Child labor is a shameful part of the history of the United States, but it’s one that we shouldn’t ignore.
In the second half of the 19th century, there was a push towards encouraging children to attend primary school. At the same time, however, immigration levels rose, creating a new boom in child workers who were available to take more dangerous jobs or those which required smaller bodies. The industrial revolution was also in full swing, with mills and factories providing new employment opportunities for the young workforce.
These compliant young minds needed little pay, and were able to work in cramped conditions for long hours. The risks were high, but they suffered danger to support their families.
But the 20th century brought a change in attitudes, as social reformers decided that enough was enough. The National Child Labor Committee asked Lewis Wickes Hine to capture the poor working and living conditions that the children suffered. This allowed them to challenge state governments, proving that something needed to change.
The Library of Congress now has more than 5,000 images available, some of which you can see here. Hine’s photographs and captions show us what life was like back then for children forced into labor. These powerful black and white images tell their stories in compelling detail.
Here are 14 of the most touching.
- 1908: Lincolnton, North Carolina. Lalar Blanton claimed to be 10 years old. She is stealing a glimpse outside as she works at the Rhodes Manufacturing Co.
- 1913: Fort Worth, Texas. This 16-year-old is a messenger and newsboy who works 7 days a week, from 6am to 11pm. He is paid between $15 and $18 a week.
- 1909: Trenton, New Jersey. These boys work until after midnight at the Arcade Bowling Alley, resetting pins. The children who sell concessions often work this late during the baseball season, too.
- 1909: Apalachicola, Florida. Young boys join the older oyster shuckers.
- 1912: Hoboken, New Jersey. This little girl who sells newspapers was not able to tell Hine her name or age.
- 1916: Bowling Green, Kentucky. Missing school to help their family, these young boys are stripping tobacco.
- 1911: Roanoke, Virginia. This girl works as a spinner. She told Hine she was 14, but he did not believe her.
- 1910: Wilmington, Delaware. He may only have been 7 years old, but Edward Palmer Cooper already had a year’s work experience carrying 25-pound bags of flour into stores from the miller’s wagon. He was paid 25 cents a week.
- 1916: Comanche County, Oklahoma. Warren Frakes was 6 years old. The day before the photograph was taken he had picked 41 pounds of cotton. At the time of the image, he had 20 pounds in his bag.
- 1910: Seaford, Delaware. Daisy Langford was 8 years old, and struggling to place caps on cans during her first season of work. She was required to achieve 40 caps per minute.
- 1908: Grafton, West Virginia. This child worked with the glass blower for 9 hours a day in the same position, and also took night shifts.
- 1906. 14-year-old Frank had his leg crushed by a coal car, but when he left hospital he continued to help his father in the mines. He had worked there for 3 years already.
- 1908: Cincinnati. 12-year-old Antoinette Siminger would shout “Basket! Five cents each!” into the late night.
- 1910: Utica, New York. Newsies sell papers on a cold day in February.
After years of projects like these bringing the situation to light, and the Great Depression, child labor was finally a thing of the past for citizens of the US. The economic downturn meant there were less jobs available, and new technology took over the dangerous and fiddly jobs that children had been perfect for. One way or another, adults now needed to be in the jobs that remained.
In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act finally signaled victory for the activists, limiting child labor and putting a national minimum wage into force. Ten years later, amendments covered those industries which had been untouched by the initial act. Children were free to remain in the classroom.
The education system we have today owes much to these reforms, allowing all children the right to schooling and to stay in school until they reach an appropriate age.
Other children are not so lucky. In some countries around the world, children are still forced to work instead of going to school, often in hazardous situations.
Over 100 million children are in this position today. The fight to change this continues on a global scale.