“Paint us an angel with the floating violet robe and a face paled by the celestial light; paint
us a Madonna turning her mild face upward, and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory, but do not impose on us any esthetic
rules which shall banish from the reign of art those old women with work-worn hands scraping carrots, those rounded backs
and weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world, those homes with their tin pans,
their brown pitchers, their rough curs and their clusters of onions. It is needful we
should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them out of our religion and philosophy, and frame lofty theories
which only fit the world of extremes. Therefore, let art always remind us of them; therefore, let us always have men ready
to give the loving pains of life to the faithful representing of commonplace things, men who see beauty in the commonplace
things, and delight in showing how kindly the light of heaven falls on them.” -George Eliot, English novelist
Why did I create the Lewis Hine Project?
Back in the 1960s, I was taking an American history course in college, and it
occurred to me that the reason I was so bored with it was because I couldn’t identify with the people and events I was
studying. As far as I knew, no one in my family was ever a general, or a president, or a senator, or a railroad magnate, or
some other famous or privileged person (mostly rich white men). As the saying goes, we were just plain folks. I thought to
myself, “Didn’t history happen to ordinary people, too?”
In 2002, I took a course in genealogy
at a local college and went to work exploring my family history. I found out a bunch of amazing stuff. My father’s maternal
grandparents married at age 17, left their homes in Indiana in a covered wagon, and headed slowly to Kansas to look for
a place to farm. They eventually had nine children, four of them destined to die in their first year. My father’s paternal
great-grandfather came to the US (Illinois) from Ireland in the 1830s, and lost five of his six sons in the Civil War. Both
my father and I were named after the only son who survived. Now, that’s history I can relate to!
and families depicted in the child labor photographs of Lewis Hine were unwittingly caught in the act of making history, but
we know almost nothing about them. The pictures were taken for a noble purpose, but a century later, they have become
an enormous photo album of the American family. By finding out what happened to some of them, and by revealing the photos
to their descendants (most descendants are unaware of them), we are dignifying their lives, and the lives of everyone that
history has forgotten.
I am well aware that the mostly anecdotal information from descendants may have
relatively limited historical value, since some important details will be left out, due to faded memories or an occasional
unwillingness to mention embarrassing or deeply personal events. I also understand that the child laborers for whom I have
been successful may tend to represent those who left the most easily followed trail, such as those who lived long enough to
get a Social Security number, served in the military, and married and had children. And I have come to realize that I
often select children with "searchable" names, such as Archie Love, Shorpy Higginbotham and Ora Fugate; or that
I may favor photos that are compelling simply because of their artfulness or because of the way they touch me emotionally,
whatever the reason.
But my aim here is not to write definitive biographies of each child, nor to establish any trends, nor to come
to any conclusions about how the experiences of child labor influenced the outcomes of children in their adult lives, nor
to even make an informed argument for or against the practice of child labor. The stories, however long or brief, help us
to get to know a few people whose only public persona, for as long as a hundred years, has been a simple snapshot.
do I track down the descendants?
Most experienced genealogists and historical researchers are familiar with the
tools I use to find the descendants. It’s essential to have access to the Internet, and a website such as Ancestry.com,
which has a huge database of searchable digital records.
I usually choose a photo that has at least one person named in the caption. Many
of Hine’s captions don’t name anyone, and those that do often misspell the name. Many also give the likely age
of the person, and virtually all of them list the location and year the photo was taken. The first thing I do is look
in the US census to see if anyone with that approximate name and age was listed in the city, town or state where they were
photographed. If I find the person, I try to follow them up through the 1940 census, the most recent one that is currently
accessible to the public. This information helps to establish the year and place of birth, and the names of parents, siblings,
and in most cases, spouses and children.
If the person died with an assigned Social Security number, their death record
will appear in the Social Security Death Index. Once I know where and when they died, it is likely that I will be able to
obtain a copy of the obituary in the newspaper archives at the library in the town in which they died. Most libraries provide
this service, and will mail out obituaries for a nominal fee. The
obituary usually lists some of the surviving family members, and often the town they were living in at that time. At that
point, I search for the survivors in the Internet White Pages, or on one of the major search engines, such as Google. If I
find one of them, I contact them.
There are major obstacles I constantly encounter. Some people just don’t get listed in
the census. Some died very young and left no survivors. Many immigrants changed the spelling of their names, or the census
takers (and Hine) hopelessly misspelled their names. And the biggest obstacle is finding the death records of girls, since
those who married usually died with a different last name, which I won’t know unless I am lucky enough to find a state
marriage record. If I get stumped, I pick out a male sibling and track him instead.
In a few cases, I have chosen children
who were not named in the photos, persuaded the newspaper in the city or town where they were photographed to publish
the photo, and then waited to see if any readers recognized the child. This has proved to be a very effective tool,
as you will note from some of the stories on this site.
That’s the short answer to this question. There is much more to tell.
are my plans for the Lewis Hine Project?
Because I am author, I am working on a book about it. I have received casual interest
from several publishers, but no offers as yet. A documentary film, perhaps in the style of those on Public Television, would
be a terrific way to tell some of my stories, and my role in the project as well. A third idea would be a traveling exhibition,
similar to those sponsored by museums such as the Smithsonian. (As of May 2013, there have been three exhibitions of my work,
two of them appearing in seven different locations over the past several years.) I work on this project essentially
by myself, and at my own expense. Several times over the years, I have obtained the voluntary services of several college
student interns, and a local resident, who helped with transcribing tapes of the many interviews I have done with the
There are almost 5,000 child labor photos
to choose from. I can’t do all of them. So when do I plan to stop?
That’s not likely to happen.
The most rewarding part of this project has been having the opportunity to contact descendants who were not aware of the photos,
send copies to them (free of charge), and get to know them. Many of these descendants have never seen photos of their parents
or grandparents as young children, and each new photo I choose brings the hope of finding yet another surprised and delighted
descendant, and another story. Why should I stop now?