Though many photographers documented life in the late 1800s and early 1900s, two of the most famous who recorded the living and working experiences of children were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Both hoped to raise awareness of the complex problems entwined with child labor, and to prompt social and legislative action. Child labor photographs are bleak and sometimes upsetting evidence that children were harshly exploited, often replacing adults with nimble-fingered cheap labor.
Making the photographs was often difficult because of the physical and social settings. The workshops and homes were often dark and difficult to light for photography. In some sweatshops the camera had to be hidden so employers would not know their workers and working conditions were being documented. Sometimes children were posed by the photographer who might even have demonstrated desired expressions in order to ensure that the images captured the essence of their difficult lives. In some photos, people hard at work wear their best clothes and ribbons in their hair. Some smile as if sharing a joke, proud of their accomplishments, or pleased to be the subject of someone’s interest for what might be the only photograph taken during their entire lives.
Here are some handouts that you can modify for use in your classes.
The following are links to descriptions of collections that contain many materials pertaining to child labor. More documents are present in a variety of collections, including the rare pamphlets collections. For more information please contact the Kheel Center reference staff.