The extensive photographic survey of child labor made by Lewis Hine (1874-1940) during the early twentieth century provided reform groups and the public with visual evidence of the negative impact that work had on children. Hine's photographs helped mobilize society against child labor, while providing an extensive record of working children.
Born in Oshkosh, WI, Hine studied pedagogy at the University of Chicago. He later became a teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, and took up photography in 1904 at the request of Frank Manny, the school superintendent, to document school activities and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. While attending the Columbia University School of Social Work in 1904, Hine met Paul Kellogg, and, through him, other influential people in the social welfare community. Kellogg was assistant editor of Charities and the Commons, a nationally distributed social welfare magazine, and Hine suggested to him in 1906 that the use of photographs in the magazine would be advantageous. Beginning in 1907, not only did Hine photograph for the magazine, but also for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). He finally resigned his teaching position in 1908 to work full time as a photographer for the NCLC. He traveled from Maine to Texas documenting children working in factories, mines, mills, farms, and in street trades. He photographed their living conditions as well. The photographs were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as mounted on posters for NCLC conventions. His photographs did not embellish the child laborers’ destitution, and instead showed accurate and poignant depictions of their circumstances. Hine’s photographs were influential in changing public opinion about child labor and subsequently in the passing of legislation to protect children with stricter labor laws.
Hine left the NCLC to photograph American Red Cross activities in Europe during World War I, but still worked for the NCLC off and on between 1921 and 1934. He had become an independent, freelance photographer. From 1930 to 1931, he was official photographer for the construction of New York's Empire State Building, a job that allowed him to show workers as heroes rather than slaves as in the child labor photographs. His child labor photographs have proven to be his most important work, because they document irrefutably the difficult circumstances suffered by young workers. These approximately 5,000 images are the most extensive known photographic record of child labor, and are a standard against which to measure the toil of children into the distant future. Hine died on November 3, 1940 in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
UMBC’s Hine collection includes over 5,000 Hine photographs from 32 states – Over 4,500 of which are digitized and available online. All photos have the NCLC captions. The UMBC holdings are unique in that they are the only complete Hine collection with the backs of the photographs visible. We hope to scan the backs of the photographs and rescan the images at a higher resolution in the near future.
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Related Documents: History 402: The South Since Reconstruction. "Child Labor in the American South." [Lewis Hine Class Project 2007].