17. Child Labour in an American Textile Mill

By Jonah Berger

Across the United States around the turn of the 20th century, millions of children worked in factories, agricultural fields, mines, and city stores. In the following years, a mass movement to end child labour gained strength, buoyed by photographer Lewis Hine’s work on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee. The photo above shows doffers — textile jobs requiring agility and therefore seen as particularly well-suited to young boys — in a South Carolina mill in 1908.1

Stymied by the judicial system, a deeply-seated individualist mindset, and corporate greed, the United States failed to pass comprehensive child labour legislation until 1938, a half-century after most of its counterparts in Europe.2

The power of photography to galvanize social action is a constant across time and place in history, so it’s no surprise that corporate bad-actors have repeatedly used deception and even state interference to stymie gross malfeasance from coming to light. From attempts to prevent Hine from entering factories to modern-day ‘ag-gag laws’ making it illegal to photograph inside animal facilities, corporations’ actions have demonstrated that transparency is their most feared foe.

And child labour itself is far from a relic of the past; around the world, more than one-in-four children aged 5 to 17 work in jobs considered ‘detrimental’ to their physical and intellectual development, according to UNICEF. Without proper enforcement, even countries that had apparently ended the scourge of child labour can see it creep back; a sprawling federal investigation revealed that meatpacking plants in multiple US states were employing children as young as 13 in ‘oppressive’ conditions — as of November 2022.3

[1] Hine, Lewis. Young Doffers in Mollahan Mills, Newberry, S.C. Photograph. Library of Congress. Newberry, March 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/nclc.01471/?co=nclc.

[2] Grossman, Jonathan. “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage.” United States Department of Labor. Accessed December 11, 2022. https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/flsa1938. 

[3] Vockrodt, Steve. “Federal Investigation into Child Labor Violations at Meatpacking Plants Expands into Missouri.” KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City, November 14, 2022. https://www.kcur.org/news/2022-11-14/federal-investigation-into-child-labor-violations-at-meatpacking-plants-expands-into-missouri.

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