In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the The Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original works, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel.
Today’s poem, “Catawba Cotton Mill” by David Wojahn, was inspired by a Lewis Hine photograph of child workers in North Carolina. From 1908 to 1912, Hine took approximately 5,000 photographs of children’s working and living conditions for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine photographed children engaged in a variety of industries across the United States.
For the rest of the story, including David Wojahn’s poem and video, go to today’s Pieces of History blog: http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=14162.
Image: “Some of the doffers and the Supt. Ten small boys and girls about this size out of a force of 40 employees.” Catawba Cotton Mill. Newton, N.C., 12/21/1908, (National Archives Identifier 523141) http://research.archives.gov/description/523141
Happy Birthday, Lewis Hine
These haunting child labor photos are only a fraction of the thousands taken by investigative photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, born one hundred and forty years ago on September 26, 1874. Hine used his camera as both a research tool and an instrument of social reform. In 1908 he was hired as the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and spent a decade documenting child labor in American industry to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice. Hine worked tirelessly, staying out at all hours to capture images of children working on city streets, or bluffing his way into mills and factories where he would not have been welcome otherwise.
Other examples of Hine’s work can be found in his series of photographs for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), documenting life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) National Research Project, highlighting changes in industry and their effect on employment:
Take your Child to Work Day
One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mill. She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides - 48 [cents] a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, “I don’t remember,” then confidentially, “I’m not old enough to work, but do just the same.” Out of 50 employees, ten children about her size. Whitnel, N.C., 12/22/1908
Taken by investigative photographer Lewis Hine, this photograph is one of a series of black-and-white prints given to the Children’s Bureau by the National Child Labor Committee. The almost five hundred photographs represent a fraction of the approximately 5,000 photographs Hine took for the committee to document working and living conditions for children.
(A sobering reminder that bringing children to work was not always a purely educational experience or a special occasion.)
We’ll be observing Take Your Child to Work Day at the National Archives on the week of May 5, to coincide with Public Service Recognition Week. Stay tuned!
"I was haunted for days by the horror of it when I first saw some of these children who work in the Cotton Mills…"
Letter from Suzanne Heber Supporting Keating-Owen Child Labor Bill, 02/25/1916
The first child labor bill, the Keating-Owen bill of 1916 used the government’s ability to regulate interstate commerce to regulate the increasingly unpopular use of child labor. The act banned the sale of products from any factory, shop, or cannery that employed children under the age of 14, from any mine that employed children under the age of 16, and from any facility that had children under the age of 16 work at night or for more than 8 hours during the day. Although the Keating-Owen Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional in Hammer v. Dagenhart 247 U.S. 251 (1918) because it overstepped the purpose of the government’s powers to regulate interstate commerce.
"Flashlight photo 6 P.M. going home from King Mfg. Co. Two of the smallest boys been in mill 2 years. One of the larger for 4 years. Augusta, Ga., 01/13/1909"
"Reckon I been in mill 2 years. Don’t remember."
Springstein Mill. John Lewis (boy with hat), 12 years old, 1 year in mill. Weaver — 4 looms. 40 [cents] a day to start, 60 [cents] a day now. Brother and mother in mill. Morris Small (boy with cap), “Reckon I been in mill 2 years. Don’t remember.” Chester, S.C., 11/28/1908
Art of Housekeeping
Oney Cunningham, a girl of only 9 years old, was entered into this indenture agreement with Alexander Cunningham to be an apprentice to learn the art of housekeeping. The Freedmen’s Bureau supervised indenture and apprenticeship agreements. Under these contracts, black school-age, orphaned, and destitute children were bound to former owners as laborers.
Indenture Agreement of Alexander Cunningham, 11/21/1865
Coming out at noon, Merrimac Mills. All workers, even the boys at the side of the gate. Huntsville, Ala., 11/18/1910
From the series National Child Labor Committee Photographs taken by Lewis Hine.
Cherryville Graded School. These are the children in the town who attend school. 2,000 population. One-third of these raised their hands when asked, “How many have worked in a cotton mill?” Cherryville, N.C., 11/10/1908
"Marie Costa, basket seller, in a Cincinnati market. 10 A.M.* Saturday. Cincinnati, OH., 08/22/1908"
Taken by investigative photographer Lewis Hine on August 22, 1908, the photograph is one of a series of black-and-white prints given to the Children’s Bureau by the National Child Labor Committee. The almost five hundred photographs represent a fraction of the approximately 5,000 photographs Hine took for the committee to document working and living conditions for children.
(Ed. note - as the photo is clearly taken at night, we suspect the full caption for this photo originally stated that she had been out selling since 10 A.M.)
“The dependent widower. Wanted, a backbone! This ablebodied Scotch-Irish farmer after 50 years of farm life some miles from any railroad, came to Meridian, Miss. two years ago to obtain better school advantages for his children, (so he told me), and this is the way the children utilize those advantages, one child of 11 and one of 15 work in the knitting mill. Two smaller ones go to school very irregularly. I found the fathers occuptaion during the several days I was there, and from a neighbor’s testimony, to mainly consist of loafing around the corner grocery, toting dinner to the children, lolling around the house, and occasionally visiting the old farm. Regarding the effects of closing the Meridian Mill, he said; “Most of the men got work at other factories around here, while some moved away, but the greatest hardship was on the children. Now they have to go to school.” His sanctimonious disquisition on his love for the family was nauseating. In the back ground, (where the mill children are too often kept) is one of his youngsters, deprives of his right to toil. Meridian, Miss.” 4/26/1911
Lewis Hine’s sharp eye for hypocrisy spares no expense in this particularly biting assessment.
Photograph of Sam Maddox, Western Union No. 227, one of the young boys pretty close to the age limit. He was born Oct. 3, 1898, which makes him 13 years old. He has a permit to work from Juvenile Court. He has been troublesome in school., 04/10/1912
Lewis Hine, photographer
Photograph of a Broken Fire Escape after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 03/25/1911
One of the deadliest industrial disasters in United States history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City left 146 workers dead in 18 minutes on March 25, 1911.
Locked doors kept the workers from escaping; there was not enough water to put out the flames, and firemen’s ladders were too short to reach the upper stories. Many of the young women and men working there leapt out the windows and fell to their deaths onto the sidewalk outside. Others were crushed in the elevator shaft or when the fire escape collapsed.
The fire led to sweeping reforms in labor laws and safety standards, providing a boost to labor unions, and was a pivotal event in the career of future labor secretary Frances Perkins.
(Last year’s post has additional photos of the fire and the victims, a few may be considered graphic.)
Mrs. Battaglia, Tessie (age - 12 years), Tony (age - 7 years), 170 Mulberry St. Rear house, 5th floor. Garment workers. Husband crippled by a fall, tends to basement. Mrs. Battaglia works in shop except Saturdays, when the children sew with her at home. Get 2 or 3 cents a pair finishing men’s pants. Said they earn $1 to $1.50 on Saturday. Father disabled and can earn very little. New York. 01/25/1908
“On the tenth day of Archives an archivist brought to me:
Ten messengers playing poker
nine Metlakahlta baseball players
Eight Navy officers
seven of Mrs. Hicks’s eight children,
six tiny thorn carvings,
five sisters from Alaska,
four boys hanging out at the Fletcher aircraft school,
three happy girls at a West Virginian celebration,
two San Francisco children painting,
and one astronaut in space.”
“8 p.m.: Flashlight photo of messengers absorbed in their usual game of poker in the ‘Den of the terrible nine.’ (Waiting room for Western Union Messengers, Hartford, Connecticut.)” March 5, 1909, ARC Identifier 523167.