Continued Exploitation of Children (1911-1930)

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“Child Labor Employer”, Lewis Hine, Cartoon (1912) a large mans hand crushing tiny children with his palm, black and white drawing

In 1912 Lewis Hine created this cartoon depicting an adults hand brutally crushing a group of children with his palm. The suffering children underneath can do little to resist the powerful force that the man’s hand is exerting upon them. The cartoon is symbolic of the oppression and lack of protections that child laborers faced in the early 20th century. The cartoons also conveys the exploitation of children through child labor practices and the harmful effects that is has on the young people being forced to labor long hours in often hazardous conditions. Although the cartoon is not referencing any one particular event, and the children’s faces cannot be seen, this makes it symbolic of the toils of all children being forced to labor in the United States in the early 1900s. Lewis Hine was one of the few photographers who saw the struggles and strife of child laborers both in the industrial sector and in the fields first hand. The images had a profound impact upon Hine himself but also the public at large, although protections that covered sectors in which immigrant and minority children worked took much longer to be enacted into law than those that covered industries in which primarily white children worked. In the early 1900s there were few protections for child laborers and being that employers could get away with paying them less than adults they were often exploited for their work efforts.

Keating-Owen Child Labor Act (1916) 

Keating-Owen Act written down on paper

In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Keating-Owen Act into law in Washington D.C. after being passed by congress. The act prohibited the sale of commerce of goods produced by factories that employed children under fourteen, mines that employed children younger than sixteen, and any facility where children under fourteen worked after 7:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m. or more than eight hours per day. The Act specified that the U.S. Attorney General, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Agriculture would come together from time to time to publish uniform rules and regulations to comply with the Act. To enforce the Act the Secretary of Labor would assign inspectors to inspect workplaces that produce goods for commerce. The inspectors would have the authority to make unannounced visits and would be given full access to the facility in question. Anyone found in violation of this Act or who gave false evidence would be subject to fines and/or imprisonment. The intended audience was employers that exploited young children for their work and who placed child laborers in hazardous conditions. This act was ruled unconstitutional in 1918 in Supreme Court case Hammer v. Dagenhart, however it paved the way for more comprehensive and strictly enforced legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This Act was an important piece of legislation as it was one of the first child labor acts to be taken seriously and to reach the attention of the Supreme Court. 

“Rejection of the Proposed Child Labor Constitutional Amendment by the State Legislature of Missouri“,  William Turbett to Selden Spencer, Letter (1925)


In 1925 Chief Clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives sent a letter to United States senator from Missouri, Selden Spencer, that the Missouri House had passed a resolution that rejected the proposed constitutional amendment to introduce regulations to child labor. The letter claims that although the house firmly believes that child labor should be regulated that the rights of the state and the individual to regulate these practices is of utmost importance and that this proposed amendment would infringe on those rights. This letter is fascinating as it reveals the complete disregard for the safety of children in the state of Missouri under the guise of attempting to preserve states rights. In the year 1920 about 1 million children age 10 to 15 were working in America  and about half worked on family farms meaning that a significant number of children were still subject to laboring in harsh conditions [1]. In Missouri while children in large cities such as Saint Louis worked in newspaper sales, in shipyards, and in factories, many others worked on the farms. This letter represents the discrepancy between the rise of child labor welfare organizations such as the National Child labor Committee and the continued resistance to basic rights for children laboring and the idea that state rights should prevail which was especially prominent in southern states. Other states such as  Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia, almost all of them in the south with large amounts of child working in the agricultural sector, were quick to reject the proposed amendment as well citing infringement on states rights as their primary reason against it [2].

“Cotton Mill Girl: Behind Lewis Hine’s Photograph & Child Labor Series | 100 Photos | TIME.” YouTube Video, ( 2017) 

This video compilation of Lewis Hine’s iconic photographs of child laborers from the early 1900s through the 1920s, uploaded to YouTube by Time Magazine, highlights the power that certain images can impose upon the general public. Lewis Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 and began to travel the nation capturing captivating images of young children laboring in hazardous conditions in order to expose the exploitative practices of many employers during the early 20th century [3]. The focus of this video and of many of Hines more famous photographs are of young white children. In the case of this video the focus is on a young girl around ten years old named Sadie Pfeifer who was seen working in a cotton mill in Lancaster, South Carolina. While this 1908 image of a young girl tirelessly working through the night at a cotton mill rightly shocked many it is important to note that the same reaction might not have occurred if the child in question was of a minority race. A young white girl was often seen as the pinnacle of innocence and purity during this time period while young girls who were not Caucasian were not always seen in the same light. Most of the well known images that Hine took, such as the “Breaker Boys” showcasing young boys outside of a mine in Pennsylvania, features white children as they were the most likely to gain widespread sympathy from the nation at large.


  1. Vo, Lam Thuy. “Child Labor In America, 1920.” NPR. August 17, 2012.
  2. “The child labor amendment, 1924–1934. (1934).” Editorial research reports 1934 (Vol. I).  Washington, DC: CQ Press.
  3.  “Lewis Hine.” International Photography Hall of Fame.