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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity: The Progressive Era City

Introduction

#3024
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Source: Museum of the City of New York

The end of the nineteenth century saw a period of rapid immigration and urbanization. As the promise of factory jobs and higher wages attracted more and more people into the cities, the United States began to shift to a nation of city dwellers. By 1900, 30 million people (30% of the population) lived in cities.

For many people, this migration to the cities was beneficial, but for many more, there were severe problems. For the emerging middle class, conveniences such as department stores, chain stores, and shopping centers emerged to meet their needs as consumers. But for the poor, including thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and China, the cities were not as welcoming. Lured by the promise of higher wages and better living conditions, immigrants flocked to the cities where many jobs were available, mainly in steel and textile mills, slaughterhouses, railroad building, and manufacturing. These companies often hired children, as they required less pay and could often handle delicate tasks better than adults.

#3023
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Source: Museum of the City of New York

Many of these newly arrived immigrants lived in poverty, resulting in a very poor quality of life. In the cities, immigrants were faced with overcrowding, inadequate water facilities, poor sanitation, and disease. Working class wages provided little more than subsistence living and very limited opportunities for movement out of the city slums.

However, not all was bleak in the cities of the Progressive Era. Within the cities, enclaves of immigrants created tight-knit communities based on their common culture. Photographers such as Jacob Riis and Louis Hine were able to capture some of the domestic scenes of children and their families, which showed that while life certainly was not easy, there was still a sense of community and pride.

CURRICULUM SNAPSHOT

  • The rapid urbanization caused by waves of immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from China, from the 1880s–1920s
  • Child labor practices that were commonplace in mills, factories, and mines
  • Immigrants struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the midst of creating a new home in the United States

Key Learning Targets

Students will:

  • Examine the challenge for immigrants who were assimilating to a new culture while maintaining their cultural identity.
  • Compare and contrast urban centers as hubs for jobs and economic opportunity, but also places of poor sanitation and horrible living conditions.
  • Investigate the working conditions in factories that put the health of children in jeopardy.
  • Be able to discuss the reasons why people organized labor movements to effect change.
  • Learn how photographic images contribute to our understanding of historical eras.

Essential Questions

Essential questions help organize the content and collections. Exploring the concepts of immigration and urbanization through this collection of photographs will invite students to consider the following questions:

  • How can cultural identity be maintained when emigrating to a new country?
  • How can images be used as historical documents to help support a claim?
  • How were images used to influence the public perception of child labor and legislation to protect child workers?
  • How can images be used as propaganda?
  • Why are images often used to effect social change?

Prerequisite Knowledge

Before viewing the photos and doing the activities, students should be able to:

  • Understand the terms “immigration” and “urbanization.”
  • Understand the concept of cultural identity, and be able to provide examples (e.g., through food, clothing, art, language, religion, cultural symbols, etc.).
  • Understand the concept of child labor.
  • Understand the concept of propaganda.

Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Ask students what photos or images come to mind when they think about the words “immigration” and “urbanization.” What comes to mind when they think of the words “sweatshop” or “tenement” or “factory”?

Examining the Challenge of Maintaining Cultural Identity
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background: Cultural Identity in Progressive Era Cities

During the Progressive Era, immigration grew steadily, with most new arrivals unskilled workers from eastern and southern Europe, as well as China. These newly transplanted workers typically found employment in steel and textile mills, slaughterhouses, and construction crews in large cities. During this time, there was pressure to “Americanize” the new immigrants: to strip them of the culture of their homelands and turn them into model American citizens who could speak English and adopt American values, beliefs, and customs. Because of the pressure to become enculturated to an American way of life, a tension developed between the familiar traditions and customs of the homeland and the traditions and customs of their new homes.

LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can explain the concept of a “city within a city.”
  • I can give examples of how culture can lead to a sense of identity.
  • I can describe the tension of trying to live within two distinct cultures.
  • I can use photographs to identify cultural customs and habits.

#3017
Immigrants. Undated. Ellis Island, New York.
Date: unknown
Location: Ellis Island, New York
Photographer: unknown
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-01561

More than 30 states passed laws that required Americanization programs, mostly through school districts, churches, and labor unions. Yet, while many new citizens worked to learn the language and customs of the United States during their working hours, within the home they aspired to maintain aspects of their ethnic and religious identity. One example of this could be found in Little Italy, an Italian neighborhood in Manhattan. Bill Tonelli of New York Magazine wrote, “Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village re-created on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions” (New York Magazine, September 27th, 2004). Italian enclaves began to surface in Chicago as well: the number of Italian immigrants living in Chicago grew from 16,000 in 1900 to nearly 74,000 by the late 1920s.

But eastern and southern Europeans were not the only ones immigrating to the United States at this time. In the late 1800s, immigrants from China began arriving in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and settled in various Chinatowns. These areas were the only regions that would allow Chinese immigrants to inhabit dwellings within the city limits. While some Chinese immigrants found work outside of the cities as farmers, many were employed by the Transcontinental Railroad, or found employment as mine workers.

Begin the Activity

Hand out copies of the images or project them, and ask students to describe what they see. Working independently or in small groups, have students take notes on what they notice. Ask them to identify clues in the photographs that would suggest cultural identity. These may be architectural clues, signage, clothing, objects, or evidence of traditional customs. Have students consider the following questions.

Questions to Consider

  • What do I know about how individuals and communities express cultural identity?
  • What do I know about Americanization or assimilation into a new culture?
  • What evidence do I see in the photos that suggest people trying to maintain their cultural identities?
  • Can I think of current examples of immigrant groups striving to maintain their cultural identity?

Extension Activity

#3011
1900. Chinatown, New York.

The topic of immigration and cultural identity can be more fully explored using young adult literature. The following is a list of titles that may be appropriate extensions for the study of this period:

  • The Bridge to America by Linda Glaser tells the story of Polish immigration in 1920.
  • Mountain Light by Lawrence Yep documents Chinese immigration in 1885.
  • A House of Tailors by Patricia Reilly Giff takes a look at a German immigrant’s story during the 1870s in Brooklyn.
  • Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America by Helen Foster James follows the story of a 12-year-old Chinese boy as he immigrates to California in the 1920s.

Images as Supporting Evidence
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background: The Photography of Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a journalist and a photographer who documented the squalid living conditions in New York City. He took photographs of the poor and the tenements in which they lived to show the world “how the other half lives.” Riis pioneered flash photography. This allowed him to photograph the interior of people’s homes and provided the public with a more intimate look at how the poor lived than ever before.

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was Riis’s early publication of his photojournalism, documenting the horrible living conditions that many immigrants faced in the slums of New York City during the 1880s. Many say that these photos served as early examples of “muckraking” journalism, images exposed the slums to the middle and upper classes. These photographs explicitly showed how the poor lived.

In How the Other Half Lives, Riis explains that the greed and neglect of the wealthy allowed the tenement housing to exist. Riis went so far as to blame the crime and drunkenness found in tenement housing on the fact that the immigrants did not have access to proper housing. At the end of his book, Riis proposed a plan to help solve the problem, stating that not only would it financially benefit the wealthy to have a happy, healthy workforce, but that it was simply the moral thing to do.

Riis was intentional in his photography and chose certain images to make a statement. Because of his use of flash photography, he was able to make photographs indoors in poorly lit conditions, whereas previously this would have been impossible. Because the use of flash was novel, oftentimes his subjects looked surprised or shocked.

Riis’s photographs in How the Other Half Lives also documented the daily life of sweatshop workers. He included photographs of children who would only be paid pennies a day, or sometimes not at all.

How the Other Half Lives led to improved living conditions, including tearing down some of the tenements and even led to school reforms. The book led to a decade of improvement in the living conditions on New York City’s Lower East Side, including sewers, garbage collection, and indoor plumbing.

LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can explain the concept of a photograph as a historic document.
  • I can use images to help support a claim.
  • I can connect the use of images to creating social change.

Begin the Activity

#3024
Rear Tenement in Roosevelt Street.

Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to describe everything they see in the photos. Have small groups “read” the photos as a descriptive text, take notes, and then share with the class. Next, have students closely study photos 3023, 3024, and 3026. Either independently or in groups, have students make a claim about the living conditions portrayed in the photos by using visual evidence they see.

Then have students support that claim with that evidence and other evidence from other photos. Have students consider the following questions:

Questions to Consider

  • Based on these images, what was life like? Make a claim.
  • What evidence do you see in the photos that will help support your claim?
  • What aspects, themes, and details of the photographs do you think contributed to changing peoples’ opinions about these issues, and ultimately, to social change?

#3023
Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement — “Five cents a spot.”
Date: Circa 1890
Location: Lower East Side, New York
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Source: Museum of the City of New York

#3026
Ludlow Street cellar habitation.
Date: December 1895
Location: New York, New York
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Source: Museum of the City of New York

Extension Activity

Have students answer the question: What is considered “the other half” today? What would they like to see “behind the scenes” or learn more about? This might be something as nearby as the homeless population in their hometown, or something as distant as the outer reaches of space. Students could engage in their own documentary photography project, and photograph a situation that needs attention in their own community (cleaner parks, better pedestrian crossings, areas for dogs to be off-leash, etc.). They could then use their own photos as evidence, or justification, for a community action project.

Child Labor: Using Photographs as a Springboard for Creative Writing
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

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.

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.

#3003
Young doffer and spinner boys in Seaconnet Mill. The youngest are Manuel Perry, 111 Pitman St. John E. Mello, 229 Alden St. Manuel Louis. None of these could write their own names. The last couldn’t spell the street he lives on. They spoke almost no English.
Date: January 1912
Location: Fall River, Massachusetts
Photographer: Lewis Hine
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-02499

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

#3032
A little spinner in the Mollahan Mills, Newberry, S.C. She was tending her “sides” like a veteran, but after I took the photo, the overseer came up and said in an apologetic tone that was pathetic, “She just happened in.” Then a moment later he repeated the information. The mills appear to be full of youngsters that “just happened in,” or “are helping sister.”
Date: December 1908
Location: Newberry, South Carolina
Photographer: Lewis Hine
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-01451

  • 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, online QR code generator, create a code that can be scanned. The listener could then hear the letter being read to them through their smartphone or other digital devices. These QR codes could be posted on a class blog, alongside the photographs that they are describing.

Footnotes

  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.

Investigating Photographs as Propaganda
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background: Photos as Propaganda in the Progressive Era: Comparing Hine and Riis

Propaganda can be defined as information, ideas, or rumors that are deliberately spread to advance a specific cause. During the Progressive Era, certain photographers used their photos to deliberately sway their audience to agree with their political point of view. One such photographer was Lewis Hine.

LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can distinguish between posed and candid photographs.
  • I can identify details in photographs that suggest that they may be staged.
  • I can identify the intention behind using these photographs.
  • I can extend my understanding of the use of intent in photographs to modern-day advertising.

#3033
Breaker #9, Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus.
Date: January 1911
Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania
Photographer: Lewis Hine
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-01136

Lewis Hine is most widely known for his photographs that depicted life in the factories and mills in the northeast and southern United States. As a result of his work, he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to photograph the working conditions of children to raise public awareness. In turn, his photographs helped to usher in a new era of reform and improve the living and working conditions of many.

In 1908, Hine spent several months taking photographs for the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological investigation of the living and working conditions of coal miners in western Pennsylvania. These photos were intended to show the wealthy the conditions under which these miners lived and worked. Unlike the images of Jacob Riis, however, which often depicted fear and weariness in his subjects, Hine’s photos portrayed the workers as exploited, but robust and dignified—either proud first-generation Americans or deserving candidates for U.S. citizenship.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to compare and contrast the images of Riis and Hine. How are they similar? How do they differ?

Questions to Consider

  • Why, and for whom, were the photos taken?
  • What can companion images tell us?
  • Are there elements of propaganda in the captions of the photos?

Comparisons

Have students look at photographs 3009 (Riis) and 3033 (Hine). What can they learn from this comparison? How are the photos similar? How do they differ? What are the captions trying to convey?

#3009
Street Arabs in sleeping quarters. Three children curled up on a metal grate in a below-grade areaway.
Date: 1890
Location: New York, New York
Photographer: Jacob Riis
Source: Museum of the City of New York

#3033
Breaker #9, Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus.
Date: January 1911
Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania
Photographer: Lewis Hine
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-01136

Child Labor Conditions: Then and Now
Middle & High School
English Language Arts, Literature, Social Studies, U.S. History

Background

Although child labor laws significantly reduced the number of children working in factory and mining jobs in the United States during the Progressive Era, many parts of the world still engage in unfair child labor practices. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), while the global number of children in child labor has declined by one-third since 2000, there are still an estimated 217 million children around the world who are working under dangerous conditions for very little pay. Asia has the largest number (78 million) of the child population engaged in such practices, followed by more than 13 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. Agriculture remains by far the most common location for child labor in the twenty-first century, but the problems are also apparent in the service industry and manufacturing.

 LEARNING TARGETS

  • I can make connections to past and present practices by studying photographs.
  • I can identify unhealthy child labor practices in past and modern times.
  • I can use photographs as historical evidence to make connections from the past to the present.

#3044
Children working in workshop manufacturing surgical instruments for export.
Date: October 2005
Location: Sialkot, Pakistan
Photographer: M. Crozet
Source: ©International Labour Organization

Poverty is the most common cause of child labor. Another force driving children into dangerous work is the lack of availability and quality of education. In 2008, the ILO found that illiteracy resulting from a child going to work, rather than a quality primary and secondary school, severely limits the child’s ability to get a basic educational grounding, and thus a decent working life. Child laborers are also denied the opportunity to develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. In India, for example, most child labor takes place in agriculture, with other children working as domestic help, or in manufacturing or mining, especially in the Indian diamond industry.

Here in the United States, most child labor infractions occur in agriculture. The current child labor law in the United States was drafted in the 1930s, when it was common for children to work on family farms. Today that law is outdated and does little to protect children working in the fields to harvest the food that we eat. According to Human Rights Watch, child farmworkers as young as 12 years old often work for hire for 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week. Like many of their adult counterparts, these children earn far less than minimum wage and are exposed to pesticide poisoning, serious injury, and illness related to heat and exposure. These children are also denied the education that could potentially lift them out of poverty.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to select two images, and then compare an image taken at the turn of the century to an image taken recently. Either individually or in small groups, ask students to consider the following questions.

Questions to Consider

  • What is similar in the two images? What is different?
  • What emotions do the images bring up when you look at them?
  • Why do you think child labor is still a worldwide problem in the twenty-first century?
  • What suggestions do you have for ending child labor practices in the United States? The world?

Extension Activity

Have students research current child labor law violations in the United States or other countries. Where are child labor practices still taking place? In what industries?

Standards

National History Standard (NCHS)

U.S. History Standards, Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870–1900):

  • Standard 1: How the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed the American people
  • Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity
  • Standard 3: The rise of the American labor movement and how political issues reflected social and economic changes

U.S. History Standards, Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890–1930) Standard 1: How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption

Common Core

History

CCSS RH.9-10.6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts

CCSS RH.9-10.9: Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources

English Language Arts

CCSS RL.9-10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment

CCSS W.9-10.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence

Curriculum Snapshot

  • The rapid urbanization caused by waves of immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from China, from the 1880s–1920s
  • Child labor practices that were commonplace in mills, factories, and mines
  • Immigrants struggling to maintain their cultural identity in the midst of creating a new home in the United States

References and Further Readings

Encyclopedia of American History: The Emergence of Modern America, 1900 to 1928, Revised Edition (Volume VII). New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2010.

Human Rights Watch, “US: Child Farmworkers’ Dangerous Lives”
http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/05/05/us-child-farmworkers-dangerous-lives

Wikipedia, “Child Labour in India”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labour_in_India

International Labour Organization, “Child Labour”
http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/child-labour/lang–en/index.htm#a1

The Daily Mail online, “The Stark Reality of iPod’s Chinese Factories”
http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/news/article-401234/The-stark-reality-iPods-Chinese-factories.html

National Center for History in the Schools (2014).
http://www.nchs.ucla.edu

Yale Univerity, American Studies Program
http://americanstudies.yale.edu

Mornings on Maple Street

The Russell Sage Foundation and the Pittsburgh Survey
http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/rsf.html

Trattner, Walter. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. © 2015
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6

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