Sadly, during the 19th and 20th centuries, child labor was prevalent in our country. Our children worked in mills, mines, and factories 12 or more hours a day, six days a week. Americans knew the practice existed, but whether they knew the issue's scope or depth is still being determined. But it happened, and no one seemed to care.
One must return to a time just after the Civil War to understand this issue. During this period, substantial industrial growth occurred, and the demand for labor increased. Wages were low, and families needed everyone in the household to work. Mothers and fathers struggled with the decision to take their sons and daughters out of school, but some had no choice. Children became part of the American workforce.
The U.S. government recognized the need to stop this form of child abuse, and in the late 1800s, laws were passed to regulate working conditions and outlaw child labor. Many states were weak in enforcing the laws, loopholes existed, and many laws did not apply to immigrants. Frequently exploited, these families ended up living in slums and working long hours for little pay.
One of the most devastating aspects of child labor was the health problems experienced by the children. They worked long hours, did not get enough exercise, and fatigue was common. As a result, their tiny bodies did not develop properly, and their growth was stunted. It was even worse for those who worked in mills and mines–exposure to toxic materials caused lung disease. Then there were the children operating machinery that became victims of an accident and were maimed for life.
Newspapers like the Cleveland Journal published many stories on child labor. They ran an article on April 22, 1905, titled The Evil of Child Labor, which said:
Children waste materials, waste time, and if careful calculations were made, it would be found that their labor is not economical. Of all expensive luxuries, the most costly and most cruel is child labor.
Many articles were written by reporters trying to draw attention to this issue, but child labor continued. There seemed to be hope for the children when a photographer named Lewis W. Hine became their champion.
Lewis W. Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on September 26, 1874. His father and mother ran a popular coffee shop and restaurant on Main Street, and the family lived upstairs in a small apartment. A veteran of the Civil War, Hine's father had survived many battles but was unfortunately killed in an accident in 1892. To help support his mother and sister, Hine had to go to work. He was first employed at a furniture store, working 13 hours daily and earning four dollars a week. He also split firewood, delivered packages for a clothing store, sold water filters door to door, and worked as a janitor in a bank. At age 25, Hine began taking classes at the Normal School and, a year later, enrolled at the University of Chicago, studied sociology, and became a teacher. He later moved to New York, earning his master's degree.
In 1903, Hine took up the hobby of photography after buying his first camera. As a teacher, taking pictures opened up a new area of education for him. He found photographs could educate without a single word being written or spoken–and that he liked!
In 1904, he took a short trip back home to Oshkosh and reunited with a school friend named Sara Ann Rich. They soon fell in love and eventually married. This same year, Hine began photographing immigrant families when they arrived at Ellis Island. As families rushed through immigration processing, Hine would stop them and ask to take their picture–most of the time, relying on hand signals to communicate since most could not speak English.
Hine continued using his dependable 5 x 7-inch box camera with an old-fashioned bulb shutter, glassplate negatives, and magnesium flash powder. A loud "bang" would be heard when he took a picture as the powder ignited and sparks flew! Although his camera equipment was old, his photographic skills produced excellent results. He continued to take photos at Ellis Island for the next few years, producing approximately 200 photographs.
In 1906, Hine was doing freelance work for the National Child Labor Committee. The NCLC had been investigating child labor, and the information collected indicated the number of children working in factories, mills, and mines was staggering. Approximately 1.5 million children under 15 worked in industrial jobs in 1890, and their research showed the numbers were increasing yearly. The Committee felt that images of child labor captured on film would put them in a better position to fight against these illegal activities. Lewis Hine's photographic skills were well known, and in 1908, they hired him as their full-time investigative reporter.
Hine was the perfect person to become involved in this cause. As a teacher, he loved children and wanted to do whatever he could to support the efforts of the NCLC. Experience had taught him pictures could tell a compelling story, and he eagerly accepted the assignment. He later would say, "I felt that I was merely changing my educational efforts from the classroom to the world."
As Hine began his assignment, he knew he had to distinguish between children working part-time jobs after school or as apprentices or trainees and those employed as cheap labor. His target would be mines, mills, and factories exploiting young boys and girls. Hine set off on a four-year journey across America with his small box camera at his side. He visited states where he heard child labor existed and took as many pictures as possible of working children. It became a demanding assignment as he traveled as many as 50,000 miles a year by automobile and train. His wife Sara accompanied him on many trips, but Hine often traveled alone.
Getting into factories, mines, and mills was difficult, especially as owners began hearing about a photographer gaining access to businesses. They warned their staff to be on the lookout for anyone trying to take pictures. If someone did visit unexpectedly, children would be rushed out of sight, and the visitor would be told they were there to see relatives. Owners, managers, and children would often lie about their ages.
Hine had to be deceptive and figure out ways to access businesses without management finding out. One of his tricks was to pose as a fire marshal or insurance salesman needing to perform an inspection of the facility. He would then hide his camera under his jacket and take pictures when possible. He also carried small bits of paper in his pocket and took notes. To gauge children's height, he would secretly measure them by using the buttons of his coat or take a picture of them standing next to a large piece of equipment.
Although Hine was careful to avoid being discovered, he frequently was caught and faced threats of physical harm or injury by an angry manager or guard. Being thrown out of a facility did not deter him. He would wait outside and photograph as the children arrived and departed. He would also follow them home and persuade their parents to talk to him. If successful, he would ask to see the family Bible, a passport, or other documents to verify ages.
HINE VISITS TAMPA
Tampa and its factories did not escape the eye of Hine's camera, and, in January 1909, he arrived in "The Cigar Capital of the World." His research revealed that children under 14 worked in specific cigar factories, and he set out to find which factories employed them. He was able to talk his way into the A. Ramirez Cigar Co. Here, he snapped a picture of two young girls using wood barrels covered with a tarp as tables while they worked with tobacco. At the De Pedro Casellas Cigar Factory, he could sneak a picture of a young boy, with his stocking supporters visible, sitting among other children and adults all busily at work. At the Salvador Rodriguez Factory, he found another young boy making cigars. He then gained access to the Engelhardt & Company Cigar Factory. While there, Hine took a picture that later became widely used to illustrate child labor in cigar factories. The photograph above, shows three young boys sitting side by side, busy at work. The boy in the middle is smoking a cigar. You are immediately drawn to their glassy eyes staring off into the distance, with expressions frozen in time. Hine wrote of this visit:
Work was slack, and youngsters were not being employed much. Labor told me in busy times, many small boys and girls are employed. Youngsters all smoke.
The next day Hine visited a Tampa cigar box factory and took pictures of children sitting at wooden tables as they placed labels on the new boxes. His written note from that day said:
I saw 10 small boys and girls–has had reputation for employment of youngsters, but work is slack now.
It must be noted that although there were factories in Tampa employing children under 14, several factories did not. These factories refused to hire children and were against child labor practices.
By 1912, Hine had taken over 500 photographs and had visited 24 states and the District of Columbia. The National Child Labor Committee was impressed with his work and felt they were now well-armed to go forth and fight for America's children. The Committee began by publishing Hine's photographs with detailed reports in magazines and books. Hine then traveled around the U.S., giving lectures, displaying his pictures, and presenting slide shows.
Some critics said his photographs were not "shocking enough." But, Hine felt the pictures were truthful, honest, and the American public would understand the magnitude of child labor. When asked what he hoped to accomplish with his photographs, he said:
Photography can light-up darkness and expose ignorance.
Another time during one of his photograph displays, Hine told the audience, "Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past."
Hine's photographs all had one thing in common–he captured the sadness and the silent plea for help visible in the children's eyes. This photographic effect, shown on a large screen during Hine's slide shows in dark auditoriums, had a spellbinding impact on his audiences. Gasps of disbelief were heard, and at other times total silence. Each picture was captioned with the meticulous notes Hine had made, which added an even more significant impact:
She said she was 11 years old. Been working over a year…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.
He is age 14, works from 7 AM to 6 PM–smokes and visits houses of prostitution.
She was 51 inches high…Has been in the factory one year. Sometimes works at night. When asked how old she was she hesitated, then said, "I don't remember", then added confidentially, "I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same."
In time, more and more Americans saw Hine's photographs and heard about his efforts. Public opinion became stronger and pressure was placed on state lawmakers to begin passing legislation banning child labor. Stiffer laws were imposed, and authorities began enforcement.
Eventually, child labor began to come to an end. After years of dedication, Hine's mission was now complete, and so his assignment came to an end. America finally woke up, and Hine's wishes came true–"child labor pictures became records of the past."
Hine's next job was with the American Red Cross. World War I was in progress, and Hine was hired to travel to Europe and photograph their accomplishments during the war. He traveled for several months photographing refugees and relief efforts in the aftermath of the war. When the war was over, Hine returned home and wanted to change direction concerning his photography. He said, "I thought I had done my share of negative documentation; now I want to do something positive."
In the 1920s, he began photographing working people and craftsmen to profile human labor's importance in the new machinery age. He called this particular series "Work Portraits."
In 1930, Hine's next undertaking was to photograph the building of the Empire State Building. His son Corydon became his assistant. It was common to see Hine climbing with construction workers and setting up his camera. He would balance his camera on girders high above New York City. Perhaps Hine felt that if he survived factory owners' rage during his child labor days, he could defy dizzying heights!
During this decade, times were hard for Hine as he tried to survive the Great Depression. He was a well-known, respected photographer, but he could not find steady work, and by 1938 he was penniless and discouraged. He tried to secure a foundation grant for a new project–a photographic study of foreign-born Americans. He was turned down and had to apply for public assistance. By January 1940, he could not pay his mortgage and lost the home he had owned since 1918. Eleven months later, on November 3, 1940, Lewis Wickes Hine died in New York in extreme poverty. He was just 64 years old.
Many years have passed since Lewis Hine became one of the first documentary photographers. His name and story have become part of history for all generations to read, and we wonder how we ever allowed child labor to exist.
Today Hine is acknowledged as one of America's great photographers, but many do not recognize his name. His photographic images of working children touched Americans' hearts and helped change our nation's laws. Because of this, it is incumbent upon us not to forget Lewis Hine, the teacher, the photographer, and the crusader who made a difference–one man with one box camera who took on a social cause that needed a voice.
Note: In 1985, The National Child Labor Committee began awarding "The Lewis Hine Award" to recognize dedicated men and women who have made a difference in the lives of young people across America.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MARCH/APRIL 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Lewis W. Hine Collection, Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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