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Collection National Child Labor Committee Collection

About this Collection

Working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Lewis Hine (1874-1940) documented working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1924. The NCLC photos are useful for the study of labor, reform movements, children, working class families, education, public health, urban and rural housing conditions, industrial and agricultural sites, and other aspects of urban and rural life in America in the early twentieth century.

The collection consists of more than 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives, given to the Library of Congress, along with the NCLC records, in 1954 by Mrs. Gertrude Folks Zimand, acting for the NCLC in her capacity as chief executive.

Background and Scope

Founded in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee set out on a mission of "promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working." Starting in 1908, the Committee hired Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940), first on a temporary and then on a permanent basis, to carry out investigative and photographic work for the organization. The more than 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives in the Prints and Photographs Division's holdings, together with the often extensive captions that describe the photo subjects, reflect the results of this early documentary effort, offering a detailed depiction of working and living conditions of many children--and adults--in the United States between 1908 and 1924.

Hine later referred to his photographic work for the NCLC as "detective work." Photo historian Daile Kaplan offers this picture of how Hine conducted his work, which was frequently regarded with suspicion by business owners, supervisors, and workers:

Nattily dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas--including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery--to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace. (Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. Ed. by Daile Kaplan. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).

The NCLC distributed the photographs as part of its publicity and educational efforts.

  • Hine and some of the other NCLC investigators included references to the photographs in reports on particular industries and locations.
  • The NCLC used the photos to illustrate its own publications and succeeded in placing them in newspapers and progressive publications.
  • The photos appeared in stereoptican slide shows and in displays that the NCLC circulated. Hine was influential in this effort, particularly after he was promoted to the head of the NCLC exhibits department in 1913.

Mrs. Gertrude Folks Zimand, acting for the NCLC in her capacity as chief executive, gave the records of the NCLC to the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in 1954, in celebration of the NCLC's fiftieth anniversary. The Manuscript Division then transferred to the Prints and Photographs Division the photographs (arranged in 21 albums), negatives, and caption cards. (The NCLC apparently also offered the Library of Congress a file of nitrate negatives, which the Library did not accept. Some original negatives can be found at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House. For further information, see "Related Resources.")

The Photographs

Many of the photo captions explicitly identify Hine as the photographer who made the image. A few captions cite other photographers or photo studios. Many captions lack any photographer attribution.

The photographic prints found in the NCLC records are on single weight paper. Most range in size from 3.5 x 3.5 inches to 5 x 7 inches and are probably contact prints from 4 x 6 inch and 5 x 7 inch negatives; both of those sizes are represented in the glass negatives in the collection. Hine apparently did not enjoy darkroom work and employed assistants to print his photographs whenever possible. Some of the prints show the effects of inadequate photographic processing and, quite possibly, wear and tear from their original use and housing.

Hine, or someone at the NCLC, numbered the photographs 1 - 5126, with some letter suffixes (e.g., 1A) to make the numbers unique. By convention, the Prints and Photographs Division has come to refer to these as "Hine numbers."

The NCLC delivered the collection to the Library of Congress in albums organized by type of industry and, within that, by Hine number. In 1968, Library staff remounted the photographs in new albums and subsequently microfilmed the collection, to reduce its handling. The Library contracted with JJT, Inc., to digitize the entire collection in 2003.

The Photo Captions

The online catalog records include title, location, and date information transcribed from the original 3 x 5 inch captions cards that came with the collection (for more information regarding transcription practices, see Describing the Collection).

The caption cards include a mixture of typed and handwritten information that is sometimes difficult to decipher. It appears that the NCLC had a system for reproducing the captions on strips of paper, because many of the caption cards consist of a label strip affixed to the card with added annotations above and below. Some strips were cut in such a way as to cut off information or attributions. Over the years, Library of Congress staff have added annotations to indicate the availability of corresponding negatives (an LC-H5 or LC-H51 stamp on a card signalled the availability of a corresponding glass negative that came with the collection) and, occasionally, to correct or amplify identification information given on the cards.

We do not know precisely who compiled the caption cards or how, although it seems logical to assume that Hine recorded the information they contain. Information on many cards echoes statements Hine made in his reports. Daile Kaplan, in editing Hine's letters, attributes the captions to Hine and notes that he later referred to the process of "synchronizing" the information with the photographs (Kaplan, p. xx). Having trained in stenography, Hine was no doubt in a good position to make rapid and detailed notes about the scenes and people he photographed.

In a few cases, it is apparent that the caption writer was working considerably after the taking of the photograph, because the caption refers to later revisiting of the same subject or indicates that information should be filled in at a later point if the correct identification can be found. Many captions cite the name of a witness (including other NCLC staff members or, sometimes, Hine's wife, Sara), as well as the name of the photographer. Some captions make reference to associated reports, many of which can be found in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division (see "Reporting on Labor Conditions").

Although the accuracy of the information in the captions cannot easily be verified, the captions often supply highly detailed and evocative information about the conditions being photographed and the photography enterprise itself.

  • Many captions cite names, ages, addresses, work tasks, hours, and wages of individuals photographed. [examples]
  • Many include quotes from the individuals depicted (sometimes in the caption writers' version of the speaker's colloquial English). [examples]
  • Some captions include comments about the photography process, the photographer's interactions with those being photographed, or the reactions of those supervising the individuals the photographer planned to photograph. While some captions indicate that the photos captured more of a scene than even the photographer was conscious of, others indicate the inadequacy of photographs fully to convey a situation. [examples]
  • The caption writer's moral judgments and sense of irony frequently come through in the captions. [examples]

Collection Strengths

The NCLC photographs, together with the captions, provide insight on the lives of working class families, with a particular focus on children and women.

Although the ethnicity of the photo subjects is not consistently identified in the captions, Hine photographed members of several immigrant groups, as well as African Americans in the work, home and school settings he covered.

Because of the detail the captions provide regarding locations and names of individuals and businesses, the collection can be a rich source for those conducting local and, possibly, family history (keeping in mind that the captions, which are not always easy to decipher, may contain inaccuracies and misspellings).

Some photos and captions comment by offering a before-and-after view of a particular set of workers [examples], while in at at least one case Hine visually compares the circumstances of product consumers with the makers of the product [examples].

Collectively, the material provides documentation useful for the study of many early twentieth century circumstances and developments:

  • labor - in addition to the concerted attention photos and captions give to wages and working conditions, clusters of images focus on:
    • industrial and agricultural innovations, including both positive and negative sides of growing mechanization in industry and agriculture, and the swift and life-altering damage machines could do to humans [examples]
    • movement of families from farms to factories and, sometimes, back again, particularly in the South [examples]
    • the seasonal movements of migrant laborers [examples]
    • what might, today, be termed "ergonomics"--the physical needs of the workers and how the work situation might accommodate them [examples]
  • reform movements - in addition to the NCLC's overall effort to address the abuses of child labor, images and captions make reference to the work of settlement houses and allude to needed reforms and, in some cases, progress in:
  • urban life - with some attention to how red light districts and certain forms of entertainment may influence the morals of young workers in America's cities [examples]
  • education - the NCLC records include the records of the National Aid to Education Committee, which John Dewey and others organized to promote federal aid to education; this may account for Hine's focus during that period on school attendance and conditions, particularly in Kentucky and Colorado, as well as schools for the blind and the deaf [examples]
  • educational and social organizations, such as 4-H clubs [examples]
  • institutions, such as orphanages, houses of "refuge" [examples]
  • industrial and agricultural sites [examples]

Text prepared by: Barbara Orbach Natanson, Reference Specialist, Prints & Photographs Division

Arrangement and Access

The National Child Labor Committee photographic prints came to the Library of Congress mounted in albums, generally grouped by the industry represented. The Prints and Photographs Division clustered the albums into nine groups (LOTs) on the basis of their subject matter. Each LOT may consist of one or more albums. Within the albums, the photographs are in order by the original number assigned to the image at the NCLC.

In 2003, the Library of Congress arranged to digitize all the photographic prints and the glass negatives in the collection. Prints and Photographs Division staff prepared catalog records for the images, primarily transcribing information from the original caption cards that came to the Library of Congress with the collection. (For further information, see "Cataloging the Collection.") All of the digitized photos and catalog records are available through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. The photographic prints are also available on three reels of microfilm.

The contents of each LOT are summarized below.

LOT 7475 - AGRICULTURE (733 photographic prints in 3 albums)

The emphasis is on field work and agricultural activities, but images also depict workers' housing conditions and schools. Includes cranberry picking in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin; berry harvesting in Delaware and Maryland; tobacco farming in Kentucky and Connecticut; beet topping in Colorado; cotton picking in Texas and Oklahoma; dairy farming in New England. A few images are of African American schools in Kentucky and Oklahoma and public health activities in Oklahoma. Also includes a few maps and pamphlets on child labor. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7476 - CANNERIES (301 photographic prints in 1 album)

Includes workers involved in seafood, fruit and vegetable packing, seen both at work and posed outside work sites in Buffalo, New York; Seaford, Delaware; Maine; Indiana; Maryland; South Carolina; Louisiana; Alabama; Mississippi; and Florida. Workers' housing conditions are shown, including some interiors. A few images document children's work-related injuries, as well as schools (poorly) attended by child laborers. Also included are a few record photographs of maps and documents, including records made by a New York State factory investigating commission. Note: One image of Mississippi mill workers (Hine #1967) was mistakenly included in this LOT. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7477 - COAL MINES (100 photographic prints in 1 album)

Boys photographed in mine interiors and exteriors in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, as well as boys involved in zinc mining in Aurora, Missouri. Includes documentation of work related injuries, as well as mining equipment and conditions. Also includes a photograph showing conflicting information on one worker's baptismal record versus what was stated on his age certificate, to show how his age was falsified. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7478 - GLASS FACTORIES (156 photographic prints in 1 album)

Includes work activities and portraits in glass and bottling factories in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Alexandria, Virginia. Work sites in the latter two locations include an integrated work force of white and black workers. Images document working conditions and work hours, showing workers at their lunch breaks and working at night. Also includes exhibit panels that use the images to portray child labor and its consequences (Hine #3514, 3744, 3745, and 3745-A). [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7479- MILLS (1,815 photographic prints in 7 albums)

Primarily documents cotton mill activities, but also includes images showing other kinds of manufacturing, such as furniture factories and silk mills. Includes portraits of workers, work activities, and documentation of housing conditions, family situations, schooling, children's recreational activities, work-related injuries, and factory health facilities. A few images document what were considered examples of good management practices in, for instance, a Mobile, Alabama, cotton mill. Includes factory sites in Alabama; Connecticut; Delaware; Georgia; Indiana; Louisiana; Maine; Massachusetts; Mississippi; New Hampshire; New York; North Carolina; Ohio; Rhode Island; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Vermont; and Virginia. Also included are photographs of a few signs (advertising work, warning against waste), children's work certificates, clippings, and cartoons, as well as exhibit panels in which the images are used to protest child labor practices. Note: One image relating to a Pennsylvania coal mine (#3504) was mistakenly included in this LOT. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7480 - STREET TRADES (861 photographic prints in 3 albums)

Primarily newspaper sellers (including boys, girls, and a few adult "newsies"), bootblacks, messenger and delivery boys, and food vendors, but other service workers such as bowling alley pinsetters, movie theater ushers, delivery wagon drivers, and one youthful automobile chauffeur in Oklahoma are also included. Images include posed portraits; work activities, emphasizing hours (including night work) and weather conditions in which children worked; recreational activities ("rough-housing," street games); habits considered potentially damaging to children (unsafe streetcar riding practices, smoking, spending earnings on movies); and facilities and activities offered by organizations such as the Newsboys' Protective Association (e.g., reading rooms, showers). Some images document street life in the city--including outdoor markets, signs, and modes of transportation. Locations include: Alabama; California; Connecticut; Delaware; Florida; Indiana; Kentucky; Massachusetts; Missouri; New York; New Jersey; Ohio; Oklahoma; Rhode Island; Tennessee; Texas; Vermont; Virginia; Washington, D.C. Also included are photographs of exhibit panels that use the images to protest child labor practices in the street trades. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7481 - TENEMENT HOMEWORK (265 photographic prints in 1 album)

Includes various homework industries: garment work, embroidery, button stringing, artificial flower making, jewelry work, cigarette making, nut picking; tooth brush making. The images depict tenement interiors with families at work; adults and children carrying large bundles of work through city streets; exteriors emphasizing housing and sanitation conditions. Most photographs were taken in the New York metropolitan area (particularly the Lower East Side), but homework in Massachusetts and Rhode Island is also represented. Also includes a few images of children playing with "Campbell Kid" dolls made by tenement workers, one newspaper want ad for home workers, and exhibit panels protesting home labor. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7482 - CHILDREN IN WEST VIRGINIA (110 photographic prints in 1 album)

Investigation of housing conditions and schools, primarily in rural West Virginia, October 1921. Images showing white and black children in school and engaging in 4-H activities are emphasized; a few images show poor sanitation practices with respect to school outhouse facilities. Also included are images of poor housing in mining areas and farms, as well as more "prosperous" farms. [retrieve images from this LOT]

LOT 7483 - MISCELLANEOUS CHILD LABOR (812 photographic prints in 3 albums)

Includes child labor in a variety of trades: furniture manufacturing, lumber industry, marble polishing, basket and broom manufacturing, shoe industry, meat packing, cigar and cigarette making, candy making and service work in department stores, ice cream parlors, pool halls, and bowling alleys. A few images of child vaudeville performers are also included. In many cases, workers are shown going to or coming from work or collecting pay, rather than engaging in work activities. Procedures intended to regulate labor practices, such as obtaining work certificates, are included. Images documenting work-related injuries and health care activities are included, as are a few "posture photos." Also shown are children scavenging for food and fuel and informal recreational activities, including boys playing craps on streets, "hanging around," and leaping on streetcars. Activities offered by boys' clubs and settlement houses, and playground activities, including baseball, are also featured. Schools, particularly for immigrants, and vocational education activities are depicted. Also included are a substantial number of exhibit panels dealing with labor issues--a few show actual exhibit installations; some exhibit objects and cartoons; as well as portraits of officials of the National Child Labor Committee, including Owen Lovejoy and Jane Addams, and groups of female factory inspectors. Locations represented include: Alabama; Connecticut; Delaware; Florida; Indiana; Kentucky; Massachusetts; Michigan (1 image); Missouri; New York; North Carolina; Oklahoma; Rhode Island; Texas; Vermont; Virginia; Washington, D.C. [retrieve images from this LOT]