Oh Say Can You See? II : 4 The Declaration of DEpendence

Series: Oh Say Can You See? II
Entry 4: The Declaration of DEpendence

Click here to go to the beginning of the Oh Say Can You See II series

 Famous documentary photographer Lewis Hine certainly wasn’t against hard work!

hineAfter documenting the horrors of child labor for so many years [the decade from 1908 to 1918], Hine wanted to focus on the dignity of labor, on its skills and satisfactions. His major project during the 1920s was an ambitious, celebratory series of “Work Portraits”—photographs of working people and craftsmen, the men and women who turned the massive wheels of industry. His goal was to highlight the importance of human labor in the new age of the machine. “Cities do not build themselves, machines cannot make machines, unless back of them all are the brains and toil of men,” he emphasized. In his Work Portraits, Hine viewed the American worker as a heroic figure who could take great pride in his or her craft. [Kids at Work, Russell Freedman]

Hine made some amazing portraits of such workers, which certainly dignify the “toil of men.”

power house 1920

The most amazing of all were his candid photos of men working on building the Empire State Building in 1930.

high wire1930 chrysler tipWorker pretends to be “touching” the top of the Chrysler Building, far below.

work breakSky High Siesta!

But it’s pretty obvious from the muscles on that fellow working his wrench in the first picture that these men were FIT for the work they were doing. Fit by age and strength, skill and experience, physical growth and mental and bodily maturity.

Not so the earlier workers Hine made portraits of…


(1912, Picture Title from Hine: Human Junk.)  A product of the mill. “Ben workin fer 10 years. Began when I was six years old for 5 cents a day. Lately I was workin $1.25 a day but got to spittin blood and had to quit.” He was truely [sic] “scrapped” and of little use to himself or the world. Roy Hammett, Spartanberg [sic], S.C. [Hine]

Please note that Hine’s use of the term “human junk” wasn’t intended to be a value judgment on that young man’s worth as a human being. It was an ironic statement of what he had become to “the system” at the tender age of 16, when young men in the “higher classes” in the US were just getting ready to set out to make their way in the world after getting a good education. This young man had no future … he was just a piece of scrap to be tossed on the heap when he could no longer fit as a cog in the machine.

Children, many of them pre-teen, some of them as young as four, were working jobs for which they had NONE of those qualities necessary to work safely. Such as this young man working on a buzz saw at a factory.

buzz saw

He may have made it to adulthood all in one piece, but many of his co-workers didn’t. Such as this young fellow who did the same kind of work at a box factory. And likely didn’t get to go back to work after cutting his arm off with the buzz saw.

armless saw box factory

Insurance? Liability? Compensation? HAH.

In many cases, young people like this were lucky if a company doctor bound up a work-inflicted wound before sending them home. Hospitalization, rehabilitative therapy, trauma counseling? HAH again.

The businesses employing these young people were getting all the benefit of slave labor, and unlike pre-Civil War slave owners, they didn’t even have to provide food or lodging or clothes for their slaves. Nor take ANY loss if their young employees were injured or killed. The children were interchangeable cogs in the machines, and it cost nothing to replace them.

As his photographs attracted more attention, factory owners and sweatshop employers began to refuse to grant Hine access to their worksites. In response, he began hide his camera. He gained entry by posing as a fire inspector or an agent of a licensing board. Hine also began giving public lectures on child labor. At one such lecture, when confronted by an audience member who complained of being tired of seeing the photographs of pathetic children, Hine responded “Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past.” [Source]

Unfortunately, his goal was not reached. His photographs flooded the media in the United States, and they did indeed spur some action by some whose hearts and minds were touched by what he showed. But that action bore no lasting fruit for another 25 years. The abuses of child labor continued. Such as those shown in the photos below.

oyster shuckersOyster shuckers working in a canning factory. All but the very smallest babies work. Began work at 3:30 a.m. and expected to work until 5 p.m. [13.5 hours] The little girl in the center was working. Her mother said she is “a real help to me.” Dunbar, Louisiana. [Hine]

seafood workersCutting fish in a sardine cannery. Large sharp knives are used with a cutting and sometimes chopping motion. The slippery floors and benches and careless bumping into each other increase the liability of accidents. “The salt water gits into the cuts and they ache,” said one boy. Eastport, Maine. [Hine]


Fish cutters at a canning company in Maine. Ages range from 7 to 12. They live near the factory. The 7-year-old boy in front, Byron Hamilton, has a badly cut finger but helps his brother regularly. Behind him is his brother George, age 11, who cut his finger half off while working. Ralph, on the left, displays his knife and also a badly cut finger. They and many youngsters said they were always cutting themselves. George earns a dollar some days usually 75 cents. Some of the others say they earn a dollar when they work all day. At times they start at 7 a.m. and work all day until midnight. [17 hour shift … for a dollar or less]


Manuel the young shrimp picker, age 5, and a mountain of child labor oyster shells behind him. He worked last year. Understands not a word of English. Biloxi, Mississippi.  [Hine]

Manuel is five years old but big for his age. When the whistle blows at 3 o’clock in the morning, he pulls on his clothes and hurries to the shrimp and oyster cannery where he spends the day peeling the shells of iced shrimp. He has been working as a shrimp-picker since he was four. … The rough, sharp oyster shells were hard on little fingers, but raw shrimp were far worse. As the shrimp were peeled, they oozed an acid so strong, it ate holes in worker’s leather shoes and even in the tin pails they used. Children with swollen, bleeding fingers were a common sight. At night, they soaked their fingers in an alum solution to harden their skin and help heal their wounds. [Freedman]

glass boy virginia 1911

Boy in glass factory, Virginia, 1911

glass midnight indiana 1908Boys in a glass factory in Indiana after midnight, 1908

Glass making was another industry that employed thousands of boys in tough and dangerous jobs. Most of these youngsters worked as blowers’ assistants in glassworks furnace rooms. The intense heat and glaring light of the open furnaces, where the glass was kept in a molten state, could cause eye trouble, lung ailments, heat exhaustion, and a long list of other medical problems.

The temperature of molten glass is 3,133 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in the glass factories ranged between 100 and 130 degrees. Fumes and dust hung in the air. Broken glass littered the floors. It wasn’t surprising that cuts and burns were the most common injuries.

Workers were paid by the piece, so they had to keep moving fast for hours at a time without a break. A typical glassblower’s assistant made about sixty-five cents a day.

Since the furnaces were kept burning continuously, glass factories operated around the clock. Many of the boys were required to work at night. Often, they faced a transportation problem. The night shift started at 5:00 P.M. and ended at 3:00 A.M., when there was no streetcar service. A boy had the choice of a nap on the factory floor until five or six o’clock, when the cars started running, or a long walk home in the dark. In winter, this meant a sudden change from the hot air inside the factory to the frigid air outside.

Because of these unhealthy and hazardous work conditions, employees in the glass-making industry at that time had a life expectancy of only forty-one to forty-two years ..

Factory owners claimed that they couldn’t operate without the labor of young boys, that workers over sixteen were too slow and clumsy to perform the boys’ work. And yet most adult glassworks employees refused to let their own kids follow them into the factories. As one longtime worker put it: “I would rather send my boys straight to hell than send them by way of the glass house.” [Freedman]

Yes, most child labor jobs held all kinds of threats to the safety and health of the children involved. They could contract lung diseases and other life-shortening maladies, they could lose fingers or toes, hands or feet, arms or legs. And sometimes they paid the ultimate price for the dollar a day or less that they made.

noon hourLunchtime among the Breaker Boys

Many of the breaker boys suffered from chronic coughs. “There are twenty boys in that breaker,” one of the foremen said, “and I bet you could shovel fifty pounds of coal dust out of their system.” … Their faces black with soot, they sat in rows on wooden boards placed over coal chutes. As coal came pouring through the chutes, the boys bent over, reached down, and picked out pieces of slate and stone that could not burn. They had to watch carefully, since coal and slate look so much alike. If a boy reached too far and slipped into the coal that was constantly flowing beneath him, he could be mangled or killed. “While I was there, two breaker boys fell or were carried into the coal chute, where they were smothered to death,” Hine reported from a Pennsylvania mine.”

This was evidently not all that uncommon.

news january71911Wilkesbarre, PA, 1911

Again … insurance? Liability? Restitution? Hah.

 A newspaper reporter who saw an exhibit of Hine’s photos at a conference in Birmingham, Alabama, was stunned by the power of the images.  He wrote:

“There has been no more convincing proof of the absolute necessity of child labor laws … than these pictures showing the suffering, the degradation, the immoral influence, the utter lack of anything that is wholesome in the lives of these poor little wage earners.  They speak more eloquently than any [written] work — and depict a state of affairs which is terrible in its reality — terrible to encounter, terrible to admit that such things exist in civilized communities.” [Source]

Hine’s photos were meant to shock and anger those who saw them.  They were intended to mobilize public opinion, and that is exactly what they did.  The photos became a powerful weapon in the crusade against child labor.” [Freedman]

Yes, Hine’s photos shocked and angered some.

“There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.”– Lewis Hine, 1908

…child laborers barely experienced their youth. Going to school to prepare for a better future was an opportunity these underage workers rarely enjoyed. As children worked in industrial settings, they began to develop serious health problems. Many child laborers were underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.

By the early 1900s many Americans were calling child labor “child slavery” and were demanding an end to it. They argued that long hours of work deprived children of the opportunity of an education to prepare themselves for a better future. Instead, child labor condemned them to a future of illiteracy, poverty, and continuing misery. [Source]

Alexander J. McKelway, assistant secretary in the National Child Labor Council wrote a publicity piece used in NCLC literature from about 1908 on that expresses these concerns succinctly:

Declaration of Dependence

by the Children of America
in Mines and Factories and Workshops Assembled

Whereas, We, Children of America, are declared to have been born free and equal, and

Whereas, We are yet in bondage in this land of the free; are forced to toil the long day or the long night, with no control over the conditions of labor, as to health or safety or hours or wages, and with no right to the rewards of our service, therefor be it

Resolved, I — That childhood is endowed with certain inherent and inalienable rights, among which are freedom from toil for daily bread; the right to play and to dream; the right to the normal sleep of the night season; the right to an education, that we may have equality of opportunity for developing all that there is in us of mind and heart.

Resolved, II — That we declare ourselves to be helpless and dependent; that we are and of right ought to be dependent, and that we hereby present the appeal of our helplessness that we may be protected in the enjoyment of the rights of childhood.

Resolved, III — That we demand the restoration of our rights by the abolition of child labor in America.

But the children couldn’t “fight” for themselves as did the American Revolutionaries after they made their Declaration of INdependence. And thus it was another 25 years before any meaningful reforms came.

Congress passed laws [regulating child labor] in 1916 and 1918, but the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional because they infringed on states’ rights and “denied children the freedom to contract work.” In 1924, Congress passed a constitutional amendment authorizing a national child-labor law, but active lobbying prevented a sufficient number of states from ratifying the amendment.

Child labor began to disappear only during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in no small part because adults found themselves competing for the lowest-paying positions, those held by children. Federal regulation of child labor finally came about in 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set minimum wages and maximum hours for all workers employed in interstate commerce, and also placed limitations on child labor. Children under sixteen were prohibited from working in such dangerous occupations as manufacturing and mining. [Source]

As you see, even 25 years after the “Children’s Declaration of Dependence,” the reforms didn’t seem to come from the open recognition by political leaders, industrial leaders, and the masses of common citizens on the street that child labor had been an abomination in its own right, destroying young lives. No, it was more a “political choice” related to demands of adult labor to not have to compete with the kind of wages that could be paid children. Prior to that, there were so many adults willing to actively “lobby” AGAINST any control of child labor conditions that even a constitutional amendment, approved by the US congress, was effectively thwarted by the states! Yes, it wasn’t just a few men “at the top” of our government who allowed child labor abuses to continue for so long in this country. It was a large number of citizens.

In other words, in the end, it wasn’t so much that the populace in general was appalled to learn that so many kids were worked to an early death. It was that they “took the jobs” of adult men. So the heartless capitalists who used poverty-stricken children as fodder for making high profits were ultimately not stopped primarily out of compassion for poverty-stricken children, but out of “labor demands” by adult unions.

This is not to say that all adult unskilled laborers who competed with children for jobs before 1938 had no concern for the abuses of child labor, of course. No doubt some had great compassion for young children and supported child labor laws because of it. But the historical record shows that this was never enough to actually get anything DONE about the child labor problem until the Great Depression of the 1930s made it a flash-point issue because so many adults were out of work.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ll bet my personal experience is quite common. Over the years I developed my view of what life was probably typically like for the children of the US around the turn of the last century–say 1890 to the 1920s–primarily from sources such as the Disneyesque paintings of Norman Rockwell. You could picture the kids in Rockwell’s paintings living on streets branching off from Walt’s Mythical Main Street. Or out in the country near towns that had a similar iconic Main  Street. If you’ve ever admired Rockwell’s folksy paintings (I always have … there are five books of collections of them sitting on a table next to my desk right now!) you may even recognize these sample kids.

rockwell 1919 leapfrog rockwell 1919 rockwell 1920 gentlemen rockwell 1921 tuck in bedActually, I don’t doubt that many children who looked pretty much like these kids, and who lived carefree lives much like these kids, did live in many towns all across America. But note that these covers are from the same general time period as that of the photos of Lewis Hine. I’m not suggesting that Rockwell should have painted the emaciated, malnourished, beaten down kids in the coal mines or cotton mills! Rockwell was a commercial artist, and that sure wouldn’t have helped sell issues of The Saturday Evening Post or The Country Gentleman or The Literary Digest! But when the faces of the whimsical, free-wheeling, well-cared for, well-loved kids on the cover of the Post and most other mass media mags became the face of childhood in the Myth of America, it left the children of the “other side of the tracks” faceless. Out of sight, out of mind. And thus it has left most of us believing a very distorted “history” of our country.

So—what does all this information about Child Labor in America have to do with the topic of Bible Prophecy? What is the connection? After all, the title of this blog is “Prophecy Panic Button.” It is not my intent to just fill it with tidbits of historical trivia as an intellectual exercise for readers. Come back for the final entry in this current series to explore the connection:

Ancient History Revisited

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2 Responses to Oh Say Can You See? II : 4 The Declaration of DEpendence

  1. FreonJohn says:

    This is very interesting, and you are right about the Norman Rockwell image of the children of that time, although I imagined a Huck Finn type existence. Though the years, I learn it really wasn’t like that for many, but I sure didn’t know it was as bad (and probably worse) as you reported.

    Several points:
    A. From everything I’ve read it was normal for most everyday folks to depend on every capable member of the family to help in the well being of the family. I suspect this was a general mindset of the agrarian, family farm mentality, where everyone of almost every age had a chore or job to do that aided in the overall survival of the family.

    B. It is heinous that people and businesses would take advantage and endanger children for their own well being and profits. I suspect many still would today if they thought they could get away with it. But, at least as much blame……. no, most of the blame has to rest on the parents of these children in allowing them to even go to and be exposed to these horrors, all for the sake of money. The children are Their responsibility!

    C. I can’t say this categorically, but based on reading some history and literature, I suspect that the abuse of children in working environments was a worldwide problem. Even today, there are still countries that are heavily dependent on children for their menial labor force.

    D. Today, I’m under the impression that we, The United States, have helped make it an International issue, thus aiding in trying to eliminate this worldwide, thru shame and economic impact in the private sector and thru identifying and sanctions using government policy.

    As a nation, we are not the abusive country we once were and, for the most part, probably set the best example to the world in regard to child labor.

    What are your thoughts?

    • “What are your thoughts?”

      My thoughts are that there is a WHOLE lot more to the story that you are not aware of yet. 🙂 I recommend continuing to read the series. (Not just this small section about child labor, but the whole Oh Say Can You See? series which will be addressing many aspects of US history.) I believe if you stick with it, you may change your mind about several aspects of what you have written above.

      I have been a student of American History since grade school. I took several intensive courses in it, in high school and at the university. I’ve read lots of “popular history” in the years since then. But only recently have I come to discover that there is a whole “rest of the story” about wide swaths of American history that I have never known. I have been immersing myself in serious historical documentation (going back to the very beginning and forward right up to the present) I never knew existed, and have read over a dozen big, thick history books in recent weeks and have many more on my shelf waiting.

      I could just parcel out what I’m learning by tossing out “opinion” statements unconnected to substantiated facts. But I don’t want to do that. I want to take my readers through at least a tiny portion of the documentation I’ve been exploring, so you can see the solid basis for those opinions. Because those opinions are NOT going to be popular within many circles. I love this country. It’s my country, I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else … but there are some things that are rotten to the foundation that need to be dealt with, and they aren’t “new.” Their threads run throughout our whole history from the earliest days right up to the present. Things not just “on the surface,” but down in the hearts of the masses and the leadership in every age of our history.

      Let me just say this about your Point B above … from what I have seen of the majority of the evidence, the reality was that in the areas we are talking about, parents themselves were paid far below a “living wage” for the work they had … if they had a job at all. The family would literally starve on the wages of just the father, and maybe of the father and mother (and besides, poor people had little or no access to birth control back then, so the mothers were often perpetually pregnant or nursing and thus couldn’t contribute wages much of the time.) The ONLY solution to keep starvation from the door was to allow their children to work at the only jobs available, no matter how hellish. It was not a life they “chose,” it was one forced upon them by the greed of the unbridled capitalist system, that had as its prime directive high profits for investors, not making reasonable profits while living by the biblical admonition “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

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