A spinner in the Mollahan Mills, Newberry, S.C. Dec. 3/08. Witness, Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina / Photo by Lewis W. Hine.
Dear Father, I received your letter on Thursday the 14th with much pleasure. I am well, which is one comfort. My life and health are spared while others are cut off. Last Thursday one girl fell down and broke her neck, which caused instant death. She was going in or coming out of the mill and slipped down, it being very icy. The same day a man was killed by the [railroad] cars. Another had nearly all of his ribs broken. Another was nearly killed by falling down and having a bale of cotton fall on him. Last Tuesday we were paid. In all I had six dollars and sixty cents paid $4.68 for board. With the rest I got me a pair of rubbers and a pair of 50 cent shoes. Next payment I am to have a dollar a week beside my board... I think that the factory is the best place for me and if any girl wants employment, I advise them to come to Lowell. Excerpt from a Letter from Mary Paul, Lowell mill girl, December 21, 1845. Knoxville, Tennessee, January 20, 1937 Dear President: I am addressing this letter to you, because I believe you will send it to the proper department for right consideration. The labor conditions at the Appalachian Cotton Mills here are worse than miserable—they are no less than slavery. The mill has only two shifts, day and night shifts, and each of them 10 hours long. The scale of wages is very low, and the mill is a veritable sweatshop. None of the women workers know what they are making, until they draw their pay check at each weekend, and their wages is not sufficient for them to live on. The mill should have 3 eight hour shifts, or two 8 hour shifts with a considerable increase in their wages. The women and men too, draw from $4.00 to $12.00 per week. Mr. Roosevelt, men can not live on such wages as this, and feed even a small family. Such conditions as these are worse than coercion, it will force men and women to steal, and it surely is not good Americanism. Am I to think that this great big civilization is going to stand for such intolerable conditions as these I have mentioned above. I believe sir, that they are worse than criminal. Such conditions bring sufferings to the unfortunate poor, that have to reek out a miserable existence without even a slaves opportunity to attend worship on the Lord’s day. It will take sharp detection to get the facts from this mill, but someone should see to it, that the long hours and short wages be put to an end. If the workers were to rebel against these unfair, and unamerican conditions, then the authorities would pronounce them Reds, or communists. The women have asked me to write this letter to you, because they believe you would remedy the conditions, and lighten their burdens. Now that I have wrote it I have used the fifth chapter of St. James in the N.T. [New Testament] as a base for the letter, which is literally fulfilling every minute. Let us hope for the best. R. H. O. Burlington, North Carolina, March 4, 1937
From the beginning of industrialization in the United States, factory owners often hired young workers. They were working with their parents at textile mills, helping fix machinery at factories and reaching areas too small for an adult to work. For many families child labor was a way to keep hand to mouth. In 1904, the first organization dedicated to the regulation of a child labor appeared. The National Child Labor Committee published tons of information about working conditions and contributed to a legislature of state-level laws on child labor. These laws described limitations for the age of children and imposed the system of compulsory education so that government could keep children at schools far away from the paid labor market until 12, 14 or 16 years. The collection includes photographs from the Library of Congress that were made in the period from 1906 to 1942. As the United States industrialized, factory owners hired young workers for a variety of tasks. Especially in textile mills, children were often hired together with their parents. Children had a special disposition to working in factories as their small statures were useful to fixing machinery and navigating the small areas that fully grown adults could not. Many families in mill towns depended on the children's labor to make enough money for necessities. The National Child Labor Committee, an organization dedicated to the abolition of all child labor, was formed in 1904. By publishing information on the lives and working conditions of young workers, it helped to mobilize popular support for state-level child labor laws. These laws were often paired with compulsory education laws which were designed to keep children in school and out of the paid labor market until a specified age (usually 12, 14, or 16 years.) In 1916, the NCLC and the National Consumers League successfully pressured the US Congress to pass the Keating–Owen Act, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. It was the first federal child labor law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law two years later in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), declaring that the law violated the Commerce Clause by regulating intrastate commerce. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that would authorize a national child labor law. This measure was blocked, and the bill was eventually dropped. It took the Great Depression to end child labor nationwide; adults had become so desperate for jobs that they would work for the same wage as children. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, placed limits on many forms of child labor. However, The 1938 labor law giving protections to working children excludes agriculture. As a result, approximately 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of the food currently produced in the United States.
Hine grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. As a young man he had to care for himself, and working at a furniture factory gave him first-hand knowledge of industrial workers' harsh reality. Eight years later he matriculated at the University of Chicago and met Professor Frank A. Manny, whom he followed to New York to teach at the Ethical Culture School and continue his studies at New York University. As a faculty member at the Ethical Culture School Hine was introduced to photography. From 1904 until his death he documented a series of sites and conditions in the USA and Europe. In 1906 he became a photographer and field worker for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Undercover, disguised among other things as a Bible salesman or photographer for post-cards or industry, Hine went into American factories. His research methodology was based on photographic documentation and interviews. Together with the NCLC he worked to place the working conditions of two million American children onto the political agenda. The NCLC later said that Hine's photographs were decisive in the 1938 passage of federal law governing child labor in the United States. In 1918 Hine left the NCLC for the Red Cross and their work in Europe. After a short period as an employee, he returned to the United States and began as an independent photographer. One of Hine's last major projects was the series Men at Work, published as a book in 1932. It is a homage to the worker that built the country, and it documents such things as the construction of the Empire State Building. In 1940 Hine died abruptly after several years of poor income and few commissions. Even though interest in his work was increasing, it was not until after his death that Hine was raised to the stature of one of the great photographers in the history of the medium.