Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions

Aimee Heidelberg - November 29, 2023

Five-year-old children today toil over learning math and tying their shoes. They sweat after a day of running around a playground during spirited games of tag. But just over one hundred years ago, a five-year-old might toil in a textile mill and sweat after a day of picking cotton. In the 1800s and early 1900s, children could work. And work they did, some up to fourteen hours a day. Child labor in the United States is as old as the colonization itself, but in the industrial era, reformers noticed, and loudly demonized, the practice. When they hired photographer Lewis Hine, however, the movement caught the attention; seeing the practice of child labor is a lot different than merely hearing about it. Hine’s work changed the nation’s understanding of child labor in the early 1900s. While Hine’s own story is well known, there are shocking stories behind each of his images.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
A girl walks among exposed machinery in a cotton facotry. Wellcome Images, (n.d., CC 4.0)

Child Labor is as Old as Labor Itself

Children have always been part of the labor force. They worked on family farms, sold food and goods from carts at markets, and have even been horrifically enslaved. As industrial technology advanced, children sought jobs in factories and mines, working heavy machinery, using their small stature to access places adults couldn’t reach. From 1890 to 1910, roughly eighteen percent of children between ten and fifteen years old were employed. They had to work, even if the job was dangerous, and even if it meant they couldn’t go to school. Low-income children were expected to take jobs and give their wages over to their families. It was a means to support their basic needs, even if their education and development suffered. But as the United States became a highly industrialized nation and slavery abolished, inexpensive labor was necessary for long-term success in many industries.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Editorial cartoon shows big business callous attitude toward child labor. Public domain.

Child Labor Exploited by Business

Businesses greatly benefit from these young laborers. Children, especially those living in poverty, worked for less money. They weren’t as likely to organize into labor unions. Nor were they as likely to protest conditions or work assignments. And as an added bonus, they were small enough to fit into places adults could not or reach inside small crevices in machinery. They were contributing to their household income and keeping families afloat. But the idea of small children near large machinery and going to work instead of school led to reforms starting in the mid-1800s. These efforts started at the local, grass-roots level. As the pressure increased, factories relocated to more ‘sympathetic’ locations. Those that couldn’t move faced increasing scrutiny from local religious organizations, schools, and labor groups. As the fight for labor unions intensified in the late 1800s, regional and national organizations took a keen interest in child labor.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
A poster expresses concerns about child labor. Lewis W. Hine (c. 1913), public domain.

Reformers Understood the Impact of Child Labor

A placard like the one shown above isn’t enough space to detail the problems brought upon the child laborers at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Child labor reformers understood the negative impact of heavy labor on young children, and placards like this brought attention to the problem. They detailed how children stopped going to school in favor of earning a wage, giving them little chance of upward mobility. Their bodies were underweight from the physical labor. Some developed spinal curvature and work-related diseases. Accidents mangled limbs and sent children to hospitals their families couldn’t afford. These hard-working children had little chance to have a youth, they had adult responsibilities and the aches and pains of adult workers before they even hit puberty.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Child drivers and mules at Gary, WV mine. Lewis Wickes Hine (1908), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Labor Reformers Organize

By the 1870s, lobbyists started proposing legislation to restrict child labor practices. In 1881, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called for states to prohibit children under 14 from working. Grassroots reform groups organized across the country, combining their efforts to create the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904. The group’s mission focused on “promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” The group investigated businesses using child labor, learning about working conditions and treatment of children in labor roles. They attempted to pass legislation and advocated for regulations to improve the lives of children enmeshed in trade from an early age to support their families. To help advocate for these new laws, they hired a photographer to show people what words couldn’t fully capture; the lives of the young workers.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Lewis Hine, c. 1930 (l) and one of his most famous images (r), c. 1910. Public domain.

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874 – 1940)

Photographer Lewis Wickes Hines is known for capturing some of the most iconic images of the early 1900s for the NCLC. He is well known for documenting ‘slice of life’ images. Hine captured feats of daring, such as the construction worker stringing cable (right). He photographed immigrant arrivals at Ellis Island. Hine was a teacher and sociologist focusing on cultural ethics. In his work photographing child laborers, he documented what he considered a great injustice. His social justice photography quickly gained notice. The National Child Labor Committee hired Hine in 1908 as their official photographer. From 1911 to 1916, Hine traveled across the country, photographing the working conditions for children and interviewing their families to learn their stories. Like Jacob Riis’s work exposing the conditions of the poor living in tenements, or Upton Sinclair’s novel that revealed unsanitary food production practices, Hines’ work literally changed the United States.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Young boys working their cutting job at the Seacoast Canning Company. Lewis Hine (1911), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Lewis Hine Tricked His Way Inside

Hine frequently tricked his way into factories or mines, taking pictures of things managers and owners never wanted the public to see. Sometimes he posed as salesman, or waited outside of factories for workers coming or going from their shifts. He asked the subject questions to get them talking, carefully recording their responses, noting every fact and detail. After speaking with them, he learned their ages, length of employment, and story. Sometimes he had to do this covertly, with his hand, pencil, and paper hidden in his pocket. His interviews humanized the workers, giving readers of his reports and captions a glimpse into their personal lives and the conditions they faced at work. Because he had to trick his way in and conducted his interviews on the sly, he knew he had to be “double-sure that my photo data was 100% pure – no retouching or fakery of any kind.”

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
11-year-old Joseph Allsbrook (r) and companion at their turning job at the Crescent Hosiery Mill. Lewis Hine (1914), public domain.

Lewis Hines Fights Corporate America

Hine knew the powerful story a photograph could tell. He used his camera to expose the conditions of child laborers, from newsboys to piecework assemblers, food production, to mining and heavy machinery operation. He called his work “photo-interpretations,” acknowledging that he had a “subjective involvement” with his subjects, empathizing with their plight. If the public could see the conditions of child labor, he believed they would demand change. Hines’ work for the National Child Labor Committee resulted in changes to child labor laws. In 1916, the Keating-Owens Child Labor Act passed through Congress, establishing the first labor laws for children, including a minimum age of fourteen for manufacturing work, no night work for those under sixteen, and no more than an eight-hour workday for children. The Library of Congress compiled Hines’ work, some 5,100 prints and 355 glass negatives, for the NCLC, resulting in a shocking exhibition, excerpted here.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
The Malatesta family assembles paper flowers in their New York apartment (1909). Lewis Wickes Hine, public domain.

Tenements Serve as In-Home Child Labor Factories

Tenement housing in New York served as small factories for many residents in the early 1900s. Tenants living in these low-income housing units often took on piecework to earn an extra income from their own homes, with the whole family helping out once they were old enough. Piecework was the assembly of small goods from home, which would be sold back to a company at a price-per-piece. Even small children could participate, helping to count pieces or preparing supplies. In this image, the Malatesta family assembles 10 to 12 gross of artificial flowers per day in their New York City apartment. They make six cents per gross. Mr. Malatesta helps out, as his health was too bad to work outside the home. Frank, age 14, and John, age 11, work Saturday afternoons and evenings until 10 or 11 pm. Lizzie, age 4, separates the petals to help the production.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
A New York family assembles artificial flowers. Lewis W. Hine (1908). Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Attempted Labor Reforms

This unnamed New York City family also assembles artificial flowers. They make 8 cents per gross. The youngest child helps out as well, despite being only five years old. In 1892, the State of New York passed a regulation that limited manufacturing from residential tenements. Lawmakers had concerns that disease would cling to the products being made in the tenements. This concern particularly centered around clothing items sewn in filthy conditions and sold to wealthy customers; if wealthy people became sick from contaminated products, it hurt the economy and the corporate bottom line. While these reforms didn’t stop small producers of goods like these artificial flowers, it moved other industries, like clothing, out of the tenements.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Wikimedia.

Moving out of Tenements and into Factories Leads to a Tragedy

While assembly and manufacturing moved out tenements and into factories, conditions didn’t improve. Factories were housed in the cheapest, unsafe spaces. The buildings were deteriorated and overcrowded, with few safety precautions. Overcrowded, unsafe conditions led to tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. On March 25, 1911, fire broke out in a rag bin, and quickly spread due to many fire hazards, witnesses said the exits were locked to prevent theft. The lone fire escape broke apart as the occupants fled the factory. Women jumped from the factory, located on the 8th to 10th floor of its building, to escape the fire. Their escape was fatal; they would die upon impacting the sidewalk. The youngest victims among the 146 workers killed were Kate Leone, whose skull was fractured jumping out of a window, and Rosaria Maltese, who suffered burns in the fire. They were only fourteen years old.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
On the left, the the Romana family makes the dresses for the Campbell Kids dolls, on the right, the Cattena family makes the doll’s legs. Lewis Hine (1912), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Toys These Children Will nNever Play With

Hine captured photographs of two tenement families working for the same company, the Aetna Doll and Toy Company, producing dolls other children will play with. On the left, the Romana family produces dresses for the Campbell Kids dolls in their Thompson Street tenement in New York. The twelve-year-old son and his mother take turns on the sewing machine. When his mother uses the machine, he tends the younger children, five and seven, tending them or helping break threads on the dresses. In a nearby tenement, the Cattena family (seen on the right) works together to produce the Campbell Kids doll leg. Hine’s notes indicate the children, Rose (14), Lena (12 and suffering a physical impairment), and Nettie (9) work after school until about 10 PM. They are joined in the image by Tessie, on the far right, who usually produces the doll parts at her own home downstairs.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Boys selling newspapers on the steps of the United States Capitol. Lewis W. Hine (1912), public domain.

Newsies: The Boys Who Sold the News Made the News

Hine snapped a photo of these boys, Tony Passaro (8), Dan Mercurio (9), Joseph Tucci (10), and John Carlino (11). They sold newspapers on the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington DC. These newspaper sellers, usually boys and sometimes a mere five or six years old, had the nickname “Newsies.” Newsies bought their bundle of newspapers in the morning at their own expense. They resold them on city street corners to earn the money back. In order to make a profit, they usually had to sell their entire bundle of papers. In 1899, the cost of the papers rose, a price increase that caused great strain on the newsies income. The newsies in New York led a strike, winning some demands from the newspaper publishers, who relied on them for marketing and distribution. The Newsies were a collective labor force to be reckoned with, despite their early age.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Strippiung leaves at Delloiacono. Lewis W. Hine (1912), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Labor Goes Up in Smoke

Eight-year-old boy and ten year old girl work among adults stripping tobacco leaves for cigar production. Their work room is crowded and dirty at the F. Delloiacono cigar store, where they pull stems out of tobacco leaves. The room is cramped; the width of their worktable leaves just enough room for chairs to be set up if they don’t sit too far away from the table. Cigars and leaves pile high on the shelving running along the upper walls and the ledge at the top of the wainscoting. Their workspace is also their living and sleeping space and adjoins the store where the cigars are sold. Ironically, the site of the children’s labor is, today, a vape shop in Providence, Rhode Island.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Hine photographs boys linbking bedsprings in Boston (1917). Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Labor for a Good Night’s Sleep

Hine captured a variety of factory jobs, from milling to flood production. He found these boys linking bedsprings, an innovation of mattress comfort patented in 1969. They were working in the depths of a Boston factory in 1917. Despite his usually meticulous notes, Hine’s captions lack the number of detailed notes his other entries have. He estimates these boys to be about fourteen or fifteen and does not record the name of the factory. They linked wire bedsprings and pulled them onto a bed frame. They worked with sharp wire springs with delicate tools and no hand protection. The other boys in the image appear to be about the same age, indicating the company regularly employed Boston children for this job.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Two girls work a warping machine. Lewis Wickes Hine (1908). Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Labor in the Textile Industry

In this image, a young girl runs a warping machine at the Loray mill in Gastonia, North Carolina. The Loray Mill was a major producer in the region, earning the city its nickname, “Spindle City.” Hine spotted many young children working at the mill much younger than the ones pictured here. Hine reported the boss carefully avoided them, “and when I tried to get a photo which would include a mite of a boy working at a machine, he was quickly swept out of danger.” According to Hine, the boss told him, “He isn’t working here, just came in to help a little.” Years of questionable labor practices, including child labor, increased workloads for reduced pay, and dangerous conditions, led Loray Mill workers to strike in 1929. Though their efforts didn’t yield the desired results, it was part of a larger labor movement sweeping southern mills.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Ewen Breaker at the Pennsylvania Coal Company (1911). Lewis W. Hine, Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Labor Supported the Coal Industry

In this image, “Breaker Boys” process coal at the Pennsylvania Coal Company. The company mined anthracite coal, a metamorphic coal comprise of almost pure carbon. Their job was to remove impurities (slate and other unwanted materials) from the coal before shipping it to the next destination. The boys sat in these confined spaces for hours, picking through the coal as it rolled out on conveyor belts from the breaker. Hine says, “The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view.” Finding conditions unbearable, he pondered how the dust must be penetrating into the deep recesses of the boys’ lungs. He also condemned the line overseer, calling him a “kind of slave-driver” who stood over the boys, prodding them with a stick or kicking them into obedience.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Boys, including Shorpy Higginbotham, front and center, at Bessie Mine, Alabama. Lewis W. Hine (1910), public domain

Shorpy Higgenbottom is a Miner for Life (Albeit a Short Life)

Henry “Shorpy” Higgenbottom was a greaser on the tipple at the Bessie Mine, part of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company in Alabama. Higgenbottom claimed to be fourteen. Hine doubted he was that old, although records show Shorpy was born on November 23, 1896. Shorpy carried heavy buckets of grease, often two at a time, despite constant danger of being run over by coal cars. Even after becoming a symbol of the child labor movement in the United States, Shorpy’s life continued to throw him into dangerous situations. Shorpy served in the military during World War I, returning to mine service after the war. He married Flora Belle Quinton on November 19, 1927, and quickly started a family. But on January 25, 1928, as Flora Belle was pregnant with their first child, a son, Shorpy was crushed by a rock at the mine and killed.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Day and Night Shifts. Lewis Hine, Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

‘Blowers Dogs’ During Day and Night Glassmaking Shifts

Glassmaking is historically a skilled craft, passing from mentor to apprentice, setting the youth up for their lifelong career. But this changed in the 1820s, when the mechanical press ended this tradition and created mass produced glass. Glassmaking was no longer the exclusive realm of skilled craftspeople; it became unskilled manual labor. Factories hired children, usually boys, to help with the work. The boys, nicknamed “Blowers dogs,” would close molds around molten glass poured by glass blowers, and pick bottles out of the molds and moving them into the next phases of glass bottle production. Once glassmaking technology moved from semi-automated to fully automated, factories no longer needed children to assist in the process. The National Child Labor Committee sent Michael Owens, inventor of a fully automated glass bottle making machine, a thank you letter in 1913 for “eliminating more child labor than they had through legislation.”

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Lewis Hine photographs two girls working alongside a sibling at the Elk Mills (l) and Newton (r) textile mills. Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Merely “Helping” a Sibling

In the image on the left, seven-year-old Fannie, one of nineteen children in her family, helps her sister working at the Elk textile mill in Fayetteville, Tennessee. Her sister (with back to photographer), said, “Yes, she he’ps me right smart. Not all day but all she can. Yes, she started with me at six this mornin.” Hine notes how mills are full of children who overseers claim “just happened in” or are just there to “help” siblings at their own jobs. In another instance, shown in the image on the right, Hine saw a young girl, roughly eight years old, alongside her sister at the Newton Cotton Mills in North Carolina. The factory overseer said (as expected) that she was just there to bring her sister dinner. But Hine noticed that the girl was there at 9:30 in the morning and was doing the same work as her sister.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Mary shucks oysters at age four. Lewis W. Hine (1911), public domain.

Tiny Children with Sharp Knives

Mary, four, shucks about two pots of oysters daily alongside her mother at the Dunbar Cannery in Dunbar, Louisiana. To shuck an oyster, Mary used a sharp knife, inserting it in the oyster and turning it until it opens, and the oyster meat is exposed. The meat was cut out, and the shell thrown on the floor until it was collected to be sold for use in local road repair. As the fastest shucker at her job, Mary’s mother earns $1.50 per day. Her father also works at the factory on the oyster docks. Hine reports the boss saying next year, when Mary turns five, she will work “steady as the rest of them.” The four-year-old currently watches her baby sibling so her mother can work. Oyster shucking at the Dunbar cannery was piecework; the workers were paid based on how many oysters they were able to shuck.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Children pick shrimp at the Biloxi Canning Company in Biloxi, Mississippi. Lewis W. Hine (1911), public domain.

Child Labor Produces Fine Shrimp

The fish and seafood industry seems to have had no qualms about employing children. The Biloxi Canning Company of Biloxi, Mississippi, had operated its canning services since 1881. Despite a hurricane that caused major damage to the company in October of 1893, children continued to work at the factory, shucking oysters and peeling shrimp. In this image, five-year-old Olga joins the group of children picking shrimp. When Hine visited the factory, he observed “two children of five years. One of seven years. Two of eight years. One of nine. Two of ten. Two of eleven (one had been working at this factory two years). I do not believe this is a complete list of the youngsters.” They prepared the shrimp for placement in containers – not directly into cans, which would alter its color, but into a container with a wood veneer lining.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Mart Payne picks cotton in Oklahoma. Lewis W. Hine (1916), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Mart Payne Drags a Bag Bigger than Himself

Hine captured this image of Mart Payne at work, peering stoically from behind a large floppy hat he used for sun protection at his cotton picking job. At age five, Mart Payne worked in cotton fields in Comanche County, Oklahoma, picking around ten to twenty pounds of cotton each day. His bag, sized for an adult, drags along the ground beside the boy. Mart’s mother told Hine, “Mart, he haint old ‘nuff to go to school much, but he kin pick his twenty pounds a day.” Children could pick about ten or fifteen pounds on average. Cotton fields in the United States had been full of child slave labor before the Civil War, and continued long after. If children earned wages, they were small, or based on how much cotton they could pick. And this practice continues, with forced child labor occurring today in cotton fields around the world.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
The Mitchell children work at the family’s farm. Lewis W. Hine (1916), public domain.

Farmers Opposed Child Labor Regulations

Family farms throughout history have relied on child labor. Jack Mitchell, 5 years old, and his older sister Bitsey, 13, continue the tradition. They work on their father’s tobacco farm in Trigg County, Kentucky. Bitsey goes to the Wallonia School when she isn’t helping with the farm. Jack is busy helping with the fields. As his mother says, “He worms and he suckers. Quite a worker but he ain’t old enough to go to school yet.” The Mitchell’s case is common; farmers have always relied on their own children to help out with chores and farm duties. Other children worked as farm hands for a low wage. Since farmers were reliant on this labor market, they were often vocally opposed to regulations on child labor.


Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Charlie Howard and sons work on tobacco farm (1916). Lewis Hine, Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

The Howard family Works the Tobacco Fields

In addition to capturing the Mitchell children working on their father’s farm, Hine photographed other child laborers. Charlie Howard, a tenant farmer on the Mitchell farm in Trigg County, -Gracey, Kentucky, works alongside his boys, Robbie, age six, and Willie, age eleven. The boys spent their days worming and suckering the tobacco leaves. The Howard boys had an opportunity many child laborers did not; their father told Hine the boys would attend Rocky Ridge School when it opened. This image is one of the rare instances of Hine photographing African-American subjects, although African American children participated in the labor market at a higher rate than white children.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Estelle Poiriere injured her hand at the Granite No. 1 mill. Lewis W. Hine (1916), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Children in Danger: Estelle Poiriere’s Career-Stalling Injury

Injury was a constant threat to these young factory and farm workers. Estelle Poiriere was a fifteen-year-old doffer at the Granite No. 1 cotton mill in Fall River, Massachusetts. Doffers were part of the milling industry. As thread spun onto a bobbin, doffers came around replacing bobbins full of thread with empty ones, ready to have more thread spun onto them. Although boys typically worked as doffers and girls as spinners, Hine identified Estelle as a doffer. Estelle caught her hand in a machine at work in December of 1915, lacerating her index and middle fingers on her right hand. Over time, her hand grew stiff. The injury grew worse, to the point where she needed surgery on the hand. She was still not able to work by June of 1916. For some families, this was the greatest danger, that their children could no longer earn an income.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Newsom, with hand mangled at work. Lewis W. Hine (1912). Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

The Crushing Case of Giles Newsom

Giles Edmund Newsom, age twelve, was working at the Sanders Spinning Mill in Bessemer City, North Carolina. He and his younger brother had worked in the mill for several months. On August 12, 1912, a piece of machinery fell on his foot. The piece was heavy enough to mash his foot. He fell onto a spinning machine, catching his hand in the spinner’s gears, tearing out two fingers. The company offered compensation for the injury, but his parents fought to take the money for themselves. His mother tried to claim her boys got the job “on their own hook,” (without telling them) but the company counterclaimed the family let them work there for months before the accident. Newsom’s aunt bemoaned, “Now he’s got to where he could of some help to his ma an’ then this happens and he can’t never work no more like he oughter.”

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Frank Wiegel, injured in work accident at the Henry Bosch Paper Company in 1914. Lewis Hein, Library of Congress, Publci domain.

Dozing Off on the Job Leads to Permanent Damage

On January 18, 1914, fifteen years old Frank Wiegel of Brooklyn, New York was finishing the eighteenth hour of work. He worked this long shift at the Henry Bosch Paper Company manufacturing, producers of wallpaper sample books. At 1:55 am, he had nodded off or fallen asleep. He knocked against a control pedal for a nearby machine. His hand was mangled in the machine. After a lawsuit that lasted two years, he was awarded $5,000 for each of the two fingers he lost in the accident, a total of $10,000. Fatigue was (and still is) a serious danger for workers, especially the young, who were relied upon to add income to their family coffers. It meant no income during the recovery period. Or no income ever if the child is permanently impaired or killed from a workplace injury. But it was a risk families had to take.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Messina brothers baking bread for their father’s business. Lewis W. HIne (1917), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Child Bakers Feeding Boston’s Italian North End District

Child labor wasn’t limited to tenement-based piecework, dangerous, heavy labor, and agriculture. Children also took on more service-based jobs that may not have been as physically dangerous, but still put them in an adult role. Despite the deteriorating conditions in Boston’s North End, and a clear anti-Italian sentiment, the Italian population exploded, from 14,000 in 1900 to 37,000 by 1920. In Hine’s photograph, the Messina brothers, Vincenzo (15) and Angelo (11) bake bread for their father’s bakery in Boston’s North End, providing fresh baked goods for the district’s Italian settlers. Vincenzo works a twelve-hour shift, from five PM to five AM, after having worked the day shift. Angelo tends the store and assists with baking. The bakery still stands today, in a prime location behind the Old North Church gift shop. It has been renovated into apartment units, covering its sordid history of child labor.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Denatale lathers and shaves his father’s barber shop clients. Lewis W. Hine (1917), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

A Child Barber in Boston’s North End

Hine captured twelve-year-old Frank de Natale working at his father’s barber shop in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts. He is responsible for lathering and shaving customers. Like the Messina brothers who helped with their parent’s bakery, Frank de Natale helped his father with his business. DeNatale was fortunate, however. He was still able to attend school, even with his barber shop job. DeNatale worked after school and on Saturdays, giving him the chance at an education many child laborers did not. Nor was he the sole support for his family. But the precision with which he holds the blade and the trust the customer has in someone so young shaving his skin shows DeNatale had been at the job for some time, although Hine did not specify how long that might have been.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Manuel Miranda, a rare Hispanic name among Hine’s subjects, tends the card room at the Cornell Mill. Lewis W. Hine (1912), Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

For All the Good They Do, Hine’s Photographs Were Narrow in Their Scope

Hine’s photographs are haunting. For every one of Hine’s photographs, there are thousands of stories that go untold, lost to history. Hine’s documentation focuses on immigrant and low-income populations, but there is a similar trait all share; they are all Caucasian. But child labor certainly didn’t limit itself to this demographic during Hine’s active photo documentation period. African American children, children of former slaves, were working in the same poor conditions, and some even worse. In 1918, a labor study found African American children working jobs at shoeshine stands, “barkers” for businesses seeking to attract customers, delivery, and messenger services, in addition to working the same types of factory and agricultural jobs Hine’s photographs depict. Three-fourths of African American children had a job before age ten, compared to three-fifths of white children. Child labor knew no ethnic boundaries but had one thing in common; it disproportionally impacted low-income families.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Child laborers in Turkey (l) and Cameroon (r) around the same time Hine was documenting American conditions. Public domain.

Hine Brought the Problem out of the Shadows

Hine’s photographs illustrated why groups like the National Child Labor Committee were fighting the use of child labor. He humanized the plight of these young workers, putting faces and names to the movement. By the time the Committee was formed in 1904, child labor was being called “child slavery.” While Hine’s photography primarily focused on Caucasian children, child labor wasn’t limited by race, ethnicity, or other demographic details. The use of child labor extended into every low-income demographic. Business grew wealthy exploiting those who had few ways to fight back against a system that benefited from their ill-paid labor. Hines, however, exposed this practice to a greater audience, and the child labor movement gained momentum in the United States. Labor protests and legislation put restrictions on the problem, although it did not completely end the country’s use of child labor.

Sickening Images of Historic Child Labor Conditions
Girls carry bricks at a kiln in Nepal. Shresthakedar (2014, CC 4.0).

Child Labor Today

Despite the laws Hine’s work crafted, child labor in dangerous conditions still exists. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates there are 73 million children under age ten working as laborers around the world. The Smithsonian notes child laborers do jobs as hazardous as those Hine photographed. But they hide due to the illegal, unethical conditions or work status. The modern child laborer movement is still active, but has to tread carefully to protect worker privacy, and because, as Hine experienced, companies are unwilling to allow documentarians access to their employees. But in the spirit of Hine, the conditions of these child workers are being exposed through modern technology. For instance, the International Labor Organization has encouraged Myanmar child workers to take documentary photos of their work conditions. This type of evidence shows that child labor is still a problem, but one that can no longer hide in the shadows.


Where did we find this stuff? Select readings and references

National Child Labor Committee Collection, Lewis Wickes Hines.

Artist: Lewis Wickes Hine. (n.a.), International Center of Photography, (n.d.)

Abolishing child labor took the specter of ‘white slaver’ and the job markets near collapse during the Great Depression. Betsy Wood, The Conversation, 27 August 2020.

Challenges and perspectives of child labor. Amir Radfar, Seyed Ahmad Ahmadi Asgharzadeh, Fernando Quesada, and Irina Filip, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 27(1), Jan-Jun 2018.

Giles Edmund Newsom’s tragic fate uncovered by historian, 11-year-old boy was faced of child labor. (n.a.) HuffPost, 17 July 2012.

National Child Labor Committee (NCLC): Founded April 25, 1904. Catherine A. Paul, VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project, (n.d.).