Kirksville, MO

Photographer Lewis Hine's images of child workers in Kirksville, Missouri, and the desire for reform in the early 1900s

CJ Coombs
Photographer: Lewis Hine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Original description: Group of men and boys at Friedman Shelby Shoe Co. The youngest, apparently 11 or 12 years old is Felber McLaughlin. One boy who said he was 14 last month and had been working there a year, was assisting at a mailing machine which seemed to be dangerous to fingers and hands at least. Kirksville, Mo., 10/31/1910. (Source.)

I have always been enthralled by old black and white photographs because of the way they capture your attention and imagination. You also pay more attention to details like the texture in images without some of the distraction of color. The above image was taken by photographer Lewis Hine during his work with the National Child Labor Committee beginning in 1908.

The Friedman Shelby Shoe Co. in Kirksville, Missouri

Today you can find 1910 postcards of the shoe company for sale on eBay. You can find an old print of a young girl working at the factory that was taken by Hine on the Library of Congress website. This was the first major industrial development in Adair County. In May 1908, the factory started with 35 employees which grew to 300. They were "producing 1,800 to 2,000 pairs of shoes daily."

In 1916, it was acquired by the International Shoe Company and last owned by the Florsheim Shoe Company which produced its own line of shoes. It last operated in 1973 when the company was relocated to the south side of Kirksville.
Young girl working in Friedman Shelby Shoe Factory,. Location: Kirksville, Missouri.Lewis Hine #1741, Natl. Child Labor Committee collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs

Some background of Lewis Hine

Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on September 26, 1874. He started working and saving money for college after his father was killed in an accident. He attended the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University studying sociology. He taught at the Ethical Culture School influencing students to use photography as an educational tool.

Hine took his sociology classes to Ellis Island where they could photograph many immigrants who arrived every day. With the photos, which were known as "plates" back then in the early 1900s, he realized that his photographs could document events and be used to promote social change.

Hine married Sara Ann Rich in 1904. Their son, Corydon, was born in 1913. Sara died in 1939. Hine would die the following year.

In 1908, Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). He left teaching and spent the next 10 years documenting child labor. This was a dangerous role for Hine and he was often threatened with violence or death by factory personnel.

At the time, the conditions of child labor were hidden from the public so photography wasn't allowed and it could also cause a problem for the industry that employed them. To get inside some of these industries, Hine would disguise himself. He would pose as a vendor, a fire inspector, and sometimes would pretend he was making a record of factory machinery by posing as an industrial photographer.
Lewis Hine (b. Sept. 26, 1874, d. Nov. 3, 1940).Self-portrait, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

National Child Labor Committee

Hine's photographs were used by lobbyists in an effort to put an end to child labor. In 1912, the Children's Bureau was created and in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was created which led to the end of child labor in the United States. Hine was considered a muckraker photographer (pre-World War I journalism to promote reform).

The muckrakers provided detailed, accurate journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption and social hardships caused by the power of big business in a rapidly industrializing United States. (Source.)

What happened to Hine's work?

Hine's work was referred to as documentary photography. When he passed away, his son took his negatives and prints and donated them to the Photo League which was a cooperative of photographers who came together for both social and creative reasons. They were "photographers devoted to documenting life in the city’s working-class neighborhoods." Founded in 1936 and headquartered in New York, it ceased operations in 1951 because, in 1947, it was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Justice accusing the organization to be communist and anti-American.

The last years of Hine's life were met with professional challenges. There were fewer people interested in his work and sadly, he lost his house and had to apply for welfare. On November 3, 1940, he died at the age of 66 at Dobbs Ferry Hospital following an operation.

Hine's pictures were offered to The Museum of Modern Art and weren't accepted there, but they were accepted by the George Eastman House.

In 2006, Counting on Grace written by Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop included chapters focused on Grace, a 12-year-old, and her life-changing experience with Hine and his 1910 visit to a Vermont cotton mill known to have many child laborers. On the cover is an iconic photo (see image below) of Grace's real-life counterpart, Addie Card (1897–1993), taken during Hine's undercover visit to the Pownal Cotton Mill.
Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North PormalCotton Mill. VT (1910).E. F. Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In November 2013, Time published "Tracking Down Lewis Hine's Forgotten Child Laborers" written by Vaughn Wallace which focuses on a retired social worker's "connection" with Hine. The retired social worker, Jim Manning, was able to track down the granddaughter of Addie Card. Addie died in 1993 at the age of 94.

Today — nearly nine years after retirement and the first stirrings of his Hine project — Manning has researched the backstories of somewhere between 300 and 400 of Hine’s subjects (“I’ve stopped counting,” he muses). Many of his findings are published on his website, (Source.)

Manning's website includes the "Lewis Hine Project" which is detailed and amazing. He took his sense of connection to Hine and created a wealth of history and information. His research is well worth your reading time.

Child labor today in Missouri

Kirksville, Missouri was not the only location that employed child labor. Today, the Missouri child Labor Law does not permit any youth under 14 years old to work any job at any time "other than in the agriculture or entertainment industries or casual jobs."

Youth who are 14 or 15 generally are permitted to work, but their work, as well as the work of all children in the entertainment industry, is subject to restrictions. (Source.)

Hine's goal through his photography was to raise awareness of the abuses of child labor. His reports and photos ranged between 1908 and 1924 stirred public opinion and motivated Congress to enact national child labor legislation. See Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor.

Historians are themselves the products of history.--Paul Conkin and Roland Stromberg, American historians (Source.)

Conkin and Stromberg are also the authors of Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History.

The below video is from the Swann Auction Galleries with Daile Kaplan, who is the Swann Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, briefly talks about the legacy of Lewis Hine. The gallery site also shows some of the popular auctioned photos of Hine. 

Thank you for reading. Go get your camera and make some history.

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO

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