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April 2011

NC Museum of History in Raleigh, NC, Features Photographs by Lewis Hine

The NC Museum of History in Raleigh, NC, is presenting the exhibit, The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina, 1908-1918, on view through Mar. 25, 2012.

In the early 1900s, most child workers in North Carolina textile mills labored 10 to 12 hours, six days a week. They toiled in hot, humid, lint-filled air that triggered respiratory diseases. They endured the deafening roar of textile machinery. They risked serious injury from dangerous, exposed gears and belts. They forfeited a childhood.

In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired photographer Lewis Hine to document the horrendous working conditions of young workers across the United States. That same year, he began visiting North Carolina’s textile mills, where about a quarter of all workers were under age 16. Some were as young as 6.

Peering from across a century, many of the children look much older than their actual years. Hine captured the harsh realities of their mill village lives in Cabarrus, Gaston, Lincoln, Rowan and other Tar Heel counties. His compelling photographs range from girls running warping machines in Gastonia to boys covered in lint after long hours as doffers and sweepers in a Hickory mill.

“The National Child Labor Committee advocated for drastic changes to protect minors, and when Hine’s photographs began appearing in newspapers, they drew attention to the exploitation of children,” says B.J. Davis, Education Section Chief and the exhibit’s project manager. “His images were so hauntingly memorable that they helped build support for stronger child labor laws.” The effect of photography, then a new medium for newspapers, proved more powerful than words to convey such conditions.

North Carolina’s labor laws that were meant to protect younger children were rarely enforced. Hine’s photographs proved that many mill owners often ignored these laws. There were no state inspectors or consistent federal labor laws covering each state.

When mill officials denied Hine entry, he simply snapped photos of youngsters coming to and from work. On a notepad he kept hidden in his jacket, he carefully documented each image with his subjects’ age and how long they had worked in the mill.

These revealing notes accompany each image in The Photography of Lewis Hine. For example, a 1908 description includes quotes from an impoverished boy: “Been in mill 6 or 7 years. 12 years old. Haint grown none for 5 years.” Hine added to the description: “His sister (14 years old) has been spinning for 6 years. Makes 50 cents a day.”

Referring to a 1908 photo in a Cherryville mill, Hine points out one of the smallest workers, a barefoot boy who is a doffer. Why the bare feet? They made it easier for young doffers to climb onto the moving spinning machines to replace bobbins.

To help museum visitors better understand the textile industry, the exhibit features tools from the state’s mills. These items include a shuttle, bobbin, quill (a type of bobbin) and a doffer’s cart (used to collect bobbins from the spinning machines). Other artifacts and computer interactives provide opportunities to learn more about the state’s textile story.

Hine took a personal interest in the campaign against child labor. The exhibit highlights his tireless efforts to expose people to the truth about what he had witnessed around the country. The photographer traveled nationwide to present lectures illustrated with his images.

The Photography of Lewis Hine concludes with a look at child labor today. It remains an issue in North Carolina and around the world. Whether it is migrant farmworkers in our state or millions of children laboring in cotton fields in Asia or tobacco and cocoa plantations in Africa, the struggle continues.

Come discover how Hine used his boxy Graflex camera to spark social change in the 20th century. “He helped influence public policy by showing the American public, and more importantly, elected officials, the extent and consequences of child labor,” emphasizes Davis.

The exhibition is made possible in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most exhibit photographs are courtesy of the Lewis Hine Collection at the Library of Congress.

The NC Museum of History, within the Division of State History Museums, is part of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future.

For further information check our NC Institutional Gallery listings, call the Museum at 919/807-7900 or visit (


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