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Child Labor Photos — What Do Children See?

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Okay.  I admit it.  I put my children to work this summer.

John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy
“John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy…”Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 Aug.

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:

Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner
“Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner…” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 Nov.



“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.”




Tenjeta Calone ... 10 years old. Been picking cranberries 4 years
“Tenjeta Calone… 10 years old. Been picking cranberries 4 years…” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910 Sept. 28.



“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:

“Rose Biodo …10 years old. Working 3 summers.” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910 Sept. 28.



“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:

In comparison with governmental affairs newsies are small matters.
“In comparison with governmental affairs newsies are small matters….” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1912 April.



“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?

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Comments (12)

  1. Barbara,
    This is an excellent piece. Very well thought through and carried out.
    Having your children participate in the analysis and bracketing their comments about the images worked well.
    Very calm, thoughtful and inspiring–worthy of the Library of Congress.

    • Thank you for the nice feedback! It was a fascinating exercise for all of us.

  2. Thank you so much for reminding us all of this important resource via Facebook and this site. Will be sharing this my friends and colleagues.

  3. This is an excellent publication with lot of links I’m very thankfull being photographer and taking care of child’s rights. Congratulation

  4. Sept 2
    A child labor law was enacted by Congress.
    The US Supreme Court ruled against that law.

    The rest of the story is:
    A later Supreme Court ruled against
    the prior Supreme Court.

    Good for them.


  5. This was a great exploration for your kids. It would be nice to see this as a lesson plan for grade and middle schools. Now when so many people are trying to get rid of UNIONs it is good to show what came before and could come again.

  6. Thank you for sharing this incredible insight! It’s refreshing to view history through a young lens.

  7. Thank God for books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

  8. Thank you for reminding me of the good and useful laws that are sometimes promulgated by our elected officials. Watching the day to day discourse of our representatives it is common to become disenchanted. Someone once said that our representative form of government has many flaws, but it is the best that we have yet conceived.

  9. Very insightful kids. What grade level are you working with?

    • I have one teen and one pre-teen (and they had quite different–and equally interesting–reactions to the photos!).

  10. ‘bless those children.s hearts, still babies and have to work like thay were grown. wha about the parents, what were thay doing were thay working too?, howcould anyone have child laborer; that earlier in life. these kids today wouldnt know what to do if thay worked for a bout 4.50 a week, or .43 cent an hour. andi had a feeling thay were tired, and hungry half the time. and never had a childhood, because it was lost them trying to work as adults. what were the parents doing in an earlier sentence i ment. patty.

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