Friday, May 6, 2011

Lewis Hine: The Littlest Laborers


This week saw many countries commemorate International Workers Day. While many labor groups use this day to advocate for improvements to their present working condition, this day should also be used to celebrate how much has improved for workers all over the world. These improvements are quite striking when you see the historic photographs of child labor as captured by the legendary photographer Lewis Hine.

What seems to look like a band of happy children on a farm above is actually a group of under-aged workers who shucked oysters for almost eight hours a day before and after school hours nearly a full century ago. Below, children work in groups or individually in packing plants, mines and mills in the early years of the 20th century.


Most of the children who worked in these places were brought in by their parents' employers; the father would work at the more demanding jobs while the mother and kids would be assigned lighter tasks. 

As you can see in these pictures, the definition of a light task included working long hours doing physically taxing jobs in hazardous environments. There are many stories of these kids having physical ailments in their adulthood as a result of the grueling work they did when they were younger.


Usually, these families were immigrants who were lured to America with the prospect of jobs and a better life. This was at a time when industry was booming in the country and more workers were needed to man different fields.

Some of these jobs benefited from the small hands and nimble bodies of the children. This was a fact that was exploited by different industries everywhere.


At that time, American law-makers weren't completely apathetic towards this situation, and many US states had already passed laws that regulated the employment of children in industrial settings. Most companies however chose to ignore these laws. It wasn't an uncommon notion that hiring these children would help out the poorer families in the state.

While Lewis Hine was documenting these child laborers, many employers passed them off as at least 16 years old. In reality, children as young as eight were already hired for different jobs.


Mr. Hine studied sociology and later on became a teacher. He encouraged his students to use photography as a tool for their education. Later on, he realized that photojournalism was his true calling.

He first documented the arrival of immigrants in Ellis Island in 1904. He continued his photography by following these immigrants into their crowded tenements. It wouldn't be long after starting on this path that his work led him to the working conditions of the poor, including children.


His groundbreaking work on child labor began in 1908 at the invitation of the National Child Labor Committee. They believed that child labor would only provide so much income for the families in the short run and wouldn't lead them out of poverty in the future. Instead, a proper education was the true way for improving the lives of the children.

Mr. Hine set out to different factories, mines, and plants in many states to document these child workers. It is truly a testament to his skill and determination that he was able to capture so many moving images at the risk of his own life; the presence of a photographer with the aim of exposing these exploited children would have been an unwelcome prospect for these companies, to say the least.


Mr. Hine's photographs put hundreds of faces to the names of these child laborers that the middle and upper classes had only heard about in passing. His invaluable work paid off as the NCLC successfully lobbied for federal laws to protect the children, although it would be many years before true change would come. 

Today, Lewis Hine is remembered for helping change the working conditions of everyone across America through his unflinching photographs. Then NCLC honors his name through the Lewis Hine Awards which recognizes those who have helped children and the youth.


All of these high resolution photographs were taken from the Shorpy Historic Photo Archive. You can also find more of Lewis Hine's work on child laborers over at the University of Maryland website. The following publications are available for purchase: Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, Men at Work, and Lewis Hine as Social Critic.




50 comments:

The Angry Lurker said...

Amazing photographs of a terrible injustice at that time, good post on something I didn't know about.

Leo Stahl said...

It's amazing that basically a photographer enabled the lives of these children to be dramatically improved. It may be sad to think of the hardship they endured but positives are to be taken from the passion of others to strive for the betterment of mankind. Thanks for sharing.

jamiesaur said...

Great photos, but poor kids. ):

Kicking Rocks said...

The photograph is great but child labor was terrible....

Solsby Kid said...

Nice photo, although i feel sorry for the kids :(

Megan said...

I wonder how people will look at these photos a hundred or a thousand years from now, if they'll even be able to imagine or remember a place like this, treatment like this. I hope these images will still be around and known.

=dgrphx= said...

creepy looking kids

D4 said...

Wow, this was really well put together, congratulations. The photography definitely captivates my thought, and the whole story of Lewis Hine, which is new to me, was delivered nicely.

Finn Phoenix said...

Times were tough and different. Just watched Cinderella Man yesterday too.

Flodström said...

These photos are really impressive. I love it how there is always someone who makes a face though :P

thenitefalls said...

You can feel the kids loss of reality in here, kids suppose to be having fun, not doing this crap =/

pixel said...

those are some really badass kids, especially the one smoking...bet they could kick the ass of any kid today

Stare Dad said...

Oh man, this is so creepy :( poor kids.

Salman Ashraf said...

Stunning photos. Really captures a lot of words into just an image.

Definitely an interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

Keep 'em coming as always :)

Shutterbug said...

Awesome photos. I feel for those kids....

Reilly said...

a great photographer! I've seen those in my photography class. Also, post The Falling Soldier so we can discuss if it's real or of it's set up ;)

Wintermute said...

its crazy to think of how common child labor was, and he was lucky to be able to take photos of it all.

Dave said...

Makes you realise how much our lives have improved since those dark days. Sad to say but far too many of us are not interested in remembering any of that as they are too self absorbed. Some day soon when all that our fore fathers fought and died for ceases to exist these same people will begin squealing about our rights and what is the Union going to do about it, well then its too late. Far far too late. Sayonara

A Heel in Mint said...

Amazing pictures but sad! Btw, you have won an award from me. Click on the link for details http://heelinmint.blogspot.com/2011/05/sunshine-award.html :)

Heel in Mint

Agustin Creevy said...

right pictures and nice story!!!! *_*

Joel C Anatoli said...

Thats a sad thing indeed. Instead of playing with other kids and having fun, they were stuck inside cotton mills and factories. I bet they're much more hard working then me when they grew up.

jblogger45 said...

great pics

jblogger45 said...

great pics

Guy Movie Blogger said...

Fantastic shots of a really heart wrenching subject. It really might sound cliche but we have no idea how good we really have it this day and age.

Astronomy Pirate said...

Great photos, I would really suck to work in places like that without shoes and the proper equipment as a lot of these photos show. Hine did a great job.

Moobeat said...

Such a powerful picture

Bonjour Tristesse said...

The expression of the kid in the middle rear of the first image is priceless.

-E- said...

we're all enslaved by society. the entrance-age matters but little.

Colin Biano said...

it's amazing how far we've come

ChazWellington said...

i say we enforce this child labor today, to a certain extent of course.

ed said...

makes me appreciate being born in this generation

Elliot MacLeod-Michael said...

these photos are incredible. the girl standing alone looking confused and scared is chilling.

Jacob said...

poor kids... Must have been difficult to live in those times!

Dejch said...

good photo came out of poor kids.. sad but still love your blog and pictures..

following

VersionDouble said...

loved all of these. remind me of bill brants works.

JayPower said...

These photo's look real gritty, loving it ;D

Dudemeister said...

Those photographs are amazing. Notice how I said photograph instead of photo to let everybody know I appreciate their gravity.

Alexandra said...

omgosh these are stunning.I love photos like this!!!

Andrew said...

My how times have changed! These photos are a reminder that we have truly come a long way in regards to labor laws. There are other ways we still need a lot of changing yet.

I'm really impressed with the quality of these photos--they're quite old but still very clear (my non-photographer eyes, mind you). Especially the little girl at the sewing factory. Amazing shot to say the very least.

Generally Disgruntled said...

Kids just look happier with coal rubbed over their face. Scrambling around in the dark, developing lifelong respiratory problems... simpler times.

Ed said...

Beautiful example of the expression, 'a picture is worth a thousand words'.

HiFi said...

Wow, these photos are really very well preserved.

Rob said...

Crazy stuff. poor kids.

BigMike said...

Sad that these are from a hundred years ago but the same or worse then this is still going on in so much of the world... I am glad I live in the US!

OatmealStout said...

Almost as if they were taken yesterday, and knowing that they weren't is what makes them amazing.

MRanthrope said...

I'm sure a lot of fat cats in this country (*cough*GOP*cough*) wouldn't mind if we reverted back to these days =/

Dale said...

Whenever I see pics like this I realize how hard lives used to be for children. They worked so hard. Nice post

Dale

Necroticism said...

God, so many good shots in here. But I love the first one.

Brock said...

I love the contrast in those photos, so much history is captured there

Ray Rousell said...

What a fantastic photo!

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