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”


The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography

“Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”

Harry Whittier Frees was a Pennsylvania native and creator of novelty animal postcards in the early 1900s. He is best known for his photographs of kittens and puppies dressed up and acting out human scenes.

The Cook
Harry Whittier Frees, “The Cook,” 1914. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Continue reading “The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography”

Mrs. Ella Watson


“My first photograph of [Watson] was unsubtle. I overdid it and posed her. Grant Wood style, before the American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera… I followed her for nearly a month- into her home, her church, and wherever she went.”

“She began to spill out her life’s story. It was a pitiful one. She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been stricken with paralysis a year before its mother died.”

Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.
Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. 1942. Library of Congress.

Continue reading “Mrs. Ella Watson”