Crusader with a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle against Child “Slavery”

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

National History Day, held each year in June, caps a series of competi­tions conducted at successively higher levels during the academic year. During the year, school students engage in extensive research of primary sources in order to prepare papers, projects, performances, and media presentations based on a historical theme. National History Day is open to students in grades six through eight, classified as the junior division, and grades nine through twelve in the senior division.

For National History Day 1996, students were invited to investigate topics relating to “Taking a Stand in History: Individuals, Groups, Movements.” To fully understand the historical importance of their topics, students were required to ask questions of time and place, cause and effect, change over time, and impact and importance. They were encouraged to ask not only when did events happen, but why? What factors contributed to their development? What was the lasting influence in history? How did this topic change the course of events? What effect did it have on a community, society, nation, or the world?

Jennifer L. Peresie of Venetia wrote “Crusader With a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child ‘Slavery'” while a freshman at Peters Township High School in McMurray, Washington County. During tire course of her extensive research, she interviewed Annie Healey, of Middleboro, Massachusetts, who worked as a spinner at the Star Mill in her hometown. One hundred and two years old at the time of tire interview in February 1996, Healey recollected what life as a young laborer was like and remembered how happy she was when investigators, working to abolish child labor, visited the mills. Annie Healey, according to Jennifer, ‘felt that Lewis Hine had been successful in what she believed was one of the most important causes, the fight against child labor.” Jennifer also interviewed photographer Walter Rosenblum of New York, a close friend and confidant of Lewis Hine, who offered insight on Hine the individual. Rosenblum took great care in explaining why Hine had accepted the assignment of photographing children at work for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), noting that he had “wanted to be a ‘social photographer’ from the first day he used a camera.” Rosenblum also offered commentary on Hine’s immeasurable impact on both American history and the history of photography.

To augment these telling interviews, Jennifer examined period correspondence, scrapbooks, magazine and journal articles, official minutes and records of the NCLC, newspaper articles, pamphlets, government documents, and a host of books.

Jennifer’s “Crusader With a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child ‘Slavery'” won first place in the senior historical papers division at the state contest and took top honors at the national competition last summer. In addition to her first place award, she was also given a scholarship prize by Chaminade University in Hawaii. Honors are not new to Jennifer – in 1995, as an eighth grade student, she won first place in the junior historical papers category at the Pennsylvania History Day competition. At the national competition that year, her work was recognized as the outstanding state entry in the junior division.

“I hope some day to be able to help people as Lewis Hine did,” Jennifer said recently. “Like Lewis Hine, I want to make a difference. No matter what career or occupation I choose, I know it will be one that helps improve life for people.”

Pennsylvania Heritage is pleased – and proud – to present “Crusader With a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child Slavery” by Jennifer L. Peresie for the first time in published format. This piece has been only lightly edited to retain the integrity and spontaneity of this gifted student’s prize-winning work. This is the first time an article by a high school student has appeared in this magazine. The staff of Pennsylvania Heritage and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission extends hearty congratulations to Jennifer for her great accomplishment as winner of National History Day 1996.


In 1865, slavery was abolished, but few laws stopped industrialists in both the North and the South from hiring young children as cheap labor. Child labor was considered a terrible problem during the early twentieth century, and many worked vigorously for change. Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) was one such crusader who worked to combat the social ill of child labor. The stance taken against child labor by Hine through his photography is the very stand that galvanized public opinion against child labor, essentially facilitating the passage and enforcement of legislation restricting the work of children.

Child labor first became a problem in the United States during the Industrial Revolution. During this time, machinery was invented that was so simple a child could operate it. Children were hired as cheap labor, allowing entrepreneurs to make even larger profits. Soon children took over the jobs of men and were frequently the only wage-earners in the family. Because children were paid meager wages, a ten-year-old girl who earned two dollars a week could replace a man who earned seven dollars. Eventually, parents needed to send even more young children to the mills and factories. To circumvent any existing laws regulating the minimum age for work, many parents paid for work permits issued to children as young as five. Many uneducated parents thought sending children to school was a “waste of time.”

Children were employed in nearly every field possible. In the South, one in four mill workers was between the ages of ten and fifteen; many were even younger. By 1911, more than two million Americans under the age of sixteen would be part of the work force. The census of 1900 reported that twenty-five thousand young boys worked in mines and quarries – mostly in Pennsylvania. In the anthracite industry, they worked as breaker boys, separating coal from slag, and also as mule drivers, runners, and gate tenders. The glass making industry employed thousands as young blowers’ assistants. Children toiled in textile mills as sweepers, spinners, and doffers. Boys and girls also worked in canneries and on farms beside their parents. Others hawked produce and sundries as “little merchants ” on town and city streets.

Child laborers worked six days a week, from six in the morning until eight at night. When they returned home, there was no time for play; instead, they could do no more than eat and sleep. To make more money, employers would tell the children to work faster or lose their jobs. Of one child’s daily labor, American poet Edwin Markham {1852-1940) wrote, “Haggard, hungry and faint after the night’s work …. three cents an hour she got for her surrender of sleep and strength, play and study …. ”

Young workers faced a variety of problems. Workers in dusty, lint-filled mills and heavy, particle-laden coal mine tunnels developed a variety of respiratory diseases. Factory workers risked losing body parts because safety guards were removed from machinery to save money and speed operations. The intense heat and glare of open furnaces in glass factories resulted in eye disorders, lung ailments, and heat exhaustion, among other medical problems. Nearly all child laborers were underdeveloped in height, weight, and girth of chest. Based on her own observations, Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh of Lawrence, Massachusetts, wrote, “A considerable number of these boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. Thirty-six out of every one hundred men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty­-five years of age.”

Child labor Jaws were weak and so was enforcement; there were no generally accepted standards. Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York, dismayed at the sight of child laborers noted, “We [the United States] have laws that we find are no laws and we have enforcement that we find is no enforcement.”

Working children had no time for school. In 1905, reformer Alexander J. McKelway stated that child labor would lead to “racial degeneracy, perpetual poverty, the enlargement of illiteracy, the destruction of democra­cy, the disintegration of the family, the increase of crime, the lowering of the wage scale and the swelling of the army of the unemployed.”

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) started in 1904 amidst these enormous child labor problems. Felix Adler, who later became president of the organization, voiced the need for a national body that focused on child labor. At its first meeting, he announced that the NCLC “shall be a great moral force for the protection of children. It is to combat the danger in which childhood is placed by greed and rapacity. Cheap labor means child labor; consequently, there results a holocaust of the children – a condition which is intolerable …. The Committee thus becomes a great moral force to prevent the relapse of whole communities in the barbarous conditions which we now see.”

The creation of the NCLC was a significant event in what would later come to be known as the Progressive Era. The period was one of great economic, political, and especially, social reform. The NCLC had only forty members, but they worked tenaciously to document the child labor problem. They campaigned for a minimum age of fourteen in manufacturing and sixteen in mining, as well as a maximum working day of eight hours and no night work for those under age sixteen. NCLC membership secretary Josephine Eschenbrenner argued, “There is no future for the child laborer – no future except the human junk heap.”

In 1908, the NCLC needed a photographer to show the harsh child labor conditions and hired Lewis Wickes Hine. He had taken up photography only five years earlier in order to document activities at New York’s Ethical Culture School, where he taught geography. In 1904, he took pictures to dispel prejudices against immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Even then he knew that photographs could be a valuable tool for reform. Soon he was regarded as a master photographer and photographed immigrants for magazines. On accepting the job with the NCLC, Hine said, “I felt that I was merely changing my educational efforts from the classroom to the world.” Photographer Walter Rosenblum, a close friend and student late in life, explained why Hine accepted the assignment.

Lewis Hine regarded his work as a moral responsibility. He wanted many people to see his photographs; he wanted to educate the entire country. His ambition was to be a social photographer, a photographer who documented how people lived and made a living and especially the problems of children. He was a warm and lovely man and did not understand at all how it was possible for kids to work twelve or fourteen hours a day for very little pay … He just had a need to do that kind of photography.

Many famous writers had described the abominations of child labor, but the American people found their stories too incredible to believe. Some white-collar workers did not want to admit there was any problem. An Atlanta, Georgia, investor remarked, “The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor; as early as he may get at labor the more useful does his life get to be.”

Hine intended for his pictures to show the truth and mobilize public opinion. “I try to do with the camera what the writer does with words,” he wrote. “People can be stirred to a realization of the values of life by writing. Unfor­tunately, many persons don’t comprehend good writing. On the other hand, a picture makes its appeal to everyone.”

Hine was not received kindly by foremen and company police, but he was deter­mined to photo­graph child laborers. He “battled like a warrior to end the terrible economic exploitation of children.” In order to take pictures of child laborers, he posed as a fire inspector, an insurance or Bible salesman, an industrial photographer, and anything else which would gain him entrance into the work­places of children. Even then, he was frequently refused entrance. In many places, child workers were hidden from sight.

Hine documented every photograph with precise facts. He measured the children according to his coat buttons. In a small notebook, he recorded the name, age, hours worked, earnings, schooling, and other facts about each child he photographed. “All along I had to be double-sure that my photo data was one hundred percent pure – not retouching or fakery of any kind, ” he later said.

Adult factory workers supported the accuracy of Hine’s work. One woman attested to the authenticity of his pho­tographs, explaining, “They are exactly like the things I saw when I worked in the mills and factories; those things which break boys and girls and leave a mark upon them.”

Hine wanted people to take notice of his photographs. Unfortunately, as he showed his pictures, employers claimed that child labor was neither widespread nor wrong. Business­men claimed they could not operate without the labor of young boys because older workers were too slow and clumsy. The companies also asserted that reformers were trying to take much needed money from widowed, destitute mothers. It seemed to Hine and the NCLC members that employers simply did not want to acknowledge their child labor problems. “I cannot understand,” Hine said, “how it is that directors, super­intendents, and other interested parties with ordinary eyes in their heads can see these tiny, immature children coming and going four times a day, and then say they do not have viola­tions of the law.”

People throughout the country saw Lewis Hine’s photo­graphs in newspapers, magazines, and NCLC exhibits, which added great import to the words. Hine lectured on child labor wherever he traveled and designed pamphlets, booklets, and photographic exhibitions. His photographs offered graphic proof that America was exploiting its children. They showed violations of even the small number of laws restricting child labor. “These pictures speak for themselves,” the NCLC declared, “and prove the law is being violated.” Owen Lovejoy, former president of the NCLC, later told Hine, “The evils inherent in the system were intellectually, but not emotionally recognized until your skill, earnestness, and devotion, vision and artistic finesse focused the camera intelligently, sympatheti­cally and effectively on social problems involved in the American industry.”

Hine meant for his photographs to anger and shock those who saw them. As early as 1910, he wrote to Frank Manny, superintendent of the Ethical Culture School. “I am sure I am right in my choice of work. My child labor photos have already set the authorities to see if such things are possible.” A newspa­per reporter who saw an exhibit of his pictures at a conference in Birmingham, Alabama, was stunned by the power of the photographer’s work. “There has been no more convincing proof of the absolute necessity of child labor laws,” he wrote, “than these pictures showing the suffering, degradation, the immoral influence, the utter lack of anything that is wholesome in the lives of these poor little wage earners. They speak far more eloquently than any [written] work – and depict a state of affairs which is terrible in its reality – terrible to encounter, terrible to admit that such things exist in civilized communi­ties.”

Annie Healey remembered when Hine had come to take pictures in the mill where she was working. “He came in and said he wanted to take pictures of the machines,” she recalled, “but he had a lot of us young kids stand by them. Later, my mother told me he was Lewis Hine. She was excited because this man had helped people see why child labor was bad in other states and she thought maybe he’d do something here. She was right! For some reason, suddenly, the law-makers considered our child labor an important problem.”

Hine’s true contribution to the adoption of child labor legislation is incalculable, but there is little doubt that he mobilized public opinion. After seeing Hine’s images, most viewers wanted to either abolish or restrict child labor. A Newark, New Jersey, man volunteered after viewing Hine’s work, “Is there not something I can do to help? I have looked at these pictures and I want to help.” Public opinion was responsible for a great deal of new legislation. By 1919, New Jersey, Indiana, and West Virginia had enacted laws prohibiting night work for children under the age of sixteen while Pennsylvania had prohibited late work for children younger than twelve. Every state had passed some form of legislation mandating compulsory education which necessarily limited child labor. Hine directly persuaded Alabama’s legislature to change the state’s child labor laws.
During the Seventh Annual Conference on Child Labor in 1911, one senator remarked, “From you [Hine] we learn that the child is our most precious, priceless product and should not be exploited …. We now think keenly alive to the necessities for a better child labor law.” The public also voiced its opinions to their representatives in Congress, encouraging the passage of two federal child labor laws, the first in 1916 and the second in 1918. Unfortunately, these laws were poorly written and were overturned by the Supreme Court, because they infringed on states’ rights as protected by the Tenth Amendment. In 1924, the Congress approved a Constitutional Amendment regulating the labor of persons under eighteen years of age. Because of media attacks and fear of an overpowering federal government, this amendment fell short of the required three-fourths of the states necessary for ratification.

Hine had furthered the cause, but it would be nearly two decades before a federal child labor restriction was passed. This law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, was passed in 1938, just two years before his death.

Through his photography, Lewis Wickes Hine took a stand against child labor. The efforts of this individual changed public opinion and greatly assisted the National Child Labor Committee which was dedicat­ed to eradicating this practice. In turn, this gave impetus to a social movement advocating stricter regulations regarding young workers. More than fifty years after Hine’s death, Jeffrey Newman, current president of the NCLC, says, “He im­pacted the lives of millions of children during his lifetime and to this very day.” Walter Rosenblum encapsulated Hine’s impact on the movement. “Each fragile personality seems strangled by the environment, making it clear why Hine’s photographs were considered the single most impor­tant influence in this country’s passage of child labor legislation. He was a very important voice …. He is considered the most extensive and successful photographer of social welfare work …. First, his photographs and then his docu­mentation about what he discovered showed the truth …. ”


For Further Reading

Doherty, Jonathan, ed. Women at Work: 153 Photographs by Lewis Hine. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Gutman, Judith Mara. Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience. New York: Walker and Company, 1967.

____. Lewis W. Hine, 1874-1940: Two Perspectives. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974.

Holland, Ruth. Mill Child: The Story of Child Labor in America. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1970.

Kaplan, Daile. Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

____. Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988.

Kemp, John R. Lewis Hine: Photographs of Child Labor in the New South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

May, Ernest R. The Progressive Era. New York: Time Incorporated 1964.

Melzer, Milton. Cheap Raw Material. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Monk, Lorraine. Photographs That Changed the World. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Rosenblum, Naomi, Walter Rosenblum, and Alan Trachtenberg. America and Lewis Hine. New York: Aperture, 1977.

Szarkowski, John. Photography Until Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.

Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.


Several thousand students in the Keystone State participate each year in National History Day by taking part in the statewide competition, Pennsylvania History Day, coordinated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Twelve districts representing approximately two hundred schools sponsor regional compe­titions, each of which is directed by a college, university, or historical society. Winners at these district contests advance ta the Pennsylvania History Day competition held each May at the main campus of the Pennsylvania State University in State College. From Pennsylvania History Day, winners proceed to National History Day held the following month. The theme for National History Day 1997 is “Triumph and Tragedy in History.”


Jennifer L. Peresie of Venetia, Washington County, will enter her junior year at Peters Township High School in McMurray this fall. She researched and wrote “Crusader With a Camera: Lewis Hine and His Battle Against Child ‘Slavery'” during her freshman year for National History Day 1996. “Crusader With a Camera” won first place in the papers category of the national competition whose theme was “Taking a Stand in History: Individuals, Groups, Movements.” She is active in numerous high school activities, including forensics, student council, and Future Business Leaders of America.