As hard as things might seem right now for high school or university students entering the job market, it’s probably nothing compared to what these kids had to go through in early 1900s America. This photo series, archived by the Library of Congress, shows what conditions were like for child laborers before child labor was largely eliminated in 1938.
The photo series, taken by photographer Lewis Hine on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, illustrates the dangers and hardships working children were subject to, especially in dangerous work where the modern safety equipment we’re used to was not yet available. The kids, some as young as 4, worked in factories, mines, plantations and textile mills. Children in coal mines inhaled damaging dust daily, while those working in canneries or textile mills could lose fingers. Many skipped school or didn’t do their homework so that they could work.
Today, child labor is largely a thing of the past in the U.S., although exceptions do remain allowing for children to work in agriculture, show business, and for their parents. It has been largely eliminated elsewhere in the world as well, although child labor, primarily through the children’s parents, still has a high rate of occurrence in the developing world. With photos like these, it kind of makes me feel bad about complaining when my mom made me sweep the house or take out the garbage.
Source: The U.S. Library of Congress
Youngsters at Bibb Mill No. 1, 1909
Some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins. Location: Macon, Georgia.
Manuel, the young shrimp-picker, 5 years old
Manuel and a mountain of child-labor oyster shells behind him. He worked last year. Understands not a word of English. Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Company. Location: Biloxi, Mississippi.
11-year-old at Crescent Hosiery Mill
Nannie Coleson, looper who said she was 11 years old, and has been working in the Crescent Hosiery Mill for some months. Makes about $3 a week. Has been through the 5th grade in school. She is bright, but unsophisticated. Told investigator, “There are other little girls in the mill too. One of them, says she’s 13, but she doesn’t look any older than me.” Location: Scotland Neck, North Carolina.
Young Cigarmakers in Englahardt & 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. Location: Tampa, Florida.
Stealing coal from railroad coal-yard.
Location: Boston, Massachusetts.
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. Location: West Virginia.
Willie Bryden, 13, holding the door open in a mine
Waiting all alone in the dark for a trip to come through. It was so damp that Willie said he had to be doctoring all the time for his cough. A short distance from here, the gas was pouring into the mine so rapidly that it made a great torch when the foreman lit it. Willie had been working here for four months, 500 feet down the shaft, and a quarter of a mile underground from there. (Shaft #6 Pennsylvania Coal Co.) Walls have been whitewashed to make it lighter. January 16th, I found Willie at home sick, His mother admitted that he is only 13 yrs old; will be 14 next July. Said that 4 mos. ago the mine boss told the father to take Willie to work, and that they obtained the certificate from Squire Barrett. (The only thing the Squire could do was to make Willie out to be 16 yrs old.) Willie’s father and brother are miners and the home is that of a frugal German family. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Amos, 6, and Horace, 4 years old, in Tobacco Fields
Their father, John Neal is a renter and raises tobacco. He said (and the owner of the land confirmed it) that both these boys work day after day from “sun-up to sun-down” worming and suckering, and that they are as steady as a grown-up. Location: Warren County –Albaton, Kentucky
Breaker boys in #9 breaker
Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Sweeper and Doffer Boys
Sweeper and Doffer Boys, Lancaster Mills (Cotton). S.C. Many more as small. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina.
Some of the boys at a busy trolley junction
3 brothers, Salvatore, 9 yrs. (in front), Joseph, 11 yrs. (cripple), Lewis, 13 yrs. (between these 2). “We would be murdered if we shop craps.” Boy at left sold me pair of dice for 2 c[en]ts. – what he would have to pay for more. Location: Jersey City, New Jersey.
The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrates the utmost recess of the boy’s lungs. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
11-year-old boys working a two-man saw
Boys working in Maple Mill, Dillon, S.C. Pete Dunlap (smaller). Said 11 years old. Mannings Dunlap. Both doff-40 cents a day. Location: Dillon, South Carolina.
11-year-old Callie Campbell picking cotton
Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much.” Location: Potawotamie County, Oklahoma.
15-year-old Estelle Poiriere with finger injury
Union Hospital case – Estelle Poiriere, 137 Robeson St., 15 years old. Doffer at Granite No. 1 mill. Laceration of index and middle finger of right hand. Caught in card machine. Injured Dec. 21, 1915 and finger grew stiff and had to have cord cut. Still an outpatient in June and not working yet. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts.
3-year-old playing at Ivey Mill
Ivey Mill, Hickory, N.C. Little one, 3 years old, who visits and plays in the mill. Daughter of the overseer. Location: Hickory, North Carolina.
Boys working on and around moving coal cars
On the tipple at the Bessie Mine, Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Co. These young boys work around and on these coal cars, loaded and empty, while they are running at full speed. It is dangerous. One of these boys said, “Ain’t hardly a day goes by that someone don’t get pinched or hurt.” “I got my leg jammed a while ago and was laid up a week.” Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama.
12-year old who lost his hand
Rural Accident. Twelve-year old Clinton Stewart and his mowing machine which cut off his hand.
Cartoners at canning factory
Some of the cartoners, not the youngest, at Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. Location: Eastport, Maine.
5-year-old Jo Benevidos Having Lunch
Jo Benevidos, 5 Merion St. Curled up in a doffing box, eating his lunch. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts.
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