Lewis Wicke Hines. Fake fire inspector, postcard salesman & bible vendor. Child Labor Law superhero and photographer in disguise.

Johns Lewis. Springstein Mill. Chester, South Carolina. Nov. 1908 :
“A typical cotton mill boy. 12 years old –1 year in mill. Weaver – 4 looms. Got 40 cents at start–60 cents now. Brother and Pa, in mills.” Witness S.R. Hine.
Lewis Hine, self portrait. C. 1930.
Mechanic fixing a steam pump in an electrical plant, 1920 © Lewis Hine. George Eastman House Collection, Rochester.
Hine was no slouch as a photographer. This (above) is probably his most famous image, but not his most important.

Lewis Wicke Hine (1874 – 1940) was among the first to use a camera as a tool for social reform. In his hands it was a weapon for change, and it was effective. His photographs were instrumental in changing America’s child labour laws.

While teaching in New York Hine would take his sociology classes to Ellis Island in the harbour to photograph the thousands of immigrants arriving daily to be processed. Sometime between 1904 – 1909, Hine realised documentary photography could used as a tool to fight for social reform. In 1908 he left his teaching job & became official photographer for the National Child Labor Committee.

He called this new direction, “the visual side of public education.”

Hine spent the next decade documenting child labour, initially focussing on the Carolina Piedmont area but moved on, all over the Northeast and the South. Anywhere children were working, Hine went. There were many types of industrial jobs performed by children. Most worked in cotton mills, others worked in factories making materials like glass and other products. Kids toiled worked in all kinds of sweatshops, worked on the docks. It was common for children to join their families working on farms, picking and sowing, mostly tobacco and corn fields. One of the hardest jobs for an adult is mining. For the kids working in mines this had to have been the harshest ordeal. Mining was extremely dangerous; explosions occurred regularly; workers breathed in toxic fumes; they’d spent long hours toiling in darkness and heat. Child labour wiped out their childhood and their education.

If finding children at work was easy, photographing them there wasn’t. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine used disguise. He insinuated himself in as a fire inspector, a postcard salesman, a bible salesman, even an industrial photographer documenting factory machinery. Hine – a slight bespectacled schoolteacher-like figure, dwarfed by his Graflex camera – was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. The immorality of child labour was carefully hidden from public view and photography was prohibited as any exposure posed a serious threat to the industry.

Hine’s images are unflinching. Heartbreaking even now. Each is accompanied by his own sparsely written caption. Just the facts. These kids with their already world-weary faces staring out at us are still confronting. The endless repetition of an unarguable truth (Hine took 1000s of these images) grinds us down. But that’s the point.

“Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures.” said Lewis Hine of his work for the National Child Labor Committee, “Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child-labor pictures will be records of the past.”

He would later say, “There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

Hine’s photographs supported the NCLC’s lobbying to end child labor and in 1912 the Children’s Bureau was created. 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act eventually brought child labour in the US to an end.

Truth is a beautiful thing.

Harry McShane, 134 Broadway, Cincinnati. 16 yrs. of age on June 29, 1908. : “Had his left arm pulled off near shoulder, and right leg broken through kneecap, by being caught on belt of a machine in Spring factory in May 1908. Had been working in factory more than 2 yrs. Was on his feet for first time after the accident, the day this photo was taken. No attention was paid by employers to the boy either at hospital or home according to statement of boy’s father. No compensation.”
“The factory, where Harry McShane Was Injured.
312 Yeatman Alley, Cincinnati, Ohio”.
“Rose Biodo, 1216 Annan St., Philadelphia. 10 years old. Working 3 summers. Minds baby and carries berries, two pecks at a time. Whites Bog, Brown Mills, N.J. This is the fourth week of school and the people here expect to remain two weeks more.”
Witness E. F. Brown. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey.
“One of the little spinners working in Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Many others as small. Location- Lancaster, South Carolina.”
Dec. 1908.
Pennsylvania coal breakers, (Breaker boys), 1912.

“Group of workers. The smallest boy in the middle of group is Secondino Libro, 34 Walnut Street.
Apparently 10 or 11. Works in No. 4 Spinning room.”
Massachusetts. Sept. 1911.
“Young Cigarmakers in Englehardt & Co., Tampa, Fla. There boys looked under 14. Work was slack and youngsters were not being employed much. Labor told me in busy times many small boys and girls are employed. Youngsters all smoke.”
Witness Sara R. Hine. Tampa, Florida. Jan 1909.
“Glassworks. Midnight.” Indiana. 1908.

“A little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill. Augusta, Ga. The overseer admitted she was regularly employed.”
Jan 1908, Augusta, Georgia.
“Spinners and doffers, Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Dozens of them in this mill.”
Lancaster, South Carolina.
“One of the young doffers in Avondale Mills.”
Birmingham, Alabama. Nov 1910
“Dozens of them in this mill.”
Spinners and doffers, Lancaster Cotton Mills, South Carolina.
“Subject – Coal. #70: Welch Mining Co., Welch W. Va. Boy running trip rope at tipple. Overgrown,
but looked 13 yrs. old. Worked 10 hours a day.”
Welch, West Virginia. Sept 1908
“Drivers in a Coal Mine Co. Plenty boys driving and on tipple.
No trappers used, as mine is ventilated by another system.” West Virginia. October 1908.
“Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va. Boy had to stoop on account of low roof, photo taken more than a mile inside the mine.” Witness E.N. Clopper. MacDonald, West Virginia. Oct 1908
“Young Driver in Mine – Had been driving one year. (7 A.M. to 5-30 P.M. Daily) Brown Mine, Brown, W. Va.”
Brown, West Virginia. Sept. 1908.
“Vance, a Trapper Boy, 15 years old. Has trapped for several years in a West Va. Coal mine. $ .75 a day for 10 hours work.
All he does is to open and shut this door- most of the time he sits here idle, waiting for the cars to come. On account of the intense darkness in the mine, the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until plate was developed.” West Virginia. Sept 1908.

Lawrence J. Hill – 1125 Walnut St. 17 yrs. old March 1908 : “Had 4 fingers mashed off by stamping machine in lamp factory.”
Cincinnati, Ohio. Sept 1908
Jo Bodeon. “A back-roper in mule room. Burlington, Vt. Chace Cotton Mill.”
Burlington, Vermont. May 1909.
“Addie Card. Anaemic little spinner in
North Pownal Cotton Mill.” V
ermont. Aug 1910.
“Waiting for the clinic to open, Hull House district, Chicago, 1910” © Lewis Hine. George Eastman House Collection, Rochester.
“Bleach room boys Pacific Mills.” Lawrence, Massachusetts. Dec 1910.
“A group of Breaker Boys in Pittston, Pennsylvania Coal Co, in 1911. The smallest boy is Angelo Ross”

“The Albernesi Family in Buffalo, New York, goes to the country in summer to pick fruit. Left to right- Frank Albernesi, 5, Libori Albernesi, 15, Joseph Albernesi, 13”

“Jewel and Harold Walker, 6 and 5 years old, pick 20 to 25 pounds of cotton a day in Comanche County, Oklahoma, in October 1916.
Their father said “I promised em a little wagon if they’d pick steady, and now they have half a bagful in just a little while.””

“Manuel, 5, a young shrimp-picker, and a mountain of child-labor oyster shells behind him at
Dukate Company in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1911.”

The Great Depression of the 1930’s did for Hine and he struggled finding a job to support his family. His wife died in 1939 and on November 3, 1940, he died too. Poor and forgotten. It wasn’t until after his death that Hine was recognized for the lesson he left behind about the power of photography as a force for truth and change.

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