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Child Labor and Lewis Hine

How do you talk to children from suburban Johnson County, Kansas about child labor? The opening of the Johnson County Museum’s new exhibit Lewis Hine: Let Children Be Children, has opened the door for that dialog to take place for our visitors viewing the exhibit with their school-aged children.

As a museum educator, I have been part of countless exhibits, some with more difficult subject matter than others. This photography exhibit is challenging, both to look at and to make relatable to children today. Lewis Hine documented children working in all different types of situations, all in an effort to bring to light the horrid working conditions and lack of accountability for children forced to work in the United States in the early 1900s. Hine worked with the National Child Labor Committee, with his photographs and his reports being instrumental in the legislation that was eventually passed in 1930 to regulate child labor.

This photograph from 1912 of two Newsies waiting outside a saloon to sell their papers is an excellent example of young boys being exposed to adult environments and working long hours simply to sell a paper.

image of two young boys delivering newspapers in front of an establishment that sells alcohol

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This image of two little girls on the steps is very telling. According to Hine’s notes, the girl in the photo is five years old and was crying because she was exhausted and did not want to be photographed. This specific girl worked at the cannery helping her mother starting at 5 a.m. each morning.

image of young girl crying on the exterior steps of a building; another younger child looks on

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A twelve hour workday is a hard thing for a child living in Johnson County today to imagine. Comparing it to the chores most children are required to do seems like a disservice to what these children endured on a daily basis, but it does relate it to something they are familiar with. We can ask them to imagine what it would be like to be forced to do the same chore, like loading the dishwasher, for eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week and watch for the look of horror on their faces!

Rebecca Schroeder, Curator of Education

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