Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.
Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.
Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier.
I first came across Lewis Hines’ photographs as I was working on my recent blog post on the telegraph and its impact on life in Pennsylvania. The Library of Congress holds Hines’ photos and reports and fortunately has digitized a large portion of the collection. I hadn’t considered it as I was writing my other post, but one of the most notable impacts that new technology like the telegraph and train had on Americans was the change in their working habits. Innovations like the telegraph improved life, but they also created more demands on people too. Building and maintaining America’s new transportation and communication networks created huge demands for resources and laborers.
Children made an ideal labor force- they could be paid less, they were less likely to strike, and didn’t have their own families to care for. The telegraph workers that Hines photographed often worked long hours and routinely had to take night shifts to deliver messages all around. Hines noted in his photo captions that messenger boys oftentimes delivered messages to red light districts and worried about their exposure to sex workers, drug dealers, and other dangers. Telegraph message delivery would have been dangerous for an experienced adult, it was even more hazardous for a young teenager.
Along with their frequent association with red light districts, Hines also documented delinquent behavior such as smoking and gambling that were common amongst messengers. “You all know how the circle goes,” Hines said in 1915, “child labor, illiteracy, industrial inefficiency, low wages, long hours, low standards of living, bad housing, poor food, unemployment, intemperance, disease, poverty, child labor, illiteracy, industrial inefficiency, low wages- but we are repeating.” Reformers felt that child labor didn’t just hurt children, it was part of a larger web of problems plaguing American society. I suspect that Hines focused on delinquency and other bad habits to shock other reformers. Morality was just as important to reformers as labor rights and good standards of living (for more on this subject see this article by George Dimock).
I’ve chosen two dozen Hines photographs of telegraph messengers from the Library of Congress online collection. They’re in order of Hines’ original photograph numbers with his original captions.