20 haunting portraits of child laborers in 1900s America

In 1900s America, child labor was not uncommon. You were likely to find children working not just, say, as newspaper deliverers but also in cotton mills and out in the cotton fields, in mines and even on the docks in Baltimore as oyster shuckers. In 1904, a group of people who abhorred these practices came together and founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) with a mission of “promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” They wanted to end child labor. In an effort to ramp up their work against child labor, they decided to hire a schoolteacher and photographer from New York City to document the injustices with a camera. That man was Lewis Hine, and his work would become legendary and secure him a place as a master American photographer.

Hine would spend years travelling the country and documenting children’s working conditions. Often, he had to trick his way into workplaces to take photographs. The NCLC would use his work as part of its publicity and educational efforts. Photo historian Daile Kaplan explained how Hine was able to accomplish the work he set out to do:

“Nattily dressed in a suit, tie and hat, Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas — including Bible salesman, postcard salesman and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery — to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms and sweatshops with his 50 pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace.”

Hine’s work documenting child labor in the United States helped stir the nation’s conscience and change its labor laws.

Unfortunately, Hine would die in poverty. His photographs, however, have lived on, and he has come to be recognized as one of the most influential American photographers of all time. You can see more than 5,000 of his digitized images at the Library of Congress, here.