Photos of Irish child laborers in 1900s served as a document for social change in the US – slideshow

Housed in the United States Library of Congress under the National Child Labor Committee Collection, are moving and sad images of child labor from the early 1900s. These photos, many of them of Irish children, were taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, a sociologist and photographer who used his art to eventually change child labor law.

These particular photos, taken between January 1912 and June 1916, show the young faces of Irish immigrant children, who worked in the United States, along with Italian children who worked to make Irish lace upon their arrival in the “land of opportunity.”

The solemn faces of James Cooney (15), Evelyn Casey (14), and James Donovan (17), all worn by hard work, are stark reminders of the tough lives that the Irish who arrived in the United States faced at the beginning of the 20th century. 

The photographer responsible, Hine, used his camera as a tool for social reform. Originally from Wisconsin he studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and New York University before becoming a teacher in New York City. As an educational tool he brought his classes to Ellis Island, in New York Harbor, where they photographed thousands of immigrants who arrived each day.

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Hine eventually came to the realization that documentary photography could be employed as a tool for social change and reform. In 1906 Hines was employed as a staff photographer at the Russell Sage Foundation. He worked on a sociological study called the Pittsburgh Survey taking photos of steelmaking districts and people in Pennsylvania.

In 1908 he became a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and quit his teaching job. He dedicated the next decade to documenting child labor in America to aid lobbying efforts against the practice.

The NCLC remains today a non-profit organization in the United States that serves as a leading proponent for the national child labor reform movement. Its mission is to promote "the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working."

Over the next decades Hines continued to use his photography as a tool for social change. In the 1920s during which he photographed the Red Cross relief work in Europe after World War One, he made a series of “work portraits” across the United States and in 1930 he was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building in New York. This is just a sampling of the great works he was involved in.

The Library of Congress now holds more than 5,000 Hine photographs.

Photos of Irish child laborers in 1900s served as a document for social change in the US – slideshow