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Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity

The Progressive Era City

Child Labor: Using Photographs as a Springboard for Creative Writing

Learning Targets

  • I can demonstrate the concept of perspective through writing about a photograph.
  • I can use descriptive writing to illustrate a specific scene.
  • I can incorporate detail in my writing to provide a realistic image.
  • I can write from the perspective of another using first-person narration.

Background: Child Labor in Progressive Era Cities

The end of the 1800s into the early 1900s saw tremendous expansion of American industry. This, coupled with the influx of newly arrived immigrants, gave rise to large numbers of children being employed by textile mills, meat-processing plants, and mines. Children were useful as laborers for many reasons. One reason was because factory and mine owners knew they could pay them much less than adults. Another reason was, because of their physical size, they could fit in tighter spaces and complete finely detailed tasks more easily than most adults. Children were also easier to manage and control. Many children were sent to work in order to help to support their families financially, but as a result, they worked in very unhealthy conditions, did not receive an education, and were subjected to a life of poverty.

It is estimated that in 1900, 18 percent of all American workers were under the age of 16 [1]. Even though child labor reform efforts were underway as early as 1902, many of the reforms did not take hold until the Great Depression, when adults began competing for the few jobs that were available, and children were released from the factories and mines.

One person who helped to expose the conditions under which children worked in New York City was Lewis Hine. Hine traveled throughout the eastern seaboard and the South, making photographs. His work was often dangerous, as he would sometimes claim to be a factory inspector so that he could gain access to the sites. Trained as a sociologist and professional photographer, Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to document child labor in American industry. His work gave average Americans a glimpse into the factories and mills and other occupations where working conditions were often dangerous. Hine’s aim was to encourage reform around the issue of child labor, and his work did just that. Because of his photographs, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) gained much needed popular support for federal child labor regulations. Hine’s photos became a portal into the mills and factories of America, and are an important example of early documentary photography in the United States.

Questions to Consider

  • Imagine what a typical day at work would be like. What would you be responsible for doing? What might you see? Hear? Smell?
  • Describe one aspect of the job in detail. Use the photographs to help you decide on a detail for focus.
  • Using the photographs as a springboard, contrast what the child(ren) in the photo is (are) doing versus what they would be doing in the present day.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. Individually or in pairs, have students select one photograph to “represent.” Then have the students write a letter to family back in their home country from the perspective of a child in the photograph.

Letter Writing
Allow students time, individually or in pairs, to brainstorm ideas of what a typical day at work would have been like, and focus on details found in the photo (for example, photographs 3002 and 3039). Display these letters with copies of their corresponding photos.

Extension Activity

Consider creating QR codes in which students can read their letters out loud. Students could record themselves reading their letter, and then, using a free, on-line QR code generator, create a code that can be scanned. The listener could then hear the letter being read to them through their smart phone or other digital device. These QR codes could be posted on a class blog, alongside the photographs that they are describing.


  1. Hartman, Michael. “Child labor, 1900–1929.” In Encyclopedia of American History: The Emergence of Modern America, 1900 to 1928, Revised Edition (Volume VII). Edited by Elizabeth Faue and Gary B. Nash. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010.
next: Investigating Photographs as Propaganda

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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