Glass making was another industry that employed thousands of boys in tough and dangerous jobs. Most of these youngsters worked as blowers’ assistants in glassworks furnace rooms. The intense heat and glaring light of the open furnaces, where the glass was kept in a molten state, could cause eye trouble, lung ailments, heat exhaustion, and a long list of other medical problems.
The temperature of molten glass is 3,133 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in the glass factories ranged from 100 and 130 degrees. Fumes and dust hung in the air. Broken glass littered the floors. It wasn’t surprising that cuts and burns were the most common injuries.
Workers were paid by the piece, so they had to keep moving fast for hours at a time without a break. A typical glassblower’s assistant made about sixty-five cents a day.
Since the furnaces were kept burning continuously, glass factories operated around the clock. Many of the boys were required to work at night. Often, they faced a transportation problem. The night shift started at 5:00 P.M. and ended at 3:00 A.M., when there was no streetcar service. A boy had the choice of a nap on the factory floor until five or six o’clock, when the cars started running, or a long walk home in the dark. In winter, this meant a sudden change from the hot air inside the factory to the frigid air outside.
Because of these unhealthy and hazardous work conditions, employees in the glass-making industry at that time had a life expectancy of only forty-one to forty-two years.
Factory owners claimed that they couldn’t operate without the labor of young boys, that workers over sixteen were too slow and clumsy to perform the boys’ work. Therefore, the boys were mostly 10-14 years old. Most adult glassworks employees refused to let their own kids follow them into the factories. As one longtime worker put it, “I would rather send my boys straight to hell than send them by way of the glass house.”
Work in the canning sheds began long before daybreak. “Come out with me to one of these canneries at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Hine wrote from Mississippi. “Here is the crude, shedlike building, with a long dock at which the oyster boats unload their cargo. Near the dock is the ever-present shell pile, a monument to the patient work of little fingers. It is cold, damp, dark. The whistle blew some time ago, and the young workers slipped into meager garments, snatched a bite to eat, and hurried to the shucking shed…Boys and girls, six, seven, and eight years old, take their places with the adults and work all day.”
Parents wanted their kids working at their sides, so they could keep an eye on them. Since there was no place to leave the children, even the youngest and the newborn were taken to the cannery sheds every day. On winter mornings, infants wrapped in blankets slept in baby carriages and boxes next to warm packing-house stoves. Toddlers wandered about the sheds, playing among the shells and imitating their parents. As soon as they were big enough to handle a knife, they were “allowed to help.” Parents desperately needed the money their children could earn.
Boys and girls stood side by side with the grown-ups, picking up clusters of oyster shells, prying them open, and dropping the meat into pails. When a pail was filled, it was carried off to be weighed. For a pail that held four pounds of shelled oysters, the worker received five cents. Children usually filled one or two pails a day, adults eight or nine.
The rough, sharp oyster shells were hard on little fingers, but raw shrimp were far worse. As the shrimp were peeled, they oozed an acid so strong, it ate holes in workers’ leather shoes, and even in the tin pails they used. Children with swollen, bleeding fingers were a common sight. At night, they soaked their fingers in an alum solution to harden their skin and help heal their wounds.
The shucking of oysters and peeling of shrimp went on for hours without a break until the day’s supply was disposed of, usually by late afternoon, 4 or 5pm.
Lewis Hine took some of his most haunting photos in the dark tunnels and grimy breaker rooms of the nation’s coal mines. In Pennsylvania, the biggest coal-producing state, thousands of fourteen and fifteen-year-old boys were employed legally in the mines. At the same time, thousands of younger boys, some of them only nine or ten, worked illegally.
Boys worked in a variety of jobs –as mule drivers, couplers, runners, spraggers, and gate tenders. Most of the younger boys were employed in the coal breakers outside the mines. Their faces black with soot, they sat in rows on wooden boards placed over coal chutes. As coal came pouring through the chutes, the boys bent over, reached down, and picked out pieces of slate and stone that could not burn. They had to watch carefully, since coal and slate look so much alike. If a boy reached too far and slipped into the coal that was constantly flowing beneath him, he could be mangled or killed. “While I was there, two breaker boys fell or were carried into the coal chute, where they were smothered to death,” Hine reported from a Pennsylvania mine.
A foreman armed with a broom handle stood in front of the breaker room. He watched the boys as intently as they watched the moving coal. He used the broom handle to rap the heads and shoulders of those who, in his opinion, were not working hard enough. Hine wrote: “The pieces rattled down through the long chutes at which the breaker boys sat. It’s like sitting in a coal bin all day long, except that the coal is always moving and clattering and cuts their fingers. Sometimes the boys wear lamps in their caps to help them see through the thick dust. They bend over the chutes for 12-14 hours until their backs ache, and they get tired and sick because they have to breathe coal dust instead of good, pure air.” Many of the breaker boys suffered from chronic coughs. “There are twenty boys in that breaker,” one of the foremen said, “and I bet you could shovel fifty pounds of coal dust out of their lungs for a mere 60 cents a day.”
“I found two little sisters spinning whose grandmother told me they were six and seven years old. I found two boys under twelve whose hands had been mutilated in the mill. And I found any number of ten and eleven-year-old children working an eleven-hour day (during the school term) at tasks involving eye strain and muscle strain. Is it any wonder, therefore, that I found a whole family, mother and five children, the oldest seventeen, of which not one could write his name?” Entire families left their farms to work in the mills. Many of the children quit school at an early age, or never went at all.
Children toiled in cotton mills as spinners, doffers, and sweepers. Girls were employed as spinners. They walked up and down long aisles, brushing lint from the machines and watching the whirling spools or bobbins for breaks in the cotton thread. When a break occurred, they had to mend it quickly by tying the ends together. A spinner tended six or eight “sides,” as the long rows of spindles were called. She had to be on her feet nearly all the time, working eleven or twelve hours a day, six days a week, earning 50 cents a day. Hine described one spinner as “an emaciated little elf 50 inches high and weighing perhaps 48 pounds who works from 6 at night till 6 in the morning and who is so tiny that she had to climb up on the spinning frame to reach the top row of spindles.”
Boys began working as doffers when they were seven or younger. It was their job to remove the whirling bobbins when they were filled with thread and replace them with empty ones. Many of the youngsters worked barefoot. That made it easier to climb onto the huge machines so they could reach the bobbins or broken threads. Boys usually made 60 cents a day. If they weren’t careful, they could fall into the moving machinery or be caught by it. The accident rate for children working in the mills was twice as high as it was for adults. In one mill, Hine reported, “A twelve-year-old doffer boy fell into a spinning machine and the unprotected gearing tore out two of his fingers. ‘We don’t have any accidents in this mill,’ the overseer told me. ‘Once in a while a finger is mashed or a foot, but it don’t amount to anything.’”
The machinery made such a racket, workers had to shout to be heard above the noise. And because heat and moisture helped keep the cotton threads from breaking, the mill windows were always kept closed. The hot, steamy air was filled with dust and lint that covered the workers’ clothes and made it hard to breathe. Mill workers frequently developed tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases. A boy working in a cotton mill was only half as likely to reach twenty years of age as a boy outside the mill. Girls had even less chance.
Entire families labored in the fields, including 3 & 4 year-old kids. Some families spent the year following the crops, seldom staying in one place for more than a few weeks at a time. Others lived in the city.
Hine visited farms in different parts of the country. In 1913, he traveled across Texas, photographing and talking with children who labored in the cotton fields. Cotton picking was called “stoop labor.” It was a dreary and repetitious job, a matter of bending and picking under the hot sun. The motions were simple: pick, pick, pick, drop into the bag, step forward, pick again. The faster a picker kept moving through the field, the more cotton he or she could pick.
Hine saw “tiny bits of humanity picking cotton in every field.” Some of these children had been brought in from nearby orphanages. Others were migrants who worked in family groups. All of them picked cotton from sun up to sundown.
A four-year-old girl told Hine that she picked eight pounds of cotton a day, while her five-year-old sister picked thirty pounds. The girls made 2 cents per pound of cotton they picked. “The sunshine in the cotton fields has blinded our eyes to the monotony, overwork, and hopelessness in their lives,” wrote Hine.
On a trip to Colorado, Hine interviewed families who worked in the sugar-beet fields. During summer hoeing, children, like adults, bent over clumps of plants, digging for hours. In the fall, the mature beets were pulled from the ground and “topped.” Topping required holding a beet against the knee and slicing off the top with a sixteen-inch knife that had a sharp prong at one end. Accidents happened all too often. “I hooked my knee with the beet knife,” a seven-year-old boy told Hine, “but I just went on working.”
It wasn’t unusual to see children with badly chapped hands pulling and topping beets in the middle of November, as cold winds blew across the fields and ice formed in the furrows. During a late harvest, when a heavy frost was expected, everyone worked far into the night by lantern light. “We all work fourteen hours a day at times,” a father told Hine, “because when the beets is ready, they has to be done.”
People were often shocked and outraged when they saw photos of young children working in mines, factories, and mills. And yet children the same age, hard at work on city streets, attracted little attention.
Some of these children were in business for themselves. Newsboys and an occasional newsgirl hawked their papers from curbs and corners, shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Some of the youngsters photographed by Lewis Hine had been selling newspapers on street corners since they were six or seven years old.
These “newsies” received no salary or commission. They paid cash for each armload of newspapers, and took the loss for any papers they couldn’t sell. The newsies only made a few cents a day if they sold all of their papers. Groups of newsies gathered at newspaper offices in the middle of the night, waiting for the early-morning editions to roll off the presses. Then each of them staked out a territory that was forbidden to others.
Child-labor reformers did not object to kids delivering newspapers to subscribers before or after school, or working at other part-time jobs. But they were strongly opposed to youngsters working in unregulated jobs on city streets at all hours of the day and night.
Many of these street kids lived in poverty, never went to school, and had no real home. In New York City alone, thousands of homeless working children – orphans and runaways – lived in shelters run by the Children’s Aid Society. For a few cents a day, a child could pay for a dormitory bunk, a breakfast of bread and coffee, and a supper of pork and beans. The society operated five lodging houses for boys in New York, and one for girls.
Children who worked as peddlers, bootblacks, and newsies were looked upon as “little merchants.” People liked to think of them as enterprising youngsters starting out on the road to success, working their way from rags to riches. Of course this rarely happened.