2008 — HUMBLE HANDS Child Labor and the American Factory
September – December
With the onset of the Industrial revolution, factories sprouted up across Western Europe and North America, changing the face of labor as people knew it. Factory work began to replace agricultural work as millions of people moved to the cities to find better paying jobs. Many came to rely heavily on money to support their families rather than cultivating their own resources, and the standard of living quickly diminished. In this environment, everyone was responsible for contributing to the family in some way… even children younger than ten.
This exhibit looks at how child labor has changed throughout history in American textile factories and how American corporations are connected to this issue today.
Thomas Lister Kay, originally from Yorkshire, England, thought that building his new mill in Salem would bring much needed employment and economic growth to the capital city after the Willamette Woolen Mill burned down in 1876. Kay’s mill operated six days a week making woolen fabric for clothing, as well as blankets. Though it never employed the 500 people Kay had originally hoped it would, it did bring many good jobs to Salem and its management was known for treating its employees well. Workers at the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill lead much better lives than the thousands working in factories and other mills across the United States and in Western Europe.
These are spools of thread used in sewing machines. It was a child’s job as a “doffer” to replace the full ones, with a new empty one while the machine was still running. It was a dangerous job to balance on the machines and change the bobbins; and there were numerous chances for children to slip into the machinery resulting in bad injuries and/or death.
Lewis Hine was a child rights activist who documented the harsh reality of living and working conditions during the Industrial Revolution. He worked in collaboration with the National Labor Committee between 1907 and 1910 with the purpose of changing public attributes and ending child labor. Hine’s work became one of the most influential driving forces in the fight for stricter labor laws. This exhibit displays some of his photographs and includes some of the original captions.
“Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick of the whole business that when the time comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past.”
LOCATION: 3rd Floor
CURATOR: Joy Charron, WOU History Student