Heartbreaking Photographs Reveal America was Built on the Shoulders of Child Labor

“They began work at 5:30 and quit at 7 at night. Children six years old going home to lie on a straw pallet until time to resume work the next morning! I have seen the hair torn out of their heads by the machinery, their scalps torn off, and yet not a single tear was shed, while the poodle dogs were loved and caressed and carried to the seashore.” -Mary Harris Jones

No second-hand account could do justice to the horrors of child labor. The quote above by Mary Harris Jones gives light to the atrocities in using children to do not only adult’s work, but grueling work. But this account surely couldn’t be describing a civilized nation? Unfortunately, this exact scenario played out vehemently on American ground. Despite many people’s infatuation with the United States, it is built on some very ugly truths. One of those less than appealing secrets revealed is that child labor was a rampant issue during the industrial revolution.

Although using children as servants and apprentices was normal practice during this time, the Industrial Revolution brought child labor to new extremes. While any type of factory labor during this period went unchecked and did not have any policies protecting workers, children found themselves particularly vulnerable to this new age. Children often worked long hours in dangerous factory conditions for very little compensation. Children were very valuable in the overcrowded factories due to their small size and ability to maneuver in small spaces or even mines. In addition to their size, factories found children much easier to manage- having fewer demands- and they could be paid far less than adults.

During this time, children worked to help support their families and thwarted any type of education. This type of lifestyle opened up a whole new world of suffering for children in this era. Once these horrors reached public eye, nineteenth century reformers and labor organizers worked to restrict child labor and improve working conditions for all factory workers. Despite their efforts, no real change came about until the market crash. The Great Depression left so many without jobs, Americans wanted all available jobs to go to adults- who could be paid more- rather than the child workers.

The following images follows the struggles of these children in the Industrial Revolution working in factories- mostly in unacceptable working conditions in today’s standards. Lewis Hine photographed every image below to shed light on the small shoulders so much sadness and work was laid on. The legal system, primarily the Constitution and the limited scope of powers it granted to the federal government, proved to be a primary challenge to reform. By the end of the Great Depression century, the Supreme Court had not heard a single case about child labor.

Spinners in Pell City, Alabama, November 1910. Flashbak.
A boy makes melon baskets at basket factory. Evansville, Indiana. October 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
Boy at mill in Gastonia, North Carolina. Had been working at the Loray Mill for two years. November 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
Spinners and Doffers in Lancaster Cotton Mills. Dozens of them in the mill. Lancaster, SC, December 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
Young spinner girl in Roanoke. Photographer said she claimed “She was 14 years old, but it was doubtful.” May 1911. Photo by Lewis Hine.
A baseball team composed of child laborers pose for a team picture. Indiana 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
5 year old Francis Lane sells his newspapers. Child Laborers were not just factory workers. Children worked an array of jobs, underpaid and overworked. St. Louis, MO 1910. Photo by Lewis Hine.
Hine notes on this photograph: “Anne, 7 years old, and brother Vincent said he was 11. Inez, sister said 6 years old,. Smallest one not quite large enough to work. Father works in Parker Mills. Parker Mills, Mass, September 1911.” Photo by Lewis Hine.
A young raveler and looper work together in London Hosiery Mill, London, Tennessee. December 1910. Photo by Lewis Hine.
Group of young cartoners in Seacoast Canning Co. Not the youngest. Eastport, Maine, August 1911. Photo by Lewis Hine.
A group of young boys work in the Alexandria Glass Factory. Alexandria, Virginia, June 1911. Photo by Lewis Hine.
A young girl works as a spinner in Carolina Mill, 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
“In a saloon doorway at 8:30 P.M. Left to right, George Cappello, 12 years old. Frank Laporter, 13 years old. Utica, N.Y., February 1910.” Photo by Lewis Hine.
Boys packing brooms at Brown Manufacturing Company, India, 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.
5 year old Salvin Nocito carries two pecks of cranberries to the bushel man. Whites Bog, September 1910.
Young boys pick over garbage at the Boston Massachusettes dump in October 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine.