REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rebecca Roberts.
A search for child laborers nearly a century ago has inspired a new search for their descendants. Between 1908 and 1917, photographer Lewis Hine traveled the country taking thousands of pictures of young children, boys and girls who were forced to work from dawn to sunset in the nation's mines, mills and factories.
Hine's photographic record of the conditions that these children had to endure help changed U.S. law. Many of the child laborers in Hine's photographs died without ever telling their children what they'd been through.
Now a Massachusetts historian is tracking those heirs down to let them know about their ancestor's place in history.
Charlene Scott of member station WFCR reports.
CHARLENE SCOTT: Eight-year-old Addie Card leans on her spinning frame. She wears a filthy apron and her bare feet are covered in grease. Her hair is pinned up to keep it from getting caught in the machinery. The caption under her photograph describes her as an anemic little spinner who worked at a textile mill in Pownal, Vermont.
Historian and author Joe Manning first saw the picture online at the Web site of the Library of Congress.
Mr. JOE MANNING (Historian and Author): I could see my daughters in her face. They had a pretty bright future with me and my wife, a wonderful opportunity to advance in America, and that girl did not. And the other thing I thought of was, I got to know what happened to her. I don't want that to be the end of the story.
SCOTT: Manning had been asked by author Elizabeth Winthrop to track down Addie Card because she was writing a novel based on Card's life. Manning found out that Card had two unhappy marriages and had her only biological child taken from her by her first husband's parents. Later, she adopted the illegitimate child of a Portuguese sailor. She remained poor all her life.
The compelling story inspired Manning to go back to the Hine archive to learn more about the photographer and his subjects. Lewis Hine had been hired by the National Child Labor Commission to document violations of existing state child labor laws. Manning said it wasn't easy for Hine to get inside factories where the bosses didn't want anyone to know what was going on, especially considering Hine's camera was the size of a bread box mounted on a four-foot tripod.
Mr. MANNING: He had a Graflex camera, which was a big camera that he has to, you know, put this blanket over his head. And it had the powder that it had to explode. And so it was a very intimidating piece of equipment that he had to carry around.
SCOTT: Manning says Hine invented a number of ruses to explain his presence in the factories. Often he posed as an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery. He told the bosses that he needed a child in the picture to get a sense of scale. Once Hine got inside, Manning says he came up with ways to get the information he needed.
Mr. MANNING: He'd have buttons on his coat and he knew the - how high each button was from the ground. So when he left, he would know how many - how tall the child was.
SCOTT: Hine also wrote down the children's names, ages and time on the job, and included that information in his captions. Manning used this information to track down their descendants with the idea of letting them know who their ancestors were and that they were part of an important project in the country's history.
Ms. PAMELA SHARIDY(ph): I was stunned. I mean, I guess that was my reaction because I had no clue, not a clue. She never mentioned it.
SCOTT: Pamela Sharidy's grandmother, Elsie Shaw(ph), was six years old when Lewis Hine took her picture. Sharidy, who now lives in Arizona says her grandmother worked as a cartner(ph) at a cannery where she puts sardines into containers.
Lewis Hine took two pictures of Elsie. In one, she's smiling. In the other, she has a more pugnacious, I dare you to take my picture kind of expression. She's standing in front of the shacks that provided housing for the workers at the cannery in East Port, Maine.
Ms. SHARIDY: These children worked 10-hour days for pennies. So I'm sure she was just pretty tired in the picture.
SCOTT: By 1917, Lewis Hine had taken some 30,000 to 40,000 pictures of child laborers. Critics said the photos weren't shocking enough. But Hine said he respected the workers and didn't want to exaggerate their poverty. Nevertheless in 1938 Hine's work helped persuade legislators to pass the first federal child labor laws.
Hine traveled the country to photograph his subjects. In Gastonia, North Carolina, he took a picture of three little girls in identical black stockings and high-button shoes wearing threadbare dresses and standing in front of housing for mill workers. One of those little girls was Pearl Turner(ph), Patricia Yancy's(ph) grandmother-in-law.
Ms. PATRICIA YANCY: You saw such sadness in their eyes. The photographs that I have seen, they were so sad, the children were. And I'm sure that all the work they did and the responsibility that they had, they just did what they were told to do.
SCOTT: But some of the children in the Hine collection had an easier time than their counterparts in the mills and mines.
Professor TOBBY MARX(ph) (Northwestern University): They could earn 25 cents in an evening.
SCOTT: Toby Marx's father and uncle sold newspapers and chewing gum on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Prof. MARX: My father in that photo is eight years old, looks just like my father. My uncle Tim looks pretty much like my uncle.
SCOTT: Marx is a chemistry professor at Northwestern University. He says after his grandfather died, Marx's father and six siblings were all expected to help support the family. He says his father and uncle got pretty good at it.
Prof. MARX: Their favorite ploy was when it rained, the youngest would stand out in the rain with one newspaper and stop passersby and say, sir if I can sell this one newspaper I can go - this is my last one, I can go home. And so that the guy would buy a newspaper from him. Then his brother would be waiting under an awning ready to hand my father another newspaper. And he would stop another passerby and do the same sort of thing.
SCOTT: While he grew up hearing these stories, Marx says he was astonished to learn about the existence of the photograph and its place in history. And for Pamela Shaw Reedy(ph), Hine's picture of her grandmother has inspired her to learn more about her family of factory workers. She says the photo made her take another look at an oil painting her grandmother had done which shows a cluster of dirty white buildings on one side of a river.
Ms. PAMELA SHAW REEDY: On the near side of the water, there's a rowboat pulled up on shore and a little girl is walking away from the rowboat. She has on boots, an overcoat that looks too big for her, a red skirt and a beret. What I thought all of a sudden was, this was her effort to purge those memories. She's walking away from the canneries on the other side of the river. And it's all a metaphor for what she went through.
SCOTT: Pamela Shaw Reedy is among 25 families Joe Manning has been able to track down in the past four months. He's in the process of going through some 2,000 of Lewis Hine's photographs, trying to find others with the idea of writing a book or organizing a traveling exhibition. For now, more than 5,000 of Lewis Hine's photographs are on view at the Library of Congress Web site. For NPR News, I'm Charlene Scott.
ROBERTS: And to see some of Lewis Hine's pictures, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.