Lewis Hine's Photographs on Child Labor

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the use of child labor during America's industrial revolution and the reaction of a photographer named Lewis Hine who documented the harsh conditions in mills, coal mines, and factories.

Lewis Hine and Child Labor in the United States

Think back to the jobs you had as a kid. You might have had a paper route, or walked the neighbor's dog, or mowed lawns. Hopefully, though, you didn't work under oppressive conditions for little pay. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many children did work under terrible conditions, in the crowded, hot, and unsafe factories that fueled America's industrialization. In this lesson we'll talk about the history of child labor in the United States, and then we'll talk about a photographer named Lewis Hine who tried to help stop this practice through photography.

Photo of Lewis Hine
Lewis Hine; photography; child labor

Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution

The period of the late 1800s and early 1900s was important in the industrialization of the U.S. Following World War II new innovations were cropping up, and with these changes we needed a labor force that could keep up with booming industry. The industrial revolution was a period of great transformation in the United States (and in Great Britain). We saw a massive shift from an agrarian (or agricultural) society to an urban one. The introduction of machines and steam engines changed the way people lived.

While the industrial revolution brought improvements, many men and women worked under terrible conditions in factories, especially in the Northeastern United States. Factories were generally not ventilated, which led to health problems. They were overcrowded and dirty. Fires were a major problem and improper escape routes led to workers being trapped inside burning buildings. Often people labored for hours and hours a day for extremely low wages.

It soon became clear that factory owners and tycoons of industry needed a bigger labor force. Factory owners began hiring children, who worked for less money than adults and did menial, low-skilled work. Children worked long, hard days and were deprived of education and opportunities. Because wages were so low, often entire families had to work to survive. Child laborers suffered health problems and were trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Famous Photographs

Before long the public became angered by the conditions of the country's factories. Workers began striking, demanding better pay and better conditions. People were also angered by the use of child labor. In 1904, a group of people met in New York City and formed the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an organization dedicated to abolishing child labor.

Horrified by the conditions in factories, the NCLC fought to pass legislation to ban child labor. They were at first unsuccessful, but by 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by the Supreme Court. This sweeping legislation established a minimum wage and overtime pay, among other standards, including strong protections for child labor.

In the meantime, though, the NCLC caught the attention of New York City schoolteacher Lewis Hine. Hine ultimately quit his job in order to work as a photographer for the NCLC. He felt that if he could document child labor in a way that would capture the public's attention, he might be able to help end it.

He set out to interview and photograph children working in America's factories. Hine was careful to be covert when he interviewed children in factories, as managers did not always want the public to know about what went on inside them, especially as people were becoming more attuned to the exploitation of factory workers. The social theorist Karl Marx defined exploitation of workers as the use of unpaid labor (or underpaid) to make a profit for owners. It was key to profit-making in the industrial revolution. Children were certainly exploited inside the factories.

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