Children in the machine: Lewis Hine’s photography and child labour reform

young girl working in a mill

Pioneering photographer Lewis Hine‘s images of industry and labour led to reform and changing laws.

Born in 1874, Lewis Hine was initially a teacher and sociologist. In the early 1900s, Hine led his sociology classes to Ellis Island, photographing some of the thousands of immigrants arriving there.

RELATED: Exhibition: Leaving Europe – a new life in America

Through these photographs, Hine began to realise that documentary photography could be a tool for social change and reform.

In 1907, Hine was the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation for whom he photographed people and life in steel-making districts of Pittsburgh.

One year later, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, leaving his teaching position.

Over the next decade, Hine photographed industrial conditions, revealing the extent to which children worked in the mills, mines, canneries and factories of the United States. Children from poor and migrant families, as young as five years old, were working long hours in dangerous and dirty conditions.

In many cases, photography was forbidden in mines and factories. These were scenes that weren’t meant to be seen; revealing these conditions was met with considerable opposition.

Hine adopted many personas – fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman – so he could be allowed in, and travelled hundreds and thousands of miles taking almost 5,000 photographs.

These photographs supported the Committee’s lobbying to end child labour, and inspired a wave of moral outrage. By 1912, a Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and Department of Commerce had been created, following NCLC’s lobbying. Finally, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed bringing child labour to an ultimate end.

RELATED: Exhibition: Industrial Photography in the Machine Age

Lewis Hine’s photographs were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the United States. His photographs – whether of children working, migrants at Ellis Island or wider industrial conditions – emphasise the human side of modern industry and remain powerful today.

Feature image: Sadie Pfeiffer, Spinner in a Cotton Mill, Lewis Hine, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation

Europe at Work – Share your story

When you were a child, did you have to work? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

photograph of man working in a factory surrounded by machines, the words 'Share your story' and a logo saying 'Europe at Work' are above

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

4 thoughts on “Children in the machine: Lewis Hine’s photography and child labour reform

  1. Indeed we did, worked on our small farm, and during the summer worked on the bog saving turf after that saving hay, before we knew it we were back at school, holidays what holidays.

  2. Thank you for this very inspiring and moving work, which reminded me of a very beautiful poem by Victor Hugo who was one of the first to denounce this reality: Melancholia. I’m thinking of integrating it into a course on artist engagement. Nathalie

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