This is photographer Lewis Hine's "Power house mechanic working on steam pump," a photograph taken in 1920. It was one of his "work portraits," which showed a working class American in an industrial setting. The carefully posed subject, a young man with wrench in hand, is hunched over, surrounded by the machinery that defines his job. But while constrained by the machinery (almost a metal womb), the man is straining against it -- muscles taut, with a determined look -- in an iconic representation of masculinity.
Most of Hine's work was for the National Child Labor Committee, a nonprofit organization established in 1904 to combat child labor in the U.S. and around the globe. (It's still in existence today.) At the time, there were nearly 2 million child laborers aged six to 17 working in the U.S. That's out of a total workforce of 24 million. Eight percent of all workers!
"Power house mechanic," however, was taken for the Work Progress Administration (WPA), an agency of the federal government. The WPA was one of the New Deal agencies created to help stop the ravages of the Great Depression. Unemployment had gone from just under 5 percent in 1929 to 10 percent in 1930, 22.5 percent in 1931, to 27 percent in 1932. In cities like Toledo, unemployment hit an appalling 70 percent. In Seattle, it was close to 50 percent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a variety of stop-gap measures to get money into people's pockets (hoping that the economy would rebound). Nearly half of all Americans had nothing to eat at least two weeks out of the year, and one third of all Americans lost their home. Nearly 70 percent of American children were suffering from malnutrition.
Welfare payments to the states (provided through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration) was Roosevelt's biggest anti-poverty program. But with the Republicans upset that welfare "undermined the work ethic" (never mind that most people were starving), Roosevelt knew that this policy would not last long. He was able to enact two major pieces of legislation (Public Works Act and the Civil Works Act) to hire American laborers and put them to work constructing roads, buildings, prisons, courhouses, airports, public office buildings, state capitols, parks, playgrounds, public housing, ports, and much more.
But funding public works meant drafting building plans, gathering construction materials, training workers... It took too long.
In 1935, Roosevelt won passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which established the WPA. WPA funded existing projects, putting vast numbers of people to work. Sometimes people only worked 20 hours a week, but it was more than zero hours a week. The WPA didn't just hire laborers, either. It hired photographers, artists, writers, painters, sculptors, and more. Much of the great public art which now litters the country -- the fantastic homoerotic sculptures of "Commerce" outside the Federal Trade Commission, for example -- came from the WPA. Huge amounts of American history were saved by WPA historians, cataloguing materials and storing them in WPA-built libraries, while WPA writers read the documents and wrote histories of all 50 states, most major cities, and even important regions (like Appalachia, the Tennessee Valley, and the Columbia River).
Hine was a WPA photographer.
But Hine had not started out in life as photographer, but as a sociology professor.
Backtrack to the turn of the century........... Photography around 1900 was still not considered "art." It was, at best, thought of as mere mechanical reproduction, and hardly anyone believed it had aesthetically pleasing or intrinstincally artistic qualities itself. Alfred Stieglitz was beginning to challenge that with the formation of the Camera Club of New York, the "Photo-Secession" gallery show (which revolutionized the way people saw photography), and his journal Camera Work. But how people saw photography was only just beginning to change when Hines began to take photographs.
The National Child Labor Committee hired Lewis Hine as a sociologist. But Hine believed that mere words were unable to convey the appalling conditions of not only child labor but blue-collar America itself. He began taking photographs, as much as interviewing people and gathering statistics on work-related injuries and deaths.
One of Hine's earliest works is this image, "Midnight. Glassworks. Indiana." It was taken shortly after midnight on an August day in 1908 at a bottle factory near Indianapolis, Indiana. Hine said that the boy on the left told him he was 16 years old, but Hine later learned he was only 14 years old. The boy had already been working in the factory for four years. This image was taken on the fly, because the factory owner had permitted Hine to photograph his workers but not to interfere with bottle production. The boy paused for just a few seconds to be photographed by Hine. Conditions in the glass factories were horrific: Toxic fumes and smoke were inhaled constantly (leading to chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and death), and life-threatening burns were common.
This photo is titled "Young Cigarmakers in Englahardt & Co., Tampa, Fla." Cigars at the time were rolled by hand, and rollers were usually the youngest children. These three boys are all 14 years old. Most cigar-making occurred in tenement houses, where children rolled tobacco for up to 16 hours a day. Hand-rolled cigars were considered the highest-quality cigars. Children were employed in making "all-hand" (e.g., not rolled by mold or machinery) cigars, because employers thought their fingers were the most nimble. Most children smoked throughout the day. Inhaled dust from the tobacco leaves led to severe asthma, and nicotine poisoning (often leading to death) was common. A child would be paid $4 to $7 for 1,000 cigars, generally producing about 150 cigars a day. (That's like being paid 50 cents an hour in 2010 dollars.) Hine was permitted to take this photograph because the work in the cigar factory that day was light, and the children had four or five minutes to talk to Hine.
By 1911, Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee was coming to an end. He'd worked for them for four years, and the Committee was getting ready to issue its report. One of the last places Hine investigated were the anthracite coal fields in Pennsylvania. Anthracite coal came mixed with slate (sharp as razors), ash, rock, dirt, and other impurities which had to be sorted out by hand. Anthracite coal burns best if the lumps of coal are all the same size. Although some automation had occurred, allowing mechanical cleaning and size-sorting of coal, most anthracite coal was still processed by hand.
Children did this work... the "breaker boys."
This image was taken at an anthracite coal breaker near South Pittston, Pennsylvania, in 1911.
"Once a man, twice a boy" was the rule in the coal fields. Most workers started out at the age of eight in a coal breaker -- a 10-story high coal sorting factory at the mouth of each mine. When you turned 12, if you hadn't been maimed in the coal breaker, you could work in the mine itself, leading mules in the dark or running water back and forth to the miners, or pushing coal carts. Then you worked your way up to miner. By the time you were 40 or 45, you were hacking up black sludge and so broken in body that you went back to the coal breaker as a "breaker boy" again.
For 10 hours a day, six days a week, breaker boys would sit on wooden seats, perched over chutes and conveyor belts, picking slate and other impurities out of the coal. Breaker boys working on top of chutes or conveyor belts would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of fuel flowing beneath them, briefly pick out the impurities, and then let the coal pass on to the next breaker boy for further processing. Others would divert coal into a horizontal chute at which they sat, then pick the coal clean before allowing the fuel to flow into "clean coal" bins.
The work performed by breaker boys was extremely hazardous. Breaker boys were forced to work without gloves so that they could better handle the slick coal. The sharp slate meant the boys left work each day with their fingers cut and bleeding. Breaker boys sometimes also had their fingers amputated by the rapidly moving conveyor belts. Others lost feet, hands, arms, and legs as they moved among the machinery and became caught under conveyor belts. Many were crushed to death, their bodies retrieved from the gears of the machinery by supervisors only at the end of the working day. Others fell into the chutes of coal, and were crushed to death or smothered. Dry coal would kick up so much dust that breaker boys often wore lamps on their heads to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common. Then there was the acid: Coal was usually washed to remove impurities. The water reacted with the coal to create sulfuric acid, and the acid burned the hands of the breaker boys.
This image is "The Night Messenger."
One of Hine's last photography jobs was in Washington, D.C. President George Washington chose the site of Washington, D.C., in 1791. Pierre Charles L'Enfant surveyed the city the same year, and established a major thoroughfare connecting the "President's Mansion" to the site of the future Capitol building. This street was named "Pennsylvania Avenue" (pretty much by accident) in December 1791, and in 1796 the street was physically created when trees in the new city were chopped down along the avenue's route. The underbrush was removed in 1800. A dirt road was actually created in 1803, although this was replaced by asphalt (1823), stone (1852), and asphalt again (1877).
Although Pennsylvania Avenue was the site of the city's first trolley line and its first gas streetlights, the south side of the street was an infamous slum known as "Murder Bay." It was full of tarpaper and stick shacks, and home to cutthroats, pickpockets, and numerous brothels. After General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac camped nearby on the National Mall during the Civil War, so many prostitutes invested the area that it also became known as "Hooker's Division." The two trapezoidal city blocks sandwiched between Pennsylvania and Missouri Avenues (now the site of the National Gallery of Art) were home to the expensive brothels, where the level of service and upscale furnishings became so notorious that this area became known as "Marble Alley." The 12-story Romanesque Revival Post Office Building was built in Murder Bay in 1880 to spur economic redevelopment, but this effort failed. (The building is still standing, by the way.)
"The Night Messenger" is one of Hine's last images for the National Child Labor Committee. It shows the corner of C Street NW and 13th Street NW, in April 1912. (This is one block south of Pennsylvania Avenue.) Griffin Veatch is leaning against the tree at left. The 12-year-old Veatch was a "night messenger" -- a child laborer who directed customers to brothels. The men you see on the streets are visting the brothels in the buildings lining the street. It was common for brothels and prostitutes to employ children to roam the streets and encourage men to come visit the whorehouse. The child usually received a nickel for each customer brought in. On top of that, the brothel would provide one meal per day and allow the boy to sleep in a bed with (usually nestled in among prostitutes) during the day.
Murder Bay was torn down in 1928 when the federal government began building the Federal Triangle complex. Federal Triangle was completed in 1938, and continues to dominate downtown D.C.