Child Labor Exposed: The Legacy of Photographer Lewis Hine
A camera was an improbable weapon against the growing evil of child labor in the early years of the 20th century. Then, children as young as five years old were working 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 and 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 were ultimately rewarded with a law banning child labor in 1938. He was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on Sept. 26, 1874, and came late to photography.
Lewis Hine was educated as a sociologist at the University of Chicago, during the years when John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen were on its faculty. He continued his education at New York and Columbia Universities, and taught at the School of Ethical Culture. (Among his students there was Paul Strand, whom Hine introduced to photography.) Hine was past thirty when he seriously took up photography; by instinct and by training he conceived of the medium as a means of studying and describing the social conditions around him. As a 30-year-old prep school teacher at the Ethical Culture 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; but more importantly, he realized he could use photography to try to end child labor.
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.
Hartford newsboy Tony Casale, 11, in 1909. He had been selling newspapers for four years, and sometimes until 10 p.m. His boss said his father bit him on the arm for not selling more papers. Said Tony, “Drunken men say bad words to us.”
Graflax – 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 was one of the masters of the splendid new camera. For the first fifty-odd years of photography, the photographer had to compose and focus his picture upside-down on a ground glass in the back of his camera, then insert the holder that held the sensitive plate. Once the plate was in the camera, the photographer was shooting blind, unable to change either his framing or his focusing. With the Graflex on the other hand, he saw his picture just as the camera would record it until the very instant that he pushed the trigger. This meant that he could frame his subject boldly, to the very edges of the plate; he could change his angle of view at the last moment; he could focus selectively on the most important plane of his subject, allowing the nearer and farther planes to be recorded out of focus. His picture is characteristic of the new kind of graphic economy and forcefulness that Hine helped discover for photography.
Addie Card, a 10-year-old spinner in the North Pownal, Vermont Cotton Mill, 1910. Hine described her as ‘Anaemic little spinner.’ Her image appeared on a postage stamp and in a Reebok ad, and she inspired the novel ‘Counting on Grace.’
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, New Hampshire, a cotton mill in North Pownall, Vermont, and cotton mills in Scituate, Rhode Island.
Phoebe Thomas, an 8-year-old Syrian girl, at 6 a.m. She was on her way to work cutting sardines at the Seacoast Canning Co., in Eastport, Maine. Later that day she nearly cut her thumb off.
He 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 gets into the cuts and they ache,” said one boy.
Employers didn’t want their practices exposed. 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 was an industrial photographer taking pictures of machines. 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.
The Factory: Young cigar makers in Engelhardt & Co. Three boys under 14. Labor leaders in busy times employed many small boys and girls. Youngsters all smoke. Tampa, Florida.
Three boys, 13 and 14 years old, picking shade-grown tobacco on Hackett Farm. The “first picking” necessitates a sitting posture. Buckland, Connecticut.
Hine confronted public officials with evidence and asked for a response. He 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.”
Miners: A young driver in the Brown Mine. Works 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Brown, West Virginia.
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 there is a Lewis Hine award for people who have done outstanding work in helping young people.