Children of the mills
By Nicole Coble
For the Salisbury Post
As a native of Salisbury and photography student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I believed I would one day come across a photo of Salisbury taken by one of the well-known photographers who traveled and worked throughout the South in the early and mid-20th century.
In fact, as I researched a paper on photographer Lewis Hine, I not only found one photograph taken in Salisbury ó I found 15 others that went along with it and are archived at the Library of Congress. Hine photographed Kesler Manufacturing Co. and Salisbury Cotton Mill in 1908 and 1912 while documenting child-labor practices.
The photographs he took in Salisbury and at other work sites across the country helped change the world we live in and society’s views about children in the workplace.
To my surprise, the existence of these historic photographs of my hometown apparently is not well known in Rowan County. Neither Rowan Public Library’s main history room nor the Rowan Museum had any records of Hine’s work in Salisbury.
Lewis Hine was a photographer, educator and social reformer who helped shape our history and culture. Hine was born in 1974 in Oshkosh, Wisc. At age 26, he attended the University of Chicago and later moved to New York City, where he worked as a teacher for the Ethical Culture School. There, Hine first became interested in photography. He photographed immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. In just five years, Hine took 200 glass slides, with his photographs being used as a teaching aid at the school.
During his work on Ellis Island, Hine began to realize that his purpose was much broader than the classroom. He left the Ethical Culture School to pursue a career in social justice photography. “I was merely changing the educational efforts from the class to the world,” he wrote.
Focus on reform
In 1906, Hine began work on what are considered his most well-known and most moving photographs. He was hired as a free-lance photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an organization that campaigned for child labor legislation. Initially, he photographed New York’s tenement homeworkers. In 1908, despite warning from a colleague that he did not have a sufficiently broad sociological background for the task, he took the position of staff photographer, focusing on photography oriented toward social reform.
Long before Hines’ time and long before the NCLC was formed, Industrialization had demanded more and more labor at low wages. To keep mills, mines, factories and canneries open, owners hired workers young and old. Whole families worked, and yet many parents still did not have enough income to support themselves and their children. In addition to the long hours and meager income, these employees often endured dreadful working conditions, of which managers and mill owners were fully aware yet cared very little.
One mill owner expressed this opinion of his workers: “I regard my people just as I regard my machinery. … When my machines get old and useless I reject them and get new, and these people are part of my machines.”
As a full-time photographer for the NCLC, Hine in 1908 began documenting child-labor conditions in the mills and factories of the Carolinas. He worked not only as photographer but also gathered information about these children, such as their age, their height, work background, and their pay rate.
Though Hine photographed many mills and factories, there were only two where he was denied entrance. Often, Hine would pose as a salesman or he would tell the manager he was there to photograph the machines. When he began photographing the Kesler Manufacturing Co. in Salisbury, the superintendent allowed him to do so as long as he did not misrepresent the actual conditions.
During the time Hine was photographing the mills of the Carolinas, the North Carolina Child Labor Law stated that the age limit for employment was 13 years, for apprenticeship, 12 years, and for night work, 14 years. The maximum total hours of labor for those under the age of 18 was 66 hours per week.
In 1909, 10 pages of Southern mill photographs were published in “Charities and the Commons,” in which a photo of Kesler Manufacturing Co. was featured, the photos being the most concrete evidence that could be presented before the public that children were a large portion of the Southern workforce.
American social reformer Florence Kelly praised the integrity of a young photographer who provided information that neither the Department of Education nor the Census Bureau had revealed. Hine’s work at the NCLC wasn’t limited to the mills and factories of the South; he also photographed coal mines, canneries, farms and fields, glass, tobacco and clothing factories in other parts of the country. By 1910, his photographs became the most important part of a campaign to move public opinion against child labor, spearheaded by initiatives such as the United States Children’s Bureau, as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign to end child labor. Subsequently, many improvements were made in individual state laws regarding child labor, and in 1916 a Federal child labor law was passed.
Without Hine’s photographs, the goals of the NCLC would have been much harder to accomplish.
To view these Lewis Hine’s Salisbury photos online, go to: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/nclcquery.html and enter Salisbury in the search field.