Striking photos of America's child laborers reveal what work was like a century ago

The fight against child labor

Most jobs in the US in the early 20th century were done under grueling conditions.

Features that are now common in US workplaces — weekends off, 40-hour weeks, and other protections — were largely nonexistent in the early 1900s.

But one of the biggest differences between now and then may be who was doing the work.

Lewis Hine, a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, captured photos of some of the children who made up the US labor force between 1908 and 1924.

Hine traveled throughout the US, documenting children working in factories, fields, and at home in support the NCLC's mission to promote the "rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working."

The photos below, compiled by the Library of Congress, are the result of Hine and the NCLC's efforts to document child labor and its effects on the children who did it.

The descriptions come from NCLC caption cards, edited for clarity and length.

Child labor photos show what work was like a century ago (BI)
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Striking photos of America's child laborers reveal what work was like a century ago

A Glassworks at midnight, taken in Indiana in August 1908.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Jewel and Harold Walker, 6 and 5 years old, pick 20 to 25 pounds of cotton a day. Father said: "I promised 'em a little wagon if they'd pick steady, and now they have half a bagful in just a little while." Location: Comanche County--[Geronimo], Oklahoma, October 1916.

Vance, a trapper Boy, 15 years old. He had trapped for several years in a West Virginia coal mine for $0.75 a day for 10 hours work. All he does is 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. Taken in September 1908.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Manuel, the young shrimp-picker, 5 years old and a mountain of child-labor oyster shells behind him. He worked the year before. Understands not a word of English. Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Company. Location: Biloxi, Mississippi, February 1911.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Freddie Kafer, a very immature little newsie selling Saturday Evening Posts and newspapers at the entrance to the State Capitol. He did not know his age, nor much of anything else. He was said to be 5 or 6 years old. Nearby, Hine found Jack who said he was 8 years old, and who was carrying a bag full of Saturday Evening Posts, which weighed nearly 1/2 of his own weight. The bag weighed 24 pounds, and he weighed only 55 pounds. He carried this bag for several blocks to the car. Said he was taking them home. Sacramento, California, May 1915.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

This little girl, like many others in this state, is so small she has to stand on a box to reach her machine. She is regularly employed as a knitter in a hosiery mill. Said she did not know how long she had worked there. Location: Loudon, Tennessee, December 1910.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Group of Breaker Boys in #9 Breaker, Hughestown Borough, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania, January 1911.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Four-year-old Mary, who shucks two pots of oysters a day and tends the baby when not working. The boss said that next year Mary will work steady as the rest of them. The mother is the fastest shucker in the place. She earns $1.50 a day. Works part of the time with her sick baby in her arms. Dunbar, Louisiana, March 1911.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Little Fannie, 7 years old, 48 inches high, helps sister in Elk Mills. Her sister (in photo) said, "Yes, she he'ps me right smart. Not all day but all she can. Yes, she started with me at six this mornin'." These two belong to a family of 19 children. Taken in Fayetteville, Tennessee, November 1910.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Young cigarmakers at Englahardt & Co., Tampa, Florida. These boys looked under 14. Work was slack and youngsters were not being employed much. Youngsters all smoke. Witness Sara R. Hine. Taken January 1909.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

The interior of a tobacco shed, Hawthorn Farm. Girls in foreground are 8, 9, and 10 years old. The 10-year-old makes $0.50 a day. Twelve workers on this farm were 8 to 14 years old, and about 15 are over 15 years. Location: Hazardville, Connecticut, August 1917.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

A spinner takes moment's glimpse of the outer world. She said she was 10 years old and had been working over a year. Lincolnton, North Carolina, November 1908.

(Photo via Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection)

The "Manly art of self-defense" Newsboys' Protective Association, in Cincinnati, Ohio, taken around 1910.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company, said to be 15-years-old, Waco, Texas, September 1913.

(Photo via Lewis Hines/Library of Congress)

Street gang, corner of Margaret & Water Streets - 4:30 p.m. Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, June 1916.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Nan de Gallant, 4 Clark Street, Eastport, Maine, a 9-year-old cartoner, Seacoast Canning Co., Factory No. 2. Packs some with her mother. Mother and two sisters work in factory. One sister has made $7 in one day. During the rush season, the women begin work at 7 a.m., and at times work until midnight. Brother works on boats. The family comes from Perry, Maine, just for the summer months. Work is very irregular. Nan is already a spoiled child. Location: Eastport, Maine, August 1911.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

A "colored school" at Anthoston. Census 27, enrollment 12, attendance 7. Teacher expects 19 to be enrolled after work is over. "Tobacco keeps them out and they are short of hands." Location: Henderson County, Kentucky, September 1913.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

Boys picking over garbage on "the Dumps." Location: Boston, Massachusetts, October 1909.

(Photo via Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)


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