In 1908, former New York City elementary school teacher Lewis Hine became an investigator and photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an organization dedicated to "promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working." Hine then traveled the country for decades documenting child labor conditions in factories, while also hitting the streets, alleys, and tenements of New York City, photographing young newsies, gum vendors, bowling alley "pin boys," messengers, and others forced into work by the absence of any meaningful child labor laws.
At the turn of the century, photography's status, as historian Sarah E. Chinn noted in Inventing Modern Adolescence, was "powerfully linked to the belief that photographs were, in essence, truthful." Hine believed that a good photograph was simply a "reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others."
So it was with this backdrop, and this mindset, that Hine set out to saturate the American consciousness with photos of children and families at work in deplorable conditions. He wanted to make people "so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child-labor pictures will be records of the past." While many of Hine's most famous photographs depict bootblacks and newsies plying their trades on the streets, a subset of his work depicts New York City families engaged in so-called "homework," in which they brought unfinished work back to their apartments from the factories. Striving for total authenticity, Hine made "double-sure" that his "photo data was 100% pure -- no retouching or fakery of any kind." The powerful results, as Chinn notes, "contrast the bourgeois ideal of the child as an ahistorical creature with the reality of the working child, whose very existence was determined by historical and economic realities."
The gallery features a sampling of Hine's New York City work, along with that of a few of like-minded contemporaries. These photos represent an effort to combat, as Hine saw it, the "great social peril" of "darkness and ignorance" with "light in floods": "The dictum, then of the social worker is 'Let there be light;' and in this campaign for light we have for our advance agent, the light writer -- the photograph."
1. Lace workers. March 1924.
2. Women and children cut string beans in a turn-of-the-century New York City processing plant. Date unspecified.
3. A 12-year-old boy works as a thread puller in a New York clothing factory. 1889.
4. A young bootblack stands near City Hall Park. July 1924.
5. A boy carryies hats on Bleecker St. February 1912.
6. "Wanted: Small Boys" sign on West 19th St. March 1916.
7. "Heavy Load." July 1910.
8. Gum vendors stand on 23rd St. ane 4th Ave. July 1910.
9. "Making mesh bags." (Note the boy at the window.) November 1912
10. "Pin boys" work at Subway Bowling Alley in Brooklyn at 1:00 a.m. Three smaller boys were kept out of the photo by their boss. April 1910.
11. Young female lace worker. March 1924.
12. Boys work in a shop on Henry St. May 1910.
13. Gum vendors work on the Bowery. July 1910.
14. A widow and a boy roll cigarettes in a dirty tenement. February 1909.
15. The Cattena family makes doll legs for a company called Campbell Kid Dolls. As soon as the photo was taken, Hine noted that 14-year-old Rose carried the box full of finished legs by herself to the Aetna Doll and Toy Co. They all worked after school and often until 10:00 p.m.
16. Newsies and other child laborers gather outside a newspaper office. February 1910.
17. A family makes dresses for Campbell Kid Dolls in a dirty tenement room. The older boy, about 12, operates the machine when his mother is not using it. When she operates it, he helps the little ones, five and seven years old, break the thread. March 1912.
18. An "office boy" works at J.J. O'Brien and Sons, East 23rd Street. January 1917.
19. A family crochets bags with while the patriarch lies sick in bed. November 1912.
20. Young girls make artificial flowers. March 1924
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