Bringing back an embarrassing past Americans thought they had left behind

We recently completed a major digitization project of the collection of more than 5,400 photographs taken by Lewis W. Hine during the early 20th Century.

Hine traveled the country with his cameras and captured the sometimes oppressive conditions in which thousands of children work – some of them as young as three years old.

The social and political implications that Hine’s photos have on me were very present as I worked with the collection these past two years. These black-and-white photographs have a patina that suggests an embarrassing past, which many Americans may think they have left behind.

Hine’s work remains relevant despite the many reports about child labor violations in the U.S.

“An investigator with camera”

Hine, a sociologist trained in New York City, began taking photographs in 1903 when he was working as a teacher at the Ethical Culture School.

He and his students took photographs of migrants at Ellis Island between 1903 and 1918. Hine was of the opinion that the U.S.’s future lay in its identity as a nation of immigrants, a view that contrasted the escalating fears.

Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to document the conditions of living and working for American children based on the work he had done.

Gelatin silver print by Lewis Wickes Hine of ‘Trapper Boy at Turkey Knob Mine in MacDonald, West Virginia, 1908. 5 x 7 inches. The Photography Collections of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (P148), CC BY SA

In the late 19th Century, many states passed legislation limiting child laborers to a certain age and setting maximum working hours. At the turn of the Century, the number of working children increased. Between 1890 and 1920, 18% of 10 to 15-year-olds were employed.

Hine traveled to the Northeast and industrializing South, visiting factories and farms. He also visited the South’s streets and farms. Hine carried up to 50 pounds on his small frame, including a Graflex Camera and 5-by-7-inch negatives. The flash powder was used for interior and nighttime shots.

Hine would sometimes dress up as an insurance salesman, a postcard, or a Bible to gain access into factories. He would also wait outside for workers to arrive or leave their shifts.

Hine also collected the personal stories of his subjects, such as their age and ethnicity, along with photographs. He recorded their work lives, including their usual hours and any illnesses or injuries they suffered as a result.

Hine, who called himself ” a photographer with an investigative mind, “used this information to create “photo stories,” – combinations of images and texts that could be used in posters, public lectures, and published reports in order to help the organization advance its mission.

Lewis Wickes Hine took this photograph of three young fish cutters working at Seacoast Canning Co., Eastport, Maine. National Child Labor Committee Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The following legislation is a result of the enactment.

Hine’s muckraking photos exemplify documentary photographs, which rely on the perceived truthfulness of photography to make an argument for social change.

The camera is an eyewitness of a social ill that requires a solution. Hine presented his subjects directly, usually frontally, looking straight at the camera against the backdrops of the factories, farms, or cities in which they worked.

Hine’s photographs of the bare feet of his sitters, their tattered clothing, their filthy hands and faces, and their diminutive stature in front of hulking machinery made a statement about these children’s precarious lives and poor living conditions.

Lewis Wickes Hine – ‘Group of Newsies Selling on Capitol Steps, April 11, 1911’ The Photography Collections of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, (P2904) CC By-SA

Hine’s photos made a strong case for reforming child labor.

In particular, the National Child Labor Committee’s work led to Congress creating the Children’s Bureau and the Keating Owen Act, both of which limited the working hours for kids and prohibited interstate sales of products produced with child labor.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. However, the momentum had already been built for protecting child workers. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set up restrictions and protections for employing children.

The National Child Labor Committee project included advocacy for the enforcement of child labor regulations. This is a problem that has resurfaced today, as the Department of Labor – the agency charged with enforcing the labor laws – comes under fire because it fails to protect child workers.

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