The Faces of Child Labor

It is hard to imagine that for decades in America and other countries, children served as a major backbone to much of the work done on farms, in coal mines and factories.  Your ancestor may well have been a part of that massive group.  It was not uncommon for children at age 10 and up working, not attending school, to help support the family income.

At the Library of Congress is quite a collection of images, over 5,000, showing children in many different aspects of work in locations all across the country. These photos were done by Lewis Wickes Hine, a photojournalist of the early 20th century.  Not only did Hind capture the moment in an image, but did gather information on the some of the people in the photo.  For example he has an image of a girl, about age 14, working as a spinner of thread in North Carolina in 1908 who was making 50 cents for 10 hours of work.  That type of information was not gathered years later, but rather at the time. Any of the notes Hind gathered he got from the source, usually the person in the photo.

On the Library of Congress site, there is a search box. Place a keyword such as a state, city or try a surname to see what is available.  Most of the photos are labeled as far as location and even time period, but many are without names. There are some, so it worth searching family names. The surname ‘Johnson’ produced 34 images. For the states of Ohio there were 36 images, 17 in California, 133 in Texas and for Georgia there were 200 photos.

Even if there are no actual family images, you get a real sense of the life and work done by children around the turn of the 20th century, approximately from 1900 to 1919.  In the search you can place certain occupations such as coal miner, farmer worker, factory or textile worker.  The site has 1,687 images of children working in the textile mills alone. There was the practice of apprentices, where a child or their family actually paid the craftsman so much money, usually about $20 to teach the child a trade as they worked for him.

On each of the images you can just hover over the photo to read the caption or click on an image to enlarge it and the caption information and dates are available. Some of the most heartbreaking images are of children who have lost a finger, injured a hand and yet still have to work.

More than likely we all had some ancestors only a hundred years ago in the same position we see the children in the photos.

Photo above:  1908 – teenagers working in a textile mill in Indiana for about $1 a day.

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