The industrial boom and labor shortage that grew in the wake of World War I left manufacturers turning to an unexploited and growing workforce: children. According to the 1900 census about one in six children between the ages of five and ten were “gainfully employed.”
A sentiment grew among the American public that children were being robbed of their future and education. The National Child Labor Committee was founded in 1904. Four years later, a 34 year-old photographer named Lewis Hine was hired to document children working in factories, mills and newspaper companies across the country. Hine worked for nearly ten years with the NCLC to expose child labor. And perhaps his most iconic and enigmatic subjects were the newsies.
In Charles Loring Brac’s 1866 book ”Short Sermons to News Boys, With a History of the Formation of the News Boys’ Lodging House,” he describes a scene:
“I remember one cold night seeing some 10 or a dozen of the little homeless creatures piled together to keep each other warm beneath the stairway of The Sun office. There used to be a mass of them also at The Atlas office, sleeping in the lobbies, until the printers drove them away by pouring water on them. One winter, an old burnt-out safe lay all the season in Wall Street, which was used as a bedroom by two boys who managed to crawl into the hole that had been burnt. I was often amused at the accounts of their various lodgings.”
The weight of what these children often endured – homelessness, exploitation and horrific working conditions – adds to the already incredible quality of the photographs. The expressions on the faces of the children in Hine’s photographs are as endearing as they are diverse. Some look awkward, shy and innocent – unsure of the encounter, while others stare directly, confidently, and indignantly at Hine’s camera.