I always feel a bit sorry for myself on Labor Day weekend, as it’s back-to-school time and usually I am engaged in a mad dash to get my course syllabi done. Of course this is ridiculous, as I have the cushiest job ever and most of the summer I’ve been free to do as I liked. It’s good to remind myself what labor really is, and nothing does that better than the photographs of Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), who transitioned from educator to social activist, all the while armed with a camera. In 1908 Hine became the official photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and began his life’s work: documenting child labor across the United States. This was a time when one in six children between the ages of five and ten worked outside the home in “gainful occupation”, and the percentage increases dramatically for children over the age of ten. The members of the NCLC began a successful campaign to end child labor and Hine’s often-haunting photographs were their chief weapon.
In the fall of 1911, Hine was in New England, then at the height of its industrial history, documenting child labor in Boston, Lowell, New Bedford, Lawrence and Salem. There are 17 photographs of Salem children, all accessible at the Library of Congress, which has a vast Hine collection. Most of the child laborers are shown outside of their place of work, presumably because their employers didn’t allow the conspicuous photographer inside. My favorite has always been this group of smiling girls, workers at the Cass & Daley Shoe Factory on Goodhue Street.
Caption: Group of girls working in Cass & Daley Shoe Co., Salem. Saw a number of children from 14 to 16 (apparently) and two or three probably under 14. Smallest girl in photo is Odella Delisle.
Smiling Salem girls, for the most part, a striking contrast to one of Hines’ most famous child laborers, Addie Card of North Pownal, Vermont, captured in August of 1910. Hines’ captions for this photograph are perhaps even more poignant than the image: an anaemic little spinner, 12 years. Girls in mill say she is ten years. She admitted to me she was twelve; that she started during school vacation and now would “stay.” Of course many have wondered what become of Addie Day: here is one exploration.
Back in Salem, a few more of my favorite Hine photographs from the fall of 1911: a group of somewhat serious boys outside the factory with some very serious men (the factory owners?) behind them, and young John Parent, quite alone despite the fact that there are people all around him.
Caption: Group, all working in #2 Spinning Room. Smallest boy (right hand end of front row) is Rene Barbin, 61 Perkins St. Next to Rene is Philip Beaulieu. Next to Philip is Alfred Corriveau, 14 Perkins St. Smallest boy in back row is Willie Irwin, 16 Perkins St. Next smallest in back row is Ernest Dionne, 5 Prince St.
Caption: Boy is John Parent, 14 Congress St. Works in Spinning Room #2, Fifth Floor.
There is only one Salem photograph in which Hine was allowed into the factory, where he photographed a ragged-yet-dignified Henry Fournier before some massive machinery. I’m sure Hine wanted to get the machines in his photographs whenever possible, because they represent both the work and the potential danger. A Smithsonian/National Archives traveling exhibition entitled The Way We Work (opening this weekend at Historic New England‘s Governor John Langdon House) includes a Hine photograph of child laborers in Georgia that is particularly haunting with regard to danger: small barefoot boys who appear as almost part of the machines on which they work.
Caption: Henry Fourner [i.e., Fournier?], 261 Jefferson St., Castle Hill; has been sweeper and cleaner in #2 Spinning Room two months.
Caption: “Bibb Mill No. 1, Macon, Ga. Many youngsters here. Some boys and girls were so small they had to climb up on to the spinning frame to mend broken threads and to put back the empty bobbins”.