As the Zeteo Editorial Collective prepares for its new spring issue, I have been wondering about the ways in which our authors have written about and framed children and childhood. Some of then have done so marginally, as they delve into their own topics. But for others, the analysis of childhood as a particular time and place is at the very heart of the discussion. Such is the case of James L. Hughes in his piece “History, Method and Representation: Photo-Elicitation and Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Child Labor in Chester County, South Carolina.” Hughes takes us back in time to a period in which different understandings about children’s work were particularly visible between the north and south of the United States:
In 1908, Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to shoot documentary photos of children at work in the United States. The NCLC was a coalition of reformers, including Alexander J. McKelway, a former preacher turned reformer and lobbyist, who oversaw the Southern region. McKelway put Hine on assignment to travel throughout the South photographing children at work in canneries, glass factories, coal mines, and cotton mills. The mill businesses had moved to the South to escape the labor unions of the North. Cheap labor and lax work laws allowed mill owners to put whole families to work. The pro-mill argument held the belief that families and children were better off in the mills than on the farms, where they were subject to the whims of nature and of the land-lease system.
It seems challenging to imagine today’s children working, systematically, like previous generations did. But modern kids are also the source of free and cheap labor. New versions of the pro-mill argument support unjust work. Hughes’s review of child labor in the twentieth century reminds us how little we know about children’s wellbeing, now and then.