Child Labor & Lewis Hine – a set on Flickr

Working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC),Lewis Hine (1874-1940) portrayed working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1924. 

The Library of Congress’ National Child Labor Committee Collection includes more than 5,100 photographs that came with the records of the organization. Many of the pictures are familiar, but others are relatively unexplored. Accompanying original captions, often rich with detail, offer clues for learning more about individuals, places, and work environments from a hundred years ago.

Do some of the pictures (or captions) seem heavy-handed? This was definitely photography with a purpose: to support the NCLC’s efforts to promote the “rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” Hine traveled to many parts of the United States, documenting children at work in factories, fields, and doing piece work at home. He also used the photographs to portray the consequences of child labor, including its impact on the health, safety, and education of the next generation. In some cases, the photographs suggest solutions, including organized and healthful activities for the nation’s youth.

The conditions Hine operated under were far from ideal. He referred to his work as “detective work,” and his captions often provide details of the names, ages, hours, and wages of the people he photographed, as well as the name of a “witness” who accompanied him. Supervisors and workers frequently regarded him with suspicion. Hurried work under these conditions may explain why some information Hine recorded has proven inaccurate.

It’s evident in many of the photographs that the workers were highly conscious of the camera. Nevertheless, Hine sometimes caught unguarded moments and playful interaction, as well as many memorable faces. Hine also used photographs to show what wasn’t there—for example, an almost-empty school at harvest time. And sometimes, whatever the photographer intended, the people in the photograph simply saw the occasion as an opportunity for a family portrait.

Did people see the photos at the time? The NCLC made a concerted effort to show the pictures to the public, including them in its own publications and placing them in newspapers and progressive publications. The photos also appeared in stereopticon slide shows and in displays that the NCLC circulated. 

We hope the photographs offer an opportunity for continuing exploration and reflection. 

Learn more:

• View background information.

• View sources for reading about Hine’s workand the National Child Labor Committee, including research about individuals in the photos.

• View a sample National Child Labor Committee report, showing how information on Maryland’s canning industry integrated references to the photos into the text.

• View an example of how the high resolution digital files available through the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog enable viewing of details (sometimes gory ones) that drive home the message of the photographs: “Bringing an NCLC Photo into Focus.”

• View the U.S. National Archives’ set of Lewis Hine photos from the Progressive Era.

Child Labor & Lewis Hine – a set on Flickr.

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