Negative 1911, print 1911-30
Gelatin silver print
Purchased through the Katherine T. and Merrill G. Beede 1929 Fund; 2005.12
Around the turn of the twentieth century, America was home to a merciless economic system that trapped unskilled and uneducated workers in low-paying jobs. It was in this climate that Lewis Hine began his photographic career with the progressivist aim of calling attention to social injustice. After finishing a degree in sociology, Hine began to study urban economic and social conditions by recording the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island. These photographs encouraged the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to hire Hine in 1906 to document the illegal work of young children as part of their campaign to depict child labor as unsafe and morally unfit for children. Hines photographed Breaker Boys during one of his lengthy travels through the coalmining region of eastern Pennsylvania for the NCLC. The so-called breaker boys worked outside the mines in a constant cloud of coal dust, picking out slate and refuse from the broken and washed coal. There was a tacit understanding among those employed in the coal industry that the job in the coal breaker was the most dangerous of all mining occupations. According to coroner reports, there were more deaths among breaker boys than inside a mine itself. The boys in this image stand somberly, covered in coal dust and clad in clothes that are too large for their young bodies. Clumped together, each boy’s individual character is subsumed into the misery of the whole. Hine crops his photograph as if the group continues on each side, which serves as a reminder of the magnitude of the child labor problem. Hine’s photographs and writings shocked and angered the American public, resulting in swifter government action and the passage of stricter laws banning the employment of underage children.
Last Updated: 4/29/09