Top of page

Informational Text: Child Labor Reform Panels and Multimedia in the Early 20th Century

Share this post:

A child labor reform exhibit panel with photographs by Lewis Hine

When you hear the word “multimedia”, what do you think of? A video presentation on an interactive whiteboard? A mashup on YouTube?

Common Core State Standards and many other standards require that students compare informational texts in different media. However, multimedia texts aren’t limited to the 21st century. In fact, one of the most compelling multimedia campaigns in U.S. history was launched more than one hundred years ago, using paper, glue, and an effective set of persuasive techniques.

In the early 20th century, a battle was being waged over the role of children in the workforce, and much of that battle took place in the public sphere. Reform organizations like the National Child Labor Committee used all the tools of the growing mass media to make the case against child labor, including newspaper exposés, magazine articles, and illustrated lectures. (For more on this topic, try the Library of Congress lesson plan “Child Labor and the Building of America.”)

One of the powerful tools that reform organizations used, though, was also the most media-rich: the child labor exhibit panel. These poster-sized display boards were made to be persuasive yet portable, and child labor opponents took them almost everywhere, displaying them at conferences, on city streets, in the halls of Congress, and even at expositions like the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Exhibit panel with photographs by Lewis Hine

The panels were dense with information in many different media. Charts, diagrams, and statistics were juxtaposed with cartoons and hand-drawn graphics. Text in a mix of sizes and shapes spelled out slogans and calls to action: “No future and low wages;” “What are we going to do about it;” “A national menace needs a national cure.” In the midst of all the rhetoric, child workers stared out at the viewer from photographs taken by the legendary NCLC photographer Lewis Wicks Hine.

The struggle over child labor continued off and on for decades. Today, these panels let students explore the persuasive power of multimedia texts. Students can browse some of the Library’s child labor exhibit panels and try the following:

  • Choose one exhibit panel and identify how many different media are used in it. Which element do you think is most effective in communicating the panel’s message? How would the panel’s impact change if one of the elements were removed?
  • Study one panel and summarize its argument in a single sentence. How much does this panel use evidence to make its case? How much does it use emotional appeals?
  • Look closely at the photographs of working children. If the children in the photos had a chance to see these panels on display, how do you think they would have felt about how their images were being used?

Do you have a favorite among these panels? We’d love for you to share it in the comments.



  1. These are fantastic!
    One of my favorite Common Core standards activities is to ask students to analyze the style, argument, presentation, structure, and purpose of two reports from the Library of Congress Primary Source Set on the Industrial Revolution. One report by Lewis Hine on Child Labor in the Canning Industry is emotionally powerful even without looking up the referenced photos. The second report by early statistician and the first Commissioner of Labor, Carroll D. Wright, wields dense charts of figures to build a dry case for business. See also the image-rich Primary Source Set on Children’s Lives at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *