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.