to people who have done outstanding work in helping young people.
Learn more about the immigrant experience in this new book about the history of the Irish people. Available now from Amazon in paperback or as an ebook. Click here to order.
This story about child labor was updated in 2022. All photos courtesy National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.