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Not for Kids: Little Workers in Lewis Hine’s Photographs

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In the early 20th century the United States had a shortage of labor workers. Legislation on children labor differed considerably from state to state, and was rarely observed and sometimes non-existent. Americans encouraged child labor on family farms but had no idea to what degree children were exploited in other areas of work.

In 1908 the National Committee for Children’s Labor hired photographer and sociologist Lewis Hine. He was employed specifically to take pictures of children laborers all around the country. Hine had become famous through his series on immigrants on Ellis Island in New York, in 1904. As a kid, Hine had worked in a factory so he was well aware of the issue. So as an adult, and experienced photographer, using made-up pretexts he made his way inside industrial premises to take portrait pictures of young miners, factory workers, cotton collectors and cigar rollers. He also photographed newspaper boys, bowling alley kids, oyster openers and other underage workers.

Using made-up pretexts he made his way inside industrial premises to take portraits of young miners, factory workers, cotton collectors and cigar rollers

Hine’s photographs began to gain public attention. Politicians used the pictures to promote bills to protect young workers or ban child labor altogether. In 1938, after a few unsuccessful attempts, a bill apassed through congress that subsequently became a law banning employment for children under the age of 16. The law exists to this day.

Bird In Flight selected some of Lewis Hine’s images from the Library of Congress Archive representing young American workers.

7-year-old year old Ferris, a small newsboy or “newsie,” who did not know enough math to make change. The newspapers he holds are copies of The Mobile Item, with the headline “Germans Are Driven Out Of Ostend,” describing the end of the Siege of Antwerp in World War I. Photographed in Mobile, Alabama, in October of 1914.

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A little spinner in the Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, Georgia. . The overseer admitted the child was regularly employed. Photographed in January 1909.

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A few of the Western Union messengers in Hartford, Connecticut. They are on duty, alternate nights, until 10 P.M.

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Textile mill workers in Newberry, South Carolina, photographed in December of 1908.

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Maud Cheek, one of the youngest spinners in the Drayton Mill, Spartenberg, South Carolina, runs seven sides. She worked in another mill previously. Maud’s two sisters, Blanche and Grace, are in the spinning room with her. Their father did not appear to be working. Photographed in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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Game of Craps. Cincinnati, Ohio. Aug., 1908. Photographed in Cincinnati, Ohio

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Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of when the sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much,” she admitted. Photographed in Potawotamie County, Oklahoma.

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Johns Lewis from Springstein Mill. A typical cotton mill boy, 12 years old, had been in the mill for one year. He got 40 cents when he started, and 60 cents at the moment when he was photographed. His brother and father also worked in mills. Photographed in Chester, South Carolina.

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Howard Williams, 13 year old delivery boy for Shreveport, Louisiana Drug Company. He worked from 9:30 am to 10:30 pm, and had been there for three months. He went to the Red Light every day and night. The company could not keep other messenger boys because they worked them so hard. Photographed in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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Michael McNelis, newsboy, aged 8 years. This boy had just recovered from his second attack of pneumonia, and was found selling papers in a big rain storm. His general appearance was neat.

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Lawrence Burns, doffer, 14 years old. Fall River, Massachusetts.

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Lemon boy at a market-place. Photographed in Boston, Massachusetts

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Shorpy Higginbotham, a “greaser” on the tipple at Bessie Mine in Alabama. He said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. He carried two heavy pails of grease, and was often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. Photographed in December 1910

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Pin-boys work in the Arcade bowling alley. They worked until midnight and later. Photographed in New Jersey, on December 20, 1909.

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Young doffers in Mollahan Mills in Newberry, South Carolina, on December 3, 1908. A doffer is someone who removes, or “doffs,” bobbins or spindles holding spun cotton or wool from a spinning frame, then replaces them with empty ones.

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A young driver in the Brown mine. He had been driving pack animals for one year, working from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The device attached to his cap is an oil-wick cap lamp, which would be lit when the boy was working in the mine tunnels. Photographed in West Virginia, in September of 1908.

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Giles Edmund Newsom, who was injured while working in Sanders Spinning Mill in North Carolina, on August 21st, 1912. A piece of machinery fell on his foot, mashing his toe. This caused him to fall onto a spinning machine and his hand went into unprotected gearing, crushing and tearing out two fingers. He told the investigating attorney that he was 11 years old when it happened. He and his younger brother worked in the mill several months before the accident. Their father, R.L. Newsom, tried to negotiate with the company when he found out the boy would receive the money and not the parents. Photographed on October 23, 1912 in Bessemer City, North Carolina.

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15 year old Vance, a trapper boy, by a large door in a coal mine. Vance was trapped for several years, receiving 75 cents a day for 10 hours of work. His job was to open and close a door. Most of the time he sat idle waiting for cars to come. Photographed in West Virginia in September 1908.

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Ethel Shumate had been rolling cigarettes in a Danville, Virginia factory for six months. She said she was thirteen years old. Photographed at noon in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co., in South Pittston, Pennsylvania, in January of 1911.

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Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co., in South Pittston, Pennsylvania, in January of 1911.

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A 10-year-old spinner at the Rhodes Mfg. Co., takes a momentary glimpse of the outside world. She said she had been working there for over a year. Photographed in Lincolnton, North Carolina.

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Bertha Marshall, a berry picker on Jenkins farm, had been working for 2 summers. She picked about ten boxes a day. (2 cents a box). Photographed in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 7, 1909.

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Young newsie asleep on stairs with his papers in Jersey City, New Jersey in November 1912.

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(Lewis Hine’s images from the Library of Congress Archive)

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