Photo exhibit highlights child labor in mills

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 3, 2011

In the early 1900s, most child workers in North Carolina textile mills labored 10 to 12 hours, six days a week. They toiled in hot, humid, lint-filled air that triggered respiratory diseases. They endured the deafening roar of textile machinery. They risked serious injury from exposed gears and belts.
They forfeited a childhood.
In 1908 the National Child Labor Committee hired photographer Lewis Hine to document the horrendous working conditions of young workers across the United States. That same year, he began visiting North Carolina’s textile mills, where about a quarter of all workers were under age 16. Some were as young as 6.
Forty of his images appear in “The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina, 1908-1918,” an exhibit opening Friday at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
Peering from across a century, many of the children look much older than their actual years. Hine captured the harsh realities of their mill village lives in Cabarrus, Gaston, Lincoln, Rowan and other Tar Heel counties. His compelling photographs range from girls running warping machines in Gastonia to boys covered in lint after long hours as doffers and sweepers in a Hickory mill.
The exhibit will be on view through March 25, 2012, and admission is free.
“The National Child Labor Committee advocated for drastic changes to protect minors, and when Hine’s photographs began appearing in newspapers, they drew attention to the exploitation of children,” says B.J. Davis, Education Section Chief and the exhibit’s project manager. “His images were so hauntingly memorable that they helped build support for stronger child labor laws.” The effect of photography, then a new medium for newspapers, proved more powerful than words to convey such conditions.
North Carolina’s labor laws that were meant to protect younger children were rarely enforced.
When mill officials denied Hine entry, he simply snapped photos of youngsters coming to and from work. On a notepad he kept hidden in his jacket, he carefully documented each image with his subjects’ age and how long they had worked in the mill.
A 1908 description written by Hine includes quotes from an impoverished boy: “Been in mill 6 or 7 years. 12 years old. Haint grown none for 5 years.” Hine added to the description: “His sister (14 years old) has been spinning for 6 years. Makes 50 cents a day.”
To help museum visitors better understand the textile industry, the exhibit features tools from the state’s mills. These items include a shuttle, bobbin, quill (a type of bobbin) and a doffer’s cart (used to collect bobbins from the spinning machines). Other artifacts and computer interactives provide opportunities to learn more about the state’s textile story.
Hine took a personal interest in the campaign against child labor. He traveled nationwide to present lectures illustrated with his images.
The Photography of Lewis Hine concludes with a look at child labor today, which remains an issue around the world.
The exhibit is made possible in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most exhibit photographs are courtesy of the Lewis Hine Collection at the Library of Congress.
The opening reception for the exhibit will be held from 6-9 p.m. Friday, March 11.
The museum will offer a curator’s tour of the exhibit on Sunday, March 27 from 2-3 p.m.
For more information about the Museum of History, call 919-807-7900 or go to or Facebook.