Inquiring Minds: Opening a Treasure Chest of Unfinished Stories

Addie Card, whose photo inspired Joe Manning to launch a project to tell the stories of the people whose lives early 20th-century photographer Lewis Hine documented.

In fall 2005, Joe Manning agreed to help his friend, author Elizabeth Winthrop, with a task that had become something of an obsession for her: discovering the story of a little girl staring intently out of a 1910 picture taken at a Vermont cotton mill. Winthrop had encountered the image in an exhibition of child-labor photographs by Lewis Hine, and she couldn’t get the girl out of her mind — Winthrop had based the character Grace in her soon-to-be-published novel “Counting on Grace” on her. Through research, Winthrop had determined that the girl’s real name was Addie Card, but she wanted to know more, so she asked Manning, a New England writer and genealogist, for help.

Within two weeks, Manning had located and contacted Addie’s granddaughter. Two weeks later, he was standing at Addie’s grave. Not long afterward, he and Winthrop had met and interviewed Addie’s great-granddaughter. By that time, Manning had himself become fascinated by the subjects of Hine’s photographs, soon resolving to uncover more stories.

From 1908 to 1924, Hine took thousands of pictures for the National Child Labor Committee, exposing the often-dangerous conditions children endured working at textile mills, coal mines, vegetable farms, fish canneries and as late-night “newsies” on urban streets. Hine’s collection of more than 5,000 photographs is held by the Library of Congress and searchable on the Library’s website.

Since tracking down Addie’s story, Manning has researched and written about more than 300 other children Hine photographed as well as Americans photographed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s and 1940s, another collection in the Library’s holdings.

Here Manning answers a few questions about his background and his quest to find the identities of the everyday people captured in long-ago photographs.

Joe Manning

Tell us a little about your background.
I majored in sociology in college, and then had a 30-year career as a social worker for the state of Connecticut. At the same time, I had serious avocations as a songwriter and a freelance journalist. After I retired, I became interested in public history and wrote two books about North Adams, a small city in Massachusetts known historically for its many textile mills. It was there that I met author Elizabeth Winthrop and learned about Lewis Hine.

What inspires you to tell the stories of people in historical photos?
Insatiable curiosity, and my long-held belief that the stories of these working-class people are sadly missing from our history books. I have learned that in most cases, if I am successful in contacting descendants of the subjects in the photos, it will be the first time they have seen the photo of their ancestor. That in itself inspires me to keep choosing more and more photos to research. How can I resist?

Giles Newsom, photographed by Hine in 1912.

Briefly, what is Addie’s story?
She quit school after the fourth grade to work in a cotton mill, had a long and difficult life, survived until the age of 94 and was loved and revered by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And none of those family members had ever seen Hine’s photo of Addie until I contacted them.

How do you choose which individuals to research?
It’s often the character of the face, staring back at me from the photo, and how I react to it emotionally. For obvious reasons, it is best to choose a photo that has a child’s name in the caption; but in some cases, I have been able to identify unnamed children. I also try to have a variety of occupations and localities represented.

Which stories stand out to you?

Here are a few:

  • The Catherine Young family, of Tifton, Georgia. Catherine and her nine children were photographed in front of their tiny mill house. Hine stated that she was a recent widow and that she and six of the children were working in a cotton mill. The family appeared desperate. In his caption, Hine gave only the surname of the family, making it extremely difficult to identify them. It took me almost five years to do it, and then I was able to interview dozens of descendants. I found out that three months after they were photographed, the mother placed seven of the children in an orphan home.

The Young family, 1909.

  • Mamie and Eglantine Laberge of Winchendon, Massachusetts. Hine photographed the sisters and other family members more than a dozen times. Nearly the entire family of 14 children worked at a cotton mill. Winchendon is only 60 miles from my home, so I was able go there and find the spots where Hine photographed them. I interviewed many descendants, several of whom have become friends.

The Laberge sisters, 1911.

  • Giles Newsom of Bessemer City, North Carolina. Giles, 12 years old, was photographed wearing a large bandage on his right hand. In his caption, Hine explained: “A piece of the machine fell on to his foot mashing his toe. This caused him to fall on to a spinning machine and his hand went into unprotected gearing, crushing and tearing out two fingers.” This turned out to be a very sad story. Giles died at age 18 and was buried in an unmarked grave. But the name on his death certificate and in his newspaper death notice was badly misspelled. After working with the director of the cemetery and a monument maker, I was arranged to have a flat stone with Giles’ correct name installed in the cemetery near his family members.
  • Yetta Finkelstein and family of New York City. Yetta and several of her young daughters were photographed doing piece work in their tenement home for a garment factory. Her husband had died, and she had very little money. My research revealed that at the time of the photograph, four of her children were living temporarily in an orphan home. I interviewed a number of descendants and learned that this courageous family not only survived, but went on to lead normal and productive lives.

The Finkelsteins, 1908.

  • Addie Card of North Pownal, Vermont. This was my first story. Somehow, I recognized right at the start that it could turn out to be a great story, so I kept a detailed diary of my research: the dead ends, good hunches and serendipity. After I was successful, I wrote a long and detailed narrative about my search for Addie. It was a life-changing experience.

How are you making the stories available?
They are all on my website — MorningsOnMapleStreet.com — and anyone can see them for free.

What is the value, in your view, of the Library’s making available the collections you use?
The collection is indispensable to the study of American history. With the FSA collection and the Hine collection, we have a remarkable record of what poor and working-class people looked like in the first half of the 20th century, how they were dressed and how their daily lives were lived. I often refer to the collection as a treasure chest of unfinished stories.

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