This year marks a century since the introduction of the United States’ first federal anti-child labor law.
The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act aimed to tackle individual states’ child exploitation by prohibiting the interstate sale of goods produced by facilities employing children. It targeted factories that employed children younger than 14, mines that employed children under 16, and any facility where children under 14 worked before 6 a.m., after 7 p.m., or more than eight hours per day.
Approved by Congress in September 1916, the Act and its child-protection provisions lasted all of two years before the Supreme Court struck it down as an unconstitutional imposition of federal might on state labor laws.
But though it was short-lived, the Act was just one part of a greater movement against child labor—one that had been gathering momentum for decades. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) formed with the aims of ending child employment and providing young people with educational opportunities. At the time, according to U.S. census data, approximately 1.75 million children aged between 10 and 14 were gainfully employed.
As part of its campaign to raise awareness of child labor conditions, the NCLC hired photographer Lewis Hine to document the working lives of children around the country. From 1908 to 1924, Hine traveled around the nation, meeting seven-year-old oyster shuckers, 10-year-old cotton mill spinners, and six-year-old newspaper boys. His photographs, and the evocative captions gleaned from surreptitious interviews with the children, offer a stunning look at the breadth of child labor happening in the United States at the time. Below are some of Hine’s photos from the Library of Congress’ National Child Labor Committee collection.
Manuel, a five-year-old shrimp picker in Biloxi, Mississippi, was photographed in 1911 during his second year of employment at the Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Company. Hine’s caption noted that the child understood “not a word of English. The pile behind him is a “mountain of child-labor oyster shells.”
Rosie, a seven-year-old oyster shucker at the Varn & Platt Canning Co. in South Carolina, was in her second year of employment when photographed in 1913. Hine’s caption reads: “Illiterate. Works all day.”