The Faces of Child Labor

The oftentimes heartbreaking photos taken by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1924 demand we look more closely at the faces of young laborers and the conditions under which they worked, such as this young spinner in a Georgia cotton mill:

Little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Ga. Overseer said she was regularly employed. Location: Augusta, Georgia. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine,1909 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01641

Little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Ga. Overseer said she was regularly employed. Location: Augusta, Georgia. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine,1909 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01641

The photos’ impact continues to this day, adding a compelling visual component to accompany the statistics of child labor in the United States in the early 20th century. Barbara O. Natanson, Head of Reference in the Prints and Photographs Division, and I were contacted by Virginia Tech professor Tom Ewing about a research assignment given to the students in his “Data in Social Context” course, where he would feature the photos.

Working in groups, each starting with a selected photo of child workers in Virginia, the students sought background information about the workers who were depicted; this, in turn, prompted them to pose a research question they pursued using other data sources. The project exemplifies the attitude towards data from the class description: “The course examines the range of information that can be classified as data in the form of quantified measures of social categories, textual collections, sound and visual media, and geographical information.”

In addition to the photos by Lewis Hine, students explored traditional types of data like census records, newspaper articles, and labor statistics to aid in their understanding of the conditions and context of this era in the U.S. After completing their work and sharing their presentations with staff in the Prints and Photographs Division, who joined them virtually, the students expressed how the photos affected them and impacted their research. Read some of the student responses below and take a long look at children in a sampling of photos from the National Child Labor Committee Collection—children who, perhaps unbeknownst to them, inspired change in child labor laws a hundred years ago as well as made an impression on a group of young college students today:

“Lewis Hine’s photographs of the working children inspired our [research] question. As we looked at worn out faces of the children, we wondered what were the physical, mental and social effects of child labor. The pictures also shaped our process of research because it gave us a starting point for information and also gave us other sources to continue our research. Lewis Hine’s photographs inspired us to look at all of his findings on the horrors of child labor.”

Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01137

Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 January. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01137

“There is only so much one can take from charts, graphs and visualizations. An actual photograph tells a story and shows a completely different side of data one cannot get from just numbers. Being able to see these pictures, see the people and actually be able to view the working conditions really does a lot in contributing to the understanding one is trying to develop when doing research.”

Rosy, an eight-year-old oyster shucker who works steady all day from about 3:00 A.M. to about 5 P.M. in Dunbar Cannery. The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife. Location: Dunbar, Louisiana. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00912

Rosy, an eight-year-old oyster shucker who works steady all day from about 3:00 A.M. to about 5 P.M. in Dunbar Cannery. The baby will shuck as soon as she can handle the knife. Location: Dunbar, Louisiana. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00912

“We were inspired by the photograph of Frank Robinson that we looked at on the first day of class. We always found ourselves returning back to it, talking about the unsanitary conditions, lack of proper clothing, long hours and early death rates surrounding his position in the cotton mill.” (Robinson is on the left, with broom.)

Ronald Webb, twelve year old doffer boy and Frank Robinson, seven year old who helps sweep and doff. Father is cardroom boss, Roanoke (Va.) Cotton Mills. Location: Roanoke, Virginia. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 May.//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.02150

Ronald Webb, twelve year old doffer boy and Frank Robinson, seven year old who helps sweep and doff. Father is cardroom boss, Roanoke (Va.) Cotton Mills. Location: Roanoke, Virginia. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 May.//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.02150

“It’s easy to insert numbers on a table and create a graph to give us somewhat of an idea of what child labor may have been like, but to view photos of the children and their families gives us more of an idea how the individual’s life may have been.”

Family of L.H. Kirkpatrick, Route 1, Lawton, Oklahoma. Children go to Mineral Wells School #39. Father, mother and five children (5, 6, 10, 11 and 12 years old) pick cotton. "We pick a bale in four days." Dovey, 5 years old, picks 15 pounds a day (average) Mother said: "She jess works fer pleasure." Ertle, 6 years, picks 20 pounds a day (average) Vonnnie, 10 years, picks 50 pounds a day (average) Edward, 11 years, picks 75 pounds a day (average) Otis, 12 years, picks 75 pounds a day (average) Expect to be out of school for two weeks more picking. Father is a renter. Works part of farm on shares (gives 1/4 of cotton for rent) and part of farm he pays cash rent. Location: Comanche County, Oklahoma. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1916 October 10. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00592

Family of L.H. Kirkpatrick, Route 1, Lawton, Oklahoma. Children go to Mineral Wells School #39. Father, mother and five children (5, 6, 10, 11 and 12 years old) pick cotton. “We pick a bale in four days.” Dovey, 5 years old, picks 15 pounds a day (average) Mother said: “She jess works fer pleasure.” Ertle, 6 years, picks 20 pounds a day (average) Vonnie, 10 years, picks 50 pounds a day (average) Edward, 11 years, picks 75 pounds a day (average) Otis, 12 years, picks 75 pounds a day (average) Expect to be out of school for two weeks more picking. Father is a renter. Works part of farm on shares (gives 1/4 of cotton for rent) and part of farm he pays cash rent. Location: Comanche County, Oklahoma. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1916 October 10. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00592

“The photos were haunting. While we wanted to provide statistics and themes for a sense of scale and purpose, we never wanted to lose sight of what those pictures portrayed. They were just kids.”

Maud Daly, five years old. Grace Daly, three years old. Pick shrimp at the Peerless Oyster Co. Their mother said they both help, and their sister said the little one worked the fastest. Many little ones like them work here. Location: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00894

Maud Daly, five years old. Grace Daly, three years old. Pick shrimp at the Peerless Oyster Co. Their mother said they both help, and their sister said the little one worked the fastest. Many little ones like them work here. Location: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1911 March. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00894

Thank you to Tom Ewing and the Fall 2019 students of “Data in Social Context” for sharing their research and their thoughtful responses to the photographs with us.

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