This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way

John killerlane - December 18, 2017

While it wasn’t uncommon for children to work from an early age in nineteenth and early twentieth century America – on family farms for example – the Industrial Revolution brought about a new form of child labour. The harsh reality of poverty meant that unfortunately some children had to abandon their studies and begin working from a very early age to help support their families. In some cases, children went to work alongside their fathers, which was common in industries such as coal mining. In a sense, poverty robbed them of their childhood, damaged their health and, in reality, took away the opportunity of a better future. Once these conditions were exposed, many organizations and activists worked to fight for the rights of these child laborers.

Coal was the energy source that fueled the Industrial Revolution which continued into the early twentieth century in America. As coal mining became more mechanized, fewer people were employed in the industry, but for those who remained, and whose livelihood depended on it, conditions remained extremely hazardous. Coal mining became a major part of the economy in areas of the United States such as Allegheny, the Appalachian Mountains, Wyoming, northern Maryland, Welch in West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It became a part of the cultural identity of these areas.

The West Virginia city of Gary, was named after attorney Elbert Gary, who was also a co-founder of the United States Steel Corporation. U.S. Steel Corporation was once the largest producers of steel in the world, producing two-thirds of the world’s supply of steel in 1901. As coal was an essential element in the extraction of iron from iron ore, Gary rapidly became a coal mining town to supply the steel industry. Welch in West Virginia was the largest producer of coal in America up until the late 1960s and proudly called itself “The Heart of the Nation” Coal Bin.

Many children of impoverished families were forced to take work in this dangerous and unhealthy occupation. For employers, hiring children to carry out this work had many advantages. They could pay them lower wages, children were better suited to performing certain tasks due to their small stature, and were more obedient and submissive – therefore easier to discipline into working long hours at tedious manual labour tasks.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
A group of breaker boys. ranker.com

Children were employed as workers for coal mines in various roles. Breaker boys had to separate lumps of coal from slate, rocks, clay and other debris. They suffered from a skin condition called “red tips” as a result of numerous nicks and cuts to their fingers and from repeated exposure to sulphur found in coal. The breaker boys were not allowed to wear protective gloves as it would negatively impact their dexterity, and thus, their overall productivity, leaving them with no choice but to endure it and keep going.

Many breaker boys suffered hearing loss from prolonged exposure to extremely loud machinery. The machinery presented a constant danger to work-weary children and sadly many lost fingers and limbs, while some unfortunately lost their lives. The official minimum age for a breaker boy in the United States was twelve years of age. But in reality, often times birth certificates were forged to allow for even younger children to work this role. Although the breaker boys worked above ground, they still worked in an environment where coal dust filled the air. As a result, they suffered from serious chronic respiratory illnesses.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
The air is thick with coal dust as a group of breaker boys go about their work. The older boy standing up on the far right of the picture is a supervisor. Note the stick in his hand.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
A trapper boy. ranker.com

The NCLC and Lewis Hine

Children were also employed as trappers, with the responsibility of opening and closing the trap doors underground. The trap doors were an essential component of the ventilation system in the coal mine. Alone and in total darkness, the trappers had to wait until they heard the sound of an approaching mining car before opening the door to let it pass through. It was a depressing and lonely role which came with serious potential risk of injury should they not move out of the way in time or fall asleep in the darkness. Trappers were paid as little as 75 cents to a dollar for working a ten-hour shift.

While working in a coal mine might sound like a singular task, there were many roles these boys fulfilled. Some boys were hired as greasers, whose job it was to grease the axels of the coal cars. Others worked as couplers, whose job it was to link coal cars to one another forming a train, using a coupling chain. Spraggers were children who used long sticks to turn the spokes of the coal car’s wheels. This was a particularly dangerous job and sometimes these children suffered serious injuries from getting their limbs caught in the spokes. Other boys were employed as pickers or pikemen which involved laboring with a pickaxe hour after hour.

Children who worked in coal mines also faced death from explosions caused by a build-up of methane and carbon monoxide gas. Explosions caused the deaths of numerous children and adult miners – and in some cases, those who survived the initial explosion were killed by the resulting fire. The build-up of these gasses alone was enough to cause asphyxiation. Child miners also faced the danger of mining tunnels collapsing on top of them or around them, trapping them inside.

The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was founded in 1904 to promote awareness and the rights, dignity, wellbeing and education of children in the workforce. The NCLC hired American sociologist and photographer Lewis W. Hine to carry out investigative work and to take photographic evidence of the conditions in which children were working. As employers were reluctant to allow access to an investigative photographer, Hine assumed many different guises in order to gain entry to the different workplaces employing child labour. Between 1908-1924, Hine captured 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives, which often contained detailed captions relating to the subjects photographed. Hine’s work which was published by the NCLC and by newspapers of the time. It provided a detailed insight into the hardship endured by these children.

In large part to Hine’s work and that of the NCLC, the rights of these children and the necessary reforms were implemented, albeit haltingly. Laws were introduced which raised the minimum age that children were legally permitted to work in certain industries and working hours were reduced.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
Portrait of Lewis Hine. Wikimedia.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
A trapper boy. scribol.com

The struggle for the rights of children

On April 9, 1912, U.S. President William Howard Taft signed into law legislation which established a Children’s Bureau with responsibility for investigating and reporting “upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life of all social classes.” The Children’s Bureau came under the remit of the Department of Labor in 1913 upon its establishment.

Two Democrats, Edward Keating of Colorado and Robert Owen of Oklahoma co-sponsored the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, following an investigation into child labour in manufacturing and industrial workplaces. It was the first act which addressed child labour practices in the United States. The act sought to prevent interstate trade and commerce in goods which had been produced as a result of child labour.

This Photographer Helped Bring an End to Child Labor in This Unexpected Way
A boy named Frank who by the age of fourteen had already been working in a coal mine for three years. Frank spent a year in hospital after having his leg crushed by a coal cart. scribol.com

However, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court two years later, which was a big setback for the rights of these children. It would take another twenty years, with the introduction of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 before meaningful and lasting change was to be brought about. Under the act, a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour was introduced and the working week was set at 44 hours, before being reduced to 40 hours in 1940. Most significantly of all, the Fair Labor Standards Act brought about an end to child labour, by making the employment of children under the age of eighteen in coal mining and under hazardous industries illegal.

Advertisement