Child Labourers as Victims: Lewis Hine’s Photography (1908-1912)

(Last Updated On June 15, 2022)
Lewis Hine - Young mill worker, Newberry, SC (Dec. 1908)

Lewis Hine – Young mill worker, Newberry, SC (Dec. 1908)

To many contemporary Westerners, child labour appears as cruel and uncivilized. However, in all pre-industrial societies, there was no sharp demarcation between childhood and adulthood and children worked with adults—this was part of their education. In the European Middle Ages, childhood as we envisage it now lasted only a few years; at about age 7, the peasant child was working in the farm while urban children were sent to learn their trade as apprentices. There was no adolescence either, you were recognized as an adult (with full privileges and duties) at an age generally between 13 and 15.

Some schools existed, but they could be attended part-time, and there were pupils of various ages in the same class. As printing did not exist and paper was expensive, without manuals nor the possibility of taking notes, pupils learned by hearing the same lessons being read by the master year after year, so you found on the same bench newcomers and regular listeners.

The modern structure of the nuclear family, its view as a haven of peace, and the concomitant conception of childhood as state of vulnerability and innocence, stratified by age categories, arose progressively in Western Europe between the 13th and the 18th century, see Philippe Ariès, L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (1973) (translated in English with some inaccuracies under the title Centuries of Childhood). However child labour survived this social transformation, and it accompanied the Industrial Revolution:

“In the United States rapid industrialization after the Civil War (1861–1865) increased the child labor force and introduced new occupations for children. According to the nationwide census of 1870 about one out of every eight children in the United States was employed. By 1900 approximately 1,750,000 children, or one out of six, had wagework. Sixty percent were agricultural workers, and of the 40 percent in industry over half were children of immigrant families.” On the other hand, “in preindustrial and rural Canada families needed children for the work they could do. The immigrant children worked as farm laborers and domestic servants.” Despite modernization, old stereotypes survived: “Child labor was gender divided. Whereas boys worked in industries such as sawmills and coal mines, girls worked in the textile and garment industries.” (Internet FAQ Archives, Child Labor in the West)

Lewis Hine - Josie, Bertha and Sophie, regular shuckers, Maggioni Canning Co., Port Royal, SC (Feb. 1911)

Lewis Hine – Josie, Bertha and Sophie, regular shuckers, Maggioni Canning Co., Port Royal, SC (Feb. 1911)

But opposition to child labour mounted at the end of the 19th century. “Whereas child labor was considered both economically valuable and ethical in preindustrialized societies, it was increasingly understood as uncivilized as industrialization progressed.” It is generally thought that laws limiting or banning child labour arose from the fight of labour unions, like the 8-hour working day. In fact, “many working-class parents saw little advantage to keeping their children in school instead of the workplace.” (Internet FAQ Archive, National Child Labor Committee) Indeed:

“Figures from the United States indicate that children were likely to contribute about one-third of family income by the time the adult male was in his fifties. In Europe, children’s contributions were even greater; about 41 percent when the head was in his fifties, and in some cases even higher.” (Child Labor in the West)

The fight against child labour was waged mainly by upper and middle-class philanthropists, clergymen and politicians.

“A crusade against child labor developed in most Western countries in the late nineteenth century. The modern order of childhood demanded actions against the “social evil” and for child labor laws. The child labor laws were hardly effective, as they did not provide for sufficient enforcement. Compulsory schooling laws were more effective, and the debates on child labor had an educative impact as well. States, educationalists, politicians, and philanthropists joined in the efforts to get children out of the factories and into school.” (Child Labor in the West)

Lewis Hine - Millie Cornaro, 10yo, picking cranberries, White's Bog, Browns Mills, NJ (Sep. 28, 1910)

Lewis Hine – Millie Cornaro, 10yo, picking cranberries, White’s Bog, Browns Mills, NJ (Sep. 28, 1910)

Although agriculture accounted for 60 percent of child labour, it was strangely spared by that campaign: “While children working in agriculture seemed consistent with America’s past history, to many Americans youngsters laboring for meager wages in industry seemed brutal and cruel.” (National Child Labor Committee) This distinction could not be argued on the basis of health or working conditions:

“How were the conditions for child laborers in industry compared with agriculture? In France, research shows that industrialization intensified work for some children, as workdays in factories were long and more structured. On the other hand, rural life in late-nineteenth-century France was rigorous and primitive, and young men from certain rural areas were more often rejected for military service than young men from cities, challenging the “misery history” of industrial child labor.” (Child Labor in the West)

I think that the real reason behind this double standard is moralistic. At that time, bourgeois philanthropists were afraid of delinquency in the cities, especially in the urban working-class youth, and they set about to “save” working-class children from vice, see The Child Savers by Anthony Platt.

Lewis Hine - Madeline Causey, 10yo, Merrimack Mills, Huntsville, AL (Nov. 1913)

Lewis Hine – Madeline Causey, 10yo, Merrimack Mills, Huntsville, AL (Nov. 1913)

In the United States, efforts by politicians, philanthropists and clergymen, in particular the Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy, an Episcopalian minister, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was established in 1904. It was greatly helped by the field work of the sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (September 26, 1874 – November 3, 1940) for its campaign.

“The committee helped organize local committees in every state where child labor existed, held traveling exhibits, and was the first organized reform movement to make wide use of photographic propaganda. In 1915 the NCLC published 416 newspapers and distributed more than four million pages of propaganda materials. The propaganda promoted—here and elsewhere—changing attitudes and practices regarding childhood. The well-known photographer LEWIS HINE was one of the NCLC’s crusaders. In 1908 Hine resigned from his job as a teacher and devoted his full career to photography and to his work as a reporter for the NCLC.” (Child Labor in the West)

Hine spent several years photographing thousands children and adolescents who worked for a wage. With each photograph he included information on the location, sometimes on the age of children, and added some comment. These pictures are widely found on the Internet, with varying quality, either in sepia or in grey. The National Child Labor Committee Collection of the Library of Congress contains 5130 pictures, free of copyright; they generally exist in both sepia and grey, and in different sizes. I have chosen a few of them, in sepia and large size; the following 3 can also be found (in grey only) on The Authentic History Center’s webpage Child Labor Photographs of Lewis Hine, with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) copyright.

Lewis Hine - Cotton mill workers (Jan. 22, 1909)

Lewis Hine – Cotton mill workers (Jan. 22, 1909)

Hine’s comment: “Two of the ‘helpers’ in the Tifton Cotton Mill, Tifton, Ga. They work regularly. Location: Tifton, Georgia.

Lewis Hine - Spinner glimpses the outside world (Nov. 11, 1908)

Lewis Hine – Spinner glimpses the outside world (Nov. 11, 1908)

Hine’s comment: “Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner. A moments glimpse of the outer world. Said she was 10 years old. Been working over a year. Location: Lincolnton, North Carolina.”

Lewis Hine - Selling Radishes (Aug. 22, 1908)

Lewis Hine – Selling Radishes (Aug. 22, 1908)

Hine’s comment: “‘Radishes! Penny a bunch!’ Sixth St. Market, Cincinnati. 10 P.M. Saturday. Boys and girls sell all day, and until 11 P.M. Aug.22, 1908. Location: Cincinnati, Ohio.

The following high-quality image comes from Wikipedia:

Lewis Hine - Little Lottie, regular oyster shucker (1911)

Lewis Hine – Little Lottie, regular oyster shucker (1911)

Hine’s comment: “Little Lottie, a regular oyster shucker in Alabama Canning Co. She speaks no English. Note the condition of her shoes… Location: Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

Finally, campaigns such as that of the NCLC succeeded in bringing children out of factories and into schools:

“Why did child labor decrease around the turn of the twentieth century in Western societies? An increase in children’s school attendance is part of the explanation. Research from Sweden, Denmark, and Chicago indicates that one of the key motives for the introduction of compulsory schooling laws was to control and abolish child labor. In Norway the number of days at school increased by 50 percent from 1880 to 1914. At that time children were schoolchildren and part-time workers.” (Child Labor in the West)

Note however that fighting child labour was not the only reason for the introduction of compulsory schooling:

“A comparison of Western societies demonstrates that state enactment of compulsory schooling is not explained by economic factors, such as level of industrialization or urbanization. Some countries implemented compulsory schooling well before industrializing. The earliest state to do so, Prussia, illustrates the noneconomic motive behind enacting compulsory schooling. Enacting compulsory schooling was a means to reinvigorate national solidarity in a context where traditional, external modes of authority were weakening. Compulsory schooling was a form of nation-building, foreshadowing the larger historical movement to broaden the rights of individuals as citizens and linking this to an expanded moral jurisdiction of state authority. In contrast, England, a comparative late-comer to compulsory schooling, enacted its Elementary Education Act of 1870, well after taking the lead in inaugurating industrialization. Yet, like Prussia, a weak showing at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 signaled a threat to its international stature, in turn challenging traditional means of authority and technical training. The prompt to reinvigorate national solidarity fueled a sense of urgency and thereby gave legitimacy to an extension of state authority over universal primary education.” (Compulsory School Attendance)

Also, “for the American states […] the timing of enactment must be viewed within the broader context of national formation.

“Compulsory school attendance laws passed during the latter half of the nineteenth century represented more than the cessation of voluntary schooling; they formalized a significant broadening of state authority and its assumption of responsibility for the education of children.”

Lewis Hine - Immigrant children, Washington School, Boston, MA (Oct 1909)

Lewis Hine – Immigrant children, Washington School, Boston, MA (Oct 1909)

For instance, in France, one of the objectives of the secular state schools established by Julles Ferry was to instill patriotism and anti-German chauvinism in children, in particular through an unrelenting insistence on the fight to recover the province of Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by Germany after the 1870-1871 war. Millions of young French young men educated in these schools died in the trenches of WWI, after which France recovered Alsace-Lorraine.

Finally in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, pressured by child welfare advocates and labour unions, included child labor regulations in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (National Child Labor Committee). Teenagers were taken out of the job market and sent back to high schools, but the real reason was now mass unemployment: the jobs previously held by youths were given to their elders.

In this way the Western conception of childhood and and adolescence was finally achieved:

“By legally positing universal schooling as a common goal, the laws helped to structure the social and legal categories of childhood and ADOLESCENCE that have become integral to American culture generally and to the organization of American education in particular.” (Compulsory School Attendance) “According to a new regime that condemned child labor, children were supposed to PLAY and go to school. The schoolchild as norm was gradually perceived as “natural” and “universal.” As history is a way of seeing the past through the filters of the present, the complexity of child labor in the past turned out to be difficult to depict.” (Child Labor in the West)

Concomitant to compulsory schooling at higher ages was the raising of the legal age of sexual consent in Western countries, see for instance Martin Killias, “The emergence of a new taboo: the desexualization of youth in Western societies since 1800”, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 8:459–477, 2000. Another result of crusades to “save” children is the specific judicial system for minors; as explained by Anthony Platt in The Child Savers, under the pretext of “protecting” youth, this system remains harsh, while it deprives youth of all constitutional rights granted to adults facing trial.

Campaigns to “save” working-class children, in particular the one of the NCLC and Hine presenting child labourers as victims, were ideological. Many photographed children do not give themselves the appearance of victims, they are sometimes smiling (see the above two little cotton mill workers); anyway they look courageous.

One of the most famous photographs by Hine is the one of Addie Card, a girl spinner looking weary; this iconic photo appeared on a US postage stamp in 1998. I reproduce it from Wikipedia:

Lewis Hine - Addie Card (Aug. 1910)

Lewis Hine – Addie Card (Aug. 1910)

Hine commented: “Addie Card, 12 years. Anemic little spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill. Vt. Girls in mill say she is ten years. She admitted to me she was twelve; that she started during school vacation and now would ‘stay.’ Location: North Pownal, Vermont, August 1910.

I deny Hine the medical qualification to diagnose the disease of anemia. However, the historian and freelance journalist Joe Manning has published on his website Mornings on Maple Street a magnificent Lewis Hine Project, which includes a fascinating search for the real life of Addie Card. I summarize here his findings.

Joe Manning - Gravestone of Addie Card (2005)

Joe Manning – Gravestone of Addie Card (2005)

Addie was born on December 6, 1897; she was thus 12-year-old when Hine photographed her. In 1915, she married fellow mill worker Edward Hatch, but later they divorced, and she married Ernest LaVigne six weeks after. In her lifetime, she had a great-great-grandchild. She died on July 19, 1993, at the venerable age of 95. She is buried in Cohoes, New York.

LaVigne family - Addie Card with great-great-grandchild Sierra, and great-granddaughters Piperlea and Kim

LaVigne family – Addie Card with great-great-grandchild Sierra, and great-granddaughters Piperlea and Kim

Not bad for an “anemic”! But what about her weariness in Hine’s photograph? Joe Manning and his friend Elizabeth Winthrop interviewed Piperlea and Cathleen LaVigne (see the 6th page of Manning’s search). As one can read in it, Addie suffered from psychological abuse on the part of her father:

Joe: Did she tell you anything about working in the mill as a child?
Piperlea: She told me about how hard it was working in the mill, that she had to quit school in the fourth grade to go to work, about her father disowning her, and how it was so awful not to have your parents’ love.
Cathleen: […] She told me that when she was 12, she had a nervous breakdown. She was confined to bed for almost a year.
Elizabeth: What did she mean by a nervous breakdown?
Piperlea: I remember her telling me that she had a lot of mental anguish from her father. He blamed Addie for her mother’s ultimate demise. He blamed it on the childbirth. He said it was her fault.
Elizabeth: The death record shows that she died of peritonitis, which is an infection in the abdominal cavity, sometimes caused by appendicitis.
Piperlea: But he threw the guilt on her. She told me, ‘My birth was the cause of my mother’s death, and her death was the cause of my father disowning me.’

Hine had looked at Addie with coloured glasses. It was not anemia, nor work, that made her sad and weary, but her own father.


Update (2015/08/14): I have found a Lewis Hine Photographs site containing over 5000 child labour pictures by Hine.

9 thoughts on “Child Labourers as Victims: Lewis Hine’s Photography (1908-1912)

  1. You are all an AMAZING bunch of retards: “….Campaigns to “save” working-class children, in particular the one of the NCLC and Hine presenting child laborers as victims, were ideological. Many photographed children do not give themselves the appearance of victims, they are sometimes smiling (see the above two little cotton mill workers); anyway they look courageous…”

    Exactly – this was actually a wonderful time for the children; actually, they are having a holiday – and it’s those ideological bourgeois (funded by the wealthy) who are perpetrating the myth the children are unhappy with their ‘staged’ photos of sad frowns and unhappy moments…damn him Lewis Hine – he destroyed the happy childhoods with his ‘social justice’ photography!!

    • Yes, this campaign by the NCLC was ideological. It condemned child labour in industry, but not in agriculture. It presented children as incapacitated little beings devoid of any agency. It considered that exploitation at factory was normal for adults but not for children. It did not challenge low wages and exploitation itself. And indeed the NCLC arose from the upper classes, not the labour movement.
      The only way to prevent children from working for a wage is to give their parents a good wage to raise their family, and to have free schools providing real skills for working class children. Sentimental campaigns presenting children as victims are useless. Children are not stupid and incompetent as “child savers” present them.
      The “child savers” not only did not support the labour movement’s fight for better wages, but they also advocated sending delinquent teenagers (that included pregnant girls) to corrective labour in farms, of course without any wage.

  2. Ron: In family farms, the children helped the parents, but here agricultural child labour is meant as children working as wage labourers in agriculture, thus outside the family. Even small or medium farms could hire labourers, including children. And there were big domains, in particular in the South (were they previously had slaves). In the above picture, Millie Cornaro is from Philadelphia, and she works in NJ. In the USA now, child labour still exists in agriculture, for instance Latino kids working in big estates.
    Pip: I have read Platt’s book The Child Savers, and the Introduction to the 2nd edition explains that in the USA, the drive to “save” urban working-class youth, in particular to bring children out of factories, was led by the bourgeoisie, with middle class activists and financial backing by the upper class, that the reforms of the “progressive era” were in the interest of monopoly capitalism. They wanted workers with a minimum of education and disciplined/moralized since their ealy age.
    Of course work in factories was hard and dangerous, but it was so for all, including adults; life in general was harsh, and families shared the difficulties together, parents and children alike. Also the “child savers” were not soft, they sent juvenile delinquents to work in farms, were they were subjected to extreme discipline. The point is that viewing children as defenseless and vulnerable, and shielding them from the harshness of life experienced by adults, is a recent concept on a historical scale, it is part of the romantic view of “childhood innocence”.
    School discipline resembles much military discipline, and one of the purposes of the school system is to instill moral and patriotic values in children. Thus States give a special attention to “the goals of education”.
    Today’s “neo-liberalism” has replaced the “scientific planning” of the “progressive era”, and juvenile labour is on the rise, including in Europe. Youths work generally because their parents are too poor. The EU bureaucrats don’t do much about it, even when it goes against EU rules. Thus the fight for “childhood innocence” is now focalized on its last field, sexuality.

  3. There is a tendency by some modern political thinkers to try to reassess the child labor movement and put it in a more positive light, but I have read enough about this to know they are misguided. Nearly everything I have ever read of it, including accounts from the children themselves, suggest it was nightmarish. Kids were frequently injured or killed, as well as exploited and abused by their bosses in every conceivable way. When you think back about how time seemed to stretch on forever when you were a kid, it is hard to imagine children laboring for long hours. I certainly would not have wanted to do it, and I don’t think most children who were laborers did it because they wanted to–they were either forced into it or felt they had to do it to survive. There’s a great quote about the irony of children sadly watching the men playing games in the park across from some factory where they were laboring, but I can’t seem to find it.

    • According to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (17th ed.), the quote you refer to was a poem written in 1915 by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn (1876-1959): “The golf links lie so near the mill / That almost every day / The laboring children can look out / And watch the men at play.”

    • It was written, I believe, by a woman poet whose name I do not remember offhand. But the entire verse comes back to me:

      The golf links lie so near the mill
      That almost every day
      The laboring children can look out
      And see the men at play.

      UPDATE: It was written by Sarah Cleghorne, who is described as a peace, suffrage, and labor activist.
      [Edited by Christian]

  4. You and the scholars you refer to make a good point about motivations/politics. The point was not to expose children to education but to get urban kids off the streets so they do not cause mischief.

    Also, you are right that the issue is not about labor, even hard labor. To some extent children are going to be under the thumb of their parents. I think an important distinction that is not brought up is, “who benefits from the labor?” Things have changed a lot now with agricultural conglomerates, but back in those days, farms were owned by individual families (originally encouraged by various Homestead Acts in the US) and so a child laboring on the farm was supporting his own family (and may someday be put in charge of the farm). In a factory, the labor benefits the company and not the family whose other members are probably toiling elsewhere for some landlord or boss. Even under serfdom, some effort would have been made by adults to protect children from the more dangerous jobs they were not mature enough to perform safely and such a concern would be unheard of by a factory boss.

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