Explore the History of Child Labor in America through Photos

Curriculum Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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Explore the History of Child Labor in America through Photos

"Children have always worked, often exploited and under less than healthy conditions," note Joyce Kasman Valenza and Carl Atkinson in the labor unit they put together for the Library of Congress. "Industrialization, the Great Depression and the vast influx of poor immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, made it easy to justify the work of young children. To gain a true understanding of child labor, both as an historical and social issue, students should examine the worlds of real working children. This unit asks students to critically examine, respond to and report on photographs as historical evidence. Students will discover the work of reformer/photographer Lewis Hine, whose photographs give the issue of child labor a dramatic personal relevance and illustrate the impact of photojournalism in the course of American history."

Students will: develop an understanding of the importance of historical inquiry; recognize the factors which contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the United States; evaluate primary source materials as artifacts for greater understanding of the past; function as historians by formulating their own questions from encounters with primary source documents and images; identify the problems confronted by people in the past, analyze how decisions for action were made and propose alternative solutions; understand that political, economic and social history are connected; and recognize the impact of citizen action on public policy.

Time required: 2-3 weeks, in 45- to 60-minute class periods, depending on activities selected.

Procedure: In order to establish background, students will be introduced to the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Students will then critically analyze primary source materials with the help of organizers and teacher-guided questions, developing additional questions to support their own inquiry. Students will then react to their encounter with these materials by selecting among a menu of projects, with each student assuming the role of a early 20th--century journalist.

Activity One: Introduction and Background (1-2 class periods)

Discuss or review the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution. This can be done using a variety of methods depending on your time needs. An encyclopedia or textbook section would offer a basic introduction. Consider the possibility of class field trips or role play to highlight the effects of industrialization.

Activity Two: Primary Source Analysis--Documents (1-2 class periods)

In preparation for this unit, preview the resources found on the Learning Page of the Library of Congress: Using Primary Sources in the Classroom, http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/primary/html;

Lesson Framework, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/fw.html; and Historian's Sources,


Start with an open-ended question such as "How do we discover our history? How do we learn about our family's past?" Discuss the role of oral or written histories. If your students are new to primary sources, you may want to have them do the Library of Congress Mindwalk activity, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/psources/mindwalk.html.

Access Lewis Hine's Report on Child Labor in the Cotton Mills of Mississippi, 1911, at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/vc004894.jpg.

Have students respond to questions about the Hine Report, at http://memory.ioc.gov/learn/lessons/98/labor/hinerep.htm.

Discuss answers.

Activity Three: Primary Source Analysis--Photographs (1-2 class periods)

Pass around several personal snapshots, and discuss what can be learned from examining a photograph.

Distribute or project the image of Coal Breaker Boys from Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920.

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