Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers

“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”

Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907

Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.

Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.

Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.

Danville messenger
#2183. Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading “Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers”

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New Article Posted in New York History Blog

Good news! I got an article published by the New York History Blog. If you’re ever in search of interesting stories from the Empire state’s history, or news from historical organizations in the state then look no further.

Port Jervis Union_08291888My article tells the story of an 1888 presidential campaign rally for Benjamin Harrison that went horribly wrong. When local Republicans thought it would be a good idea to accompany their parade and liberty pole raising with a live cannon demonstration. The only problem was that their cannon was way too old to be used and ended exploding and killing three bystanders, including a distant relative of mine named Albert Sergeant.

http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2017/12/18/a-cannon-explodes-19th-electioneering-in-otsego-county/

Though I like writing here on “Another Century” best, it’s nice to get my work out there with a wider audience too. I’m hoping to get a few more short pieces like this one published next year. Enjoy!

Mighty Carl Browne: Hero of Coxey’s Army

In 1894, a young reporter named Ray Stannard Baker was sent on the road to cover an exciting news story. The Panic of 1893 was wreaking havoc on the American economy and unemployment was crippling millions of families all across the country. Desperate Americans were looking to more desperate and radical solutions to the country’s woes. Baker’s editor had gotten a tip that an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey planned to raise an army of the unemployed and march on Washington D.C. On the Capitol steps, Coxey planned to propose new legislation to the federal government to “cure the ills of the nation” and put the unemployed to work building roads. It was a call for federal unemployment aid decades before the New Deal or the Great Society. It was a grand march into the heart of D.C. a generation before the 1932 Bonus March and or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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Coxey’s Army Marching Through Massillon, Ohio. 1894. Massillon Museum.

Baker took an overnight train from Chicago to Massillon, Ohio. With a hundred dollars expense money in his pocket, he made his way to Coxey’s farm where a few dozen unemployed men and their families were gathering for the march.

Sitting in the dining room reading from a pile of letters and telegrams, Baker found an impressive looking man who looked “too good to be true:”

“He was strongly built with a heavy mustache, and a beard with two spirals. He wore a leather coat fringed around the shoulders and sleeves. A row of buttons down the front were shining silver dollars. Calvary boots, tight-fitting, well polished, came to his knees…He handed me a card with his written signature, at the end of which was a grand flourish and the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’” (7)

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Carl Browne, circa 1894. Massillon Museum.

But to Baker’s surprise, the embellished card did not have Jacob Coxey’s name on it. This colorfully dressed and gregarious man was actually Carl Browne, Coxey’s friend and chief lieutenant. Realizing that this was a case of mistaken identity, the journalist then noticed a small, mild-mannered gentleman who was sitting next to Browne. Coxey was “mild-looking and of medium size, with rounding shoulders, an oily face, a straw-colored mustache, and gold-bowed spectacles. “He did not impress me as a great leader of a revolutionary movement,” (7) Baker wrote dissapointedly.

Coxey was indeed the leader of this growing army. He was a forward thinking supporter of labor rights and earnestly wanted to help the unemployed find relief. The Panic of 1893 had ravaged the US, putting ten percent of Americans out of work. There were few government or charitable support systems in place for workers back then, and going even a day without work meant that you and your family went hungry.

Coxey felt that the best way to help was with support from the federal government. His proposed legislation would have the government spend $500 million on a publics roads construction. Carl Browne shared Coxey’s concern for affected Americans and was instrumental in bringing Coxey’s plan to life. A consummate showman, he convinced Coxey to go on an epic march to Washington D.C. where he could personally present his ideas to Congress. With an army of job seeking men that Browne promised would number in the thousands, Coxey was sure to get the attention of law makers.

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Browne designed many of the Commonweal’s signs personally. Massillon Museum.

Coxey and his army’s march on D.C. are pretty well known, but I think his charismatic second-in-command deserves more attention. Carl Browne was a complicated man who had a huge impact on the march and can teach us a lot about politics and culture in the late 1800s. Though most reporters at the time focused on Coxey and his activities, Roy Baker became enamored with Browne, who “reminded me immediately of some of the soap-box orators and vendors of Kickapoo Indian remedies I had seen on the lake front in Chicago.” (7) Baker embedded himself in Coxey’s Army got to know Browne intimately during the long journey. Fifty years later in his autobiography, Baker remembered Browne vividly and wrote about him in detail. Continue reading “Mighty Carl Browne: Hero of Coxey’s Army”

A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was hundreds of miles from the battlefields of the Cold War, but the state was prepared to be on the front line of war at a moment’s notice. With the ever-present threat of nuclear  warfare hovering over the state, officials worked tirelessly to protect the Commonwealth. Beginning in the early 1950s federal, state, and local government created a civil-defense system for Pennsylvania that would prepare citizens for an inevitable nuclear attack.

Following World War II, American relations with the Soviet Union swiftly broke down and seemed to be on the brink of war. At the same time, American and Soviet forces were working the develop new powerful nuclear weapons that would likely target cities and other civilian areas. Once the Soviets successfully tested their own nuclear bomb in 1949, the American home-front became much more vulnerable to attack. Many Americans feared attacks like the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years earlier. The United States began to train and prepare citizens for civil-defense: to protect themselves and their property in the event of a nuclear attack. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed a sophisticated civil-defense system within the state. “There’s still a big difference between taking a punch you’re prepared for,” Commonwealth officials reasoned, “and getting knocked out in the first round because you didn’t see it coming.”

“By every possible criterion, Pennsylvania will be a No. 1 target so long as men possess weapons,” one civil-defense pamphlet read. Civil-defense officials feared that the concentration of resources, vital industry, and transportation systems would make the Commonwealth a likely target for Soviet bombers. If Pennsylvania’s resources and industries were bombed and destroyed, they reasoned, “there would be little point in any farther resistance on the battlefields. The war would be over and the country in the hands of a foreign overlord.” Continue reading “A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania”

“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”

A short yet iconic line. I bet you just read it in Kennedy’s voice too (I did). On that cold and gloomy January day, the president broke the ice with a message of hope and excitement that inspired millions of Americans and promised a fresh new start for the country. These words are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we dig a little deeper we can use this short sentence to learn a whole lot more about civics, politics, and the changing role of individual Americans in society from the Civil War to today.

Several decades after the inauguration, Bill Moyers reflected on Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric and personality: “I remember John Kennedy not so much for what he was or what he wasn’t but for what he empowered in me. We all edit history to give some form to the puzzle of our lives, and I cherish the memory of him for awakening me to a different story for myself. He placed my life in a larger narrative than I could ever have written. In his public voice John Kennedy spoke to my generation of service and sharing; he called us to careers of discovery through lives open to others…It was for us not a trumpet but a bell, sounding in countless individual hearts that one clear note that said: “You matter. You can signify. You can make a difference.” Romantic? Yes, there was a romance to it. But we were not then so callous toward romance.” According to Moyers, what Kennedy brought a new perspective on an American’s individual role in improving their society. To the young Kennedy supporter, this message rang much louder and clearer than anything he had ever heard before.

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Kennedy delivered his famous address on January 21, 1961. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

You may be interested to know that although Kennedy’s inaugural call to action sounded new and different from his political contemporaries, it was actually the result many years worth of experience and thinking. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and special assistant to President Kennedy recalled that: “This thought had lain in Kennedy’s mind for a long time. As far back as 1945 he had noted down in a loose leaf notebook a quotation from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost.” In his address accepting the democratic nomination in 1960, he said of the New Frontier, “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5 at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Kennedy departed from his prepared text to say “The new frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The new frontier is what I ask you to do for our country.” He continued to polish the thought in the back of his mind until he was ready to put it in final form for the inaugural address.” Continue reading ““Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence”

So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

“Above all things, avoid a dress suit” (George Washington Plunkitt)

Everywhere you look in the news today, you see stories about politicians and what they’re up to. One common theme in all these stories, it seems to me, is that people in politics are untrustworthy and you can never tell what they’re actually thinking. Everything is rehearsed and carefully phrased so that all the public really sees is smoke and mirrors. This definitely isn’t a universal truth, but it has some merit and I think this is the way that many Americans perceive the political world around them in the 21st century.

tammany-hall
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

I’d like to introduce you to a career politician from a long time ago who I think is a pretty genuine person. You probably won’t agree with his politics, but he is a blunt man who won’t leave you guessing what his actual position is and what his goals are. Continue reading ““Above all things, avoid a dress suit” (George Washington Plunkitt)”