In honor of Labor Day, the Washington Post published an excellent feature on Lewis Hine, whose photography a century ago brought an end to ugly child labor practices. The Post’s cover photo, a Hine classic of a young textile mill worker, was the inspiration for my play, “Stolen Childhoods.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Hine’s work, be sure to read the Post article. In the late 1900’s, because there were no labor laws to prevent it or unions to defend against it, companies quit hiring adult men and instead hired children at a fraction of the cost. Both unemployment and illiteracy skyrocketed. Hine brought the practice “into the light” by surreptitiously gaining access to mines, factories, and farms and photographing children working long hours under deplorable conditions. He often convinced floor bosses that he was merely there to take pictures of the company’s “impressive” machinery. The children, he’d tell them, needed to be in the picture to provide a sense of scale. He was often threatened with violence, but his effort eventually paid off for the American worker, leading to labor laws that still exist today. Hine, however, died impoverished and with little fanfare.
My play, “Stolen Childhoods,” has been published in both Storyworks and Scope magazines. It follows Hine as he finagles his way into factories, and a trio of endangered siblings, whom he eventually photographs. Hine’s photographs are poignant and powerful; I’m hopeful I’ve captured a bit of that poignancy in my play. You can preview it or purchase it on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.
Allow me to conclude with a politically-charged statement: unions today have been vilified by politicians and corporate interests, but given their role defending the American worker, it seems more important than ever that young people know the history behind organized labor. The Post article, my play, and certainly the work of Lewis Hine go a long way in teaching that history.