Okay. I admit it. I put my children to work this summer.
Recently, when doldrums threatened, I asked them to take a look at the Library’s National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) photographs online, choose some they found of interest, and tell me why.
Working as an “investigative photographer” for the NCLC between 1908 and 1924, Lewis Hine documented working and living conditions of children in the United States in support of the organization’s mission: “promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” I figured a little youthful input would help generate ideas about which NCLC photos to share through the Library’s Flickr account. But I was also curious about how 21st century children would interpret the photographs and the captions Hine provided, which often detail the hours of work, wages, and ages of the child workers.
Within minutes, my kids found several photographs that drew their interest. And their written comments suggested that they had absorbed the message Hine meant to convey through the photographs and captions. Some images sparked a bit of historical imagination. For instance:
“The girl is inside the factory doing long hours and boring work. Because she’s looking out the window, you can tell that she wishes she could be outside instead.”
“You can see what the girl will become from who she picks with; first a mother, then an old woman.”
Perhaps reflecting exposure to too many tales of walking barefoot for miles through the snow to school, here’s one case where we realized that my kids brought some assumptions to their viewing of a picture—a spur to look for more information:
“The girl is so tiny in the snow, and you wonder if her bare feet are cold.” (The September date would suggest that it’s not snow, though her feet might still be cold.)
Hine’s outrage comes through clearly in the original caption for this photo, about which my children commented:
“The children are standing under the Capitol Building. You’d think that the Congressmen would prevent such young children from becoming workers.”
Bringing the labor practices and their consequences to the attention of legislators and the public was, indeed, the goal of the National Child Labor Committee. The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, approved September 1, 1916 (though later overturned by the Supreme Court), attempted to curb some of the abuses insofar as they related to interstate commerce.
As many children in the U.S. head back to school (or take one more breather afforded by the Labor Day holiday), it seems an opportune time to take a fresh look at the photographs and to reflect on the experience of children a hundred years ago.
Here’s a challenge question: My children concluded, after reviewing about 250 NCLC photographs, that the boys in the pictures appear to be much more animated than the girls. What do you think?
- View the more than 5,100 photographs in the National Child Labor Committee collection.
- View the selection of NCLC photos we shared on Flickr, along with comments from viewers.
- View background information about the NCLC photographs.
- The photographs came to the Library of Congress as part of the National Child Labor Committee records. View a sample NCLC report from the Library’s Manuscript Division showing how information on Maryland’s canning industry integrated references to the photos into the text.
- View sources for reading about Hine’s work and the NCLC, including explorations of the lives of some children in the photos.
- View historical documents from the National Archives relating to the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act.
- View lesson plans relating to labor from the Teachers page.