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The lost boys of Market Street: Tracking down the lives of child laborers

  • In Lewis Hine’s August 1912 portrait of these Northampton newsboys, the 6-year-old has no shoes. Hine captioned the image, “James L. Long, 10 years old, 39 Market Street, Northampton, Mass., and his cousin Johnnie O’Brien, 6 years old who is learning the trade.” Historian Joe Manning notes that back then, newsboys “were required to buy the papers first, and couldn’t get a refund for unsold copies.” National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

  • Students in Kelley Brown’s AP U.S. History class at Easthampton High School will be working with Manning to identify these workers, who Hine identified as, “Two young spinners at the close of a week’s work leaving the cotton mill in Easthampton, Mass. August 1912.” National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

  • Hine’s caption: “Addie Card, 12 years. Anemic little spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill. Vt. Girls in mill say she is ten years. She admitted to me she was twelve; that she started during school vacation and now would ‘stay.’ August 1910.” National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

  • Three months after Hine photographed this family — a widow who worked alongside her children at a cotton mill in Georgia — in 1909, the seven youngest children were placed at an orphan home. Manning’s research led to a museum exhibit where over 100 descendents “spent hours meeting cousins, aunts and uncles they knew nothing about,” Manning writes. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

  • Hine’s caption: “John Ostafin, 5 Boylston Street, Easthampton, Mass. Been doffing nearly a year in West Boylston cotton mills and may be under legal age. August 1912.” Doffers were textile workers tasked with replacing full bobbins with empty ones. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

  • Minnie Carpenter, 53 Loray Mill, Gastonia, North Carolina. Makes 50 cents a day of 10 hours. Works four sides. Younger girl works irregularly. November 1908. Lewis Hine. National Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress

Published: 5/16/2019 4:43:27 PM

I saw this photograph recently on the Library of Congress website. The boys were standing on Market Street, in downtown Northampton. Newsboys had it pretty tough 100 years ago. They were required to buy the papers first, and couldn’t get a refund for unsold copies. They had to compete with other children for the best locations and often wandered into bars looking for customers. Some worked during school hours.

The picture of the newsboys is one of over 5,000 made by child labor activist Lewis Hine. Hine, who died in 1940, was one of the greatest documentary photographers of the 20th century. I stared at the two boys, and they stared back. My first reaction was: “Whatever happened to James and Johnnie? What were they like, how did their lives turn out, and are there living descendants who can answer those questions?” So I dropped everything and spent a couple of hours on searching birth, marriage and death records, and the census.

In 2005, I was asked by author and friend Elizabeth Winthrop to find the descendants of Addie Card (shown at right), a 12-year-old cotton mill worker in Pownal, Vermont, who had been photographed by Hine in 1910. Inspired by Addie’s picture, Winthrop had completed a children’s novel called “Counting on Grace,” an imagining of what Addie’s childhood might have been like. She told me she was now interested in finding out the real story of Addie. She had done some quick research and learned that Addie had married at age 17, but after the 1920 census, Winthrop could find no record of Addie or her husband, or if they had any children. I was eager to help.

In two weeks, I had tracked down one of Addie’s granddaughters. In two more weeks, I was standing at Addie’s grave, shocked to learn that Hine’s “anemic little spinner” had lived to be 94. Several months later, Winthrop and I conducted an emotional three-hour interview with several family members, including Addie’s great-granddaughter, who lived with Addie for a number of years. No one in the family knew about the famous photograph.

I wrote a long story about my search for Addie that included long excerpts from the interview and sent it to Winthrop. “This has been an amazing experience,” I told her. “I’m sorry it’s over.” She replied, “Go to the Library of Congress site and look at the other Hine photos. Pick out another child and see what you can find.”

I chose a photo of two girls who worked at a North Carolina cotton mill. Only one of them, Minnie Carpenter, was identified. A week later, I found Minnie’s obituary, located a surviving nephew, and called him. He was excited to hear about the picture. I mailed it to him, then called a week later. He said to me tearfully, “I’ve got some incredible news. The other girl in the picture was my mother.” I sensed at that moment that I had stumbled onto something irresistible and that I had more than 5,000 children waiting for me to tell their stories. So I created a website for my work, named it Lewis Hine Project, and posted my first two stories. Thirteen years later, I have tracked down the lives of more than 350 children.

Lewis Wickes Hine was born in Wisconsin in 1874. After he finished high school, his father died, forcing Lewis to take a full-time job at an upholstery factory. A few years later he enrolled at the University of Chicago, pursuing a degree in education. In 1901, he was hired to teach geography and nature study at the Ethical Culture School, a private institution in New York City. He was assigned the role of school photographer, later creating a photography program and taking students on field trips, including a visit to Ellis Island. He returned to Ellis Island by himself a number of times and photographed immigrants as they arrived. His sympathetic and respectful photos showed the humanity of his subjects, a style that caught the attention of the National Child Labor Committee, a private organization in New York City, whose mission was to eradicate child labor in the US. They hired Hine in 1908.

At that time, there were over two million American children under the age of 14 working mostly in coal mines, textile mills, glass factories, fish canneries, on cotton plantations and vegetable farms, at home doing piecework for the garment industry or selling newspapers on urban streets. From 1908 to 1924, Hine visited 32 states and the District of Columbia, traveling as much as 50,000 miles a year. His pictures were instrumental in changing the way people looked at child labor and caused many states, including Massachusetts, to pass laws forbidding most manufacturing industries from hiring children under the age of 15. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, effectively banning child labor throughout the country.

In his captions, Hine always indicated where and when his photographs were taken, but some children were not identified or were given names that were badly misspelled, making my work often difficult. But over the years, I’ve managed to track down the lives of nearly 20 unnamed children.

The most memorable example is the story of Catherine Young, a widow, and her family of nine children, six of whom worked at the Tifton Cotton Mills, in Tifton, Georgia, in 1909. I saw the photo in 2007. Hine identified the mother only as Mrs. A. J. Young, and gave questionable or oddly spelled names to a few of the children. Unable to locate the family in the 1910 census, or in any other records, I persuaded the local newspaper to publish the photo and ask if anyone recognized them. No one responded, leaving me with no apparent options.

About a year later, still haunted by the photograph, I posted the picture on my website with the full caption, hoping that a descendant researching their family history might serendipitously run across it. Three years later, I received the following email from a woman named Mildred Rivers:

“The mother in the picture is my great-grandmother, Catherine Young. She was married to Andrew J. Young. I was researching my family history, looked up A. J. Young, and your photo came up. The seven youngest children were put up for adoption. Some of the children’s names are spelled wrong. The girl in the middle was Eddie Lou Young. My mother, Alice Hill, knows more information about the family. I can give you her phone number.”

Ecstatic, I called Mrs. Hill. She referred me to Clinton Willis, son of Mell, the girl at the far left in the photo. He told me that most of the children lost track of one another after they were adopted, and only a few ever saw their mother again. He gave me the names of all of the children. I searched for them in the 1910 census and found seven of them residing at the South Georgia Methodist Orphan Home, near Macon. The facility still existed. I contacted them about my research, and they offered to send me the records of the children, including when they went to the orphanage, when they left and the names of the families they were placed with. All they needed was a family member to request them. Rivers, the woman who contacted me, made the request. The records revealed that the seven children were placed at the orphan home exactly three months after Hine photographed the family.

Over the next year, I tracked down and interviewed dozens of descendants, all of whom were surprised by the photograph. Many expressed sadness that their family had been torn apart 100 years ago, never to be reunited. When I completed my story, I contacted the Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village, in Tifton, and persuaded them to create an exhibit about it. When it was finished in 2014, a grand opening was scheduled, and I was invited to attend. Both the museum and I sent invitations to all the descendants on my long list. Over 100 descendants came, some from as far away as California, and spent hours meeting cousins, aunts and uncles they knew nothing about. When I spoke at the opening ceremony, I said: “The photograph of Catherine Young and her family was taken in January 1909. Three months later, they were torn apart by tragic circumstances. Today, 105 years later, in this museum in Tifton, the Young family is finally together again.”

In August of 1912, Hine made nine photos of child laborers locally: five in Northampton, one in Williamsburg and three in Easthampton. The only ones he identified were James and Johnnie, and Easthampton resident John Ostafin, whose story I completed several years ago.

John, a Polish immigrant, landed at Ellis Island in 1910 when he was 11 years old. He and his family settled in Easthampton. Shortly after, he went to work at the West Boylston Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill on Pleasant Street. The buildings are now the home of Eastworks. He married Eleanor Welch in 1923. By that time, he had changed his name to John Overs, for reasons that I could not establish. They moved to upstate New York, then to New Hampshire. John worked most of his life in construction, as a steam shovel operator.

So what about James and Johnnie, the Northampton newsboys? What did I find out?

My search for James and Johnnie remains a work in progress — without any progress. I have found nothing; not a trace. How can that be? Did Hine get their names wrong? Were they living somewhere else two years before when the 1910 census was counted and had they left Northampton before the 1920 census? It appears that my only alternative is to ask: Does anyone out there know who they were?

And finally, what about these two nameless girls in Easthampton? They were also working at the West Boylston Manufacturing Company. They were standing on Emerald Place, across Lower Mill Pond from the mill. Who were they? How old were they? Were they sisters? Does anyone know?

Lewis Hine cared about the children as people, not simply as useful tools of persuasion. After all, his mission was to show that they were being exploited as tools of industry. The lives of the children in his photographs mattered to him. They still matter, and I believe they deserve to be remembered.

Joe Manning, a resident of Florence, is an
author, historian, songwriter and poet. His
Lewis Hine Project can be seen on his website

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