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The Depressing Stories Behind 20 Vintage Child Labor Pictures

Child labor has never been a particularly pretty part of society, but during the industrial revolution, the practice became even uglier than its earlier incarnations. Children were often put in dangerous industrial jobs and paid menial wages. While free public schools had become available by the time these pictures were taken, poor families still couldn’t afford to pass up potential wages to be earned by their young children. In fact, even though public school was made compulsory in all states by 1918, many children continued to work whenever possible; there were no effective, standardized federal labor laws in effect until 1938. Even so, the mandatory schooling laws greatly helped reduce child labor and increased the education of the populace. If you’ve ever wondered just how ugly child labor could get, then you will certainly appreciate these powerful images by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Food Production

From farming to fishing to processing to canning, there was a time where practically all foods were grown with the help of child laborers – sometimes working as soon as they were old enough to understand what their family members were doing. While all of these jobs were dirty, some were particularly dangerous, requiring children to wield blades or operate shoddy machinery.

In this family of harvesters working in 1910, the children would start picking fruits when they turned three years old. While they would go to school after the harvest season was over, they’d usually start classes at least a month and a half in, since it was more important that everyone work as long as possible into the season.

This eight-year-old girl, working at a nearby cranberry farm that same year, was also held from school until the harvest was over. Work was so constant that her father even scolded her for pausing so the photographer could take this image – hence her look of worry.

This 12-year-old boy lost his hand while operating the mowing machine he is posed on. Despite being maimed, the child still helped his family harvest vegetables with his good hand as soon as he was able to get back in the fields. His mother lamented that “now we will have to educate him,” since he could no longer work as a manual laborer on the farm.

This five-year-old boy worked at an oyster plant in 1911, running barefoot on cracked shells as he retrieved buckets of shellfish to shuck. The company hired many children of his age to shuck oysters for as little as 30 cents a day, approximately $7 in today’s currency.  If you’ve ever shucked an oyster yourself, you can appreciate just how dangerous this line of work can be, particularly for someone that young.

While there are quite a few children in this image of shrimp pickers, the youngest is eight years old and, while not pictured in this photo, the youngest boys employed by the company were only five. These employees would stand over a trough all day shelling shrimp until their fingers bled, and of course the acid and salt water only worsened the pain.

These two berry hullers were only two and three years old, but they worked long, twelve hour shifts, just like the rest of their family members. Hullers at the company would earn two cents per quart of berries finished, but there is no indication of how many quarts would typically be completed in a day.

Eight-year-old Daisy worked on the capping machine in a canning factory in 1910. While she was able to put 40 caps on the cans per minute, she still kept falling behind and getting in trouble. Daisy was still lucky though, as she could have been put on a much more dangerous part of the line where machinery featuring open gears would regularly injure workers.

Industrial Workers

Of course, child labor wasn’t limited to the agricultural and fishing industries; practically anything made in an industrial setting was made with the help of children. These workers would often be put in dangerous situations and many ended up injured or permanently crippled as a result.

These days, coal miners still face a lot of work hazards no matter how OSHA-compliant their employer. Back before these types of jobs were regulated though, employees were given little, if any, protective clothing and forced to work ten or twelve hour shifts.  These boys, photographed in 1908, stayed underground all day from 7 AM to 5 PM. The youngest boys at the company would be hired as "trappers," sent to open up the trap doors to allow the drivers through with their coal loads.

This boy lost his leg when he was only eleven when, working as a trapper, he got stuck between two cars. The company determined it was his fault and refused to offer him any compensation. Even after the accident, his father continued to work at the mine.

This thirteen-year-old was fortunate, as far as boy miners went, because he got to operate the trip rope, allowing him to spend most of his time outdoors.

These young boys worked inside a factory building in 1911, processing the impurities from the coal by hand. The dust was so thick at times that many of the photographer’s shots didn’t come out at all, yet none of the boys were given protective gear. In fact, they were instead beaten and kicked by their overseers if they didn’t seem to be working fast enough.

Before machines were invented to streamline the process, bedsprings were linked by hand in factories like this one photographed in 1917. While the work was dangerous and difficult, at least this factory refused to hire anyone under the age of seventeen.

This textile mill, photographed in 1909, commonly hired children too young to even reach the tops of the machines to mend the broken threads. As a result, sights like this were common on the factory floor.

Unsurprisingly, factory accidents were an all-too-common occurrence. This 16-year-old boy lost his leg and arm in an industrial accident at a spring factory in 1908. Despite the fact that he spent two years at the factory, no one from the company stopped by to visit him after the accident and he received no compensation for his injuries.

This boy was fortunate in that he was able to receive $10,000 in compensation for his two lost fingers after winning a lawsuit against the company he worked for. That's approximately $200,000 after inflation.

He was injured after he fell asleep during an eighteen hour shift and accidentally turned on the machine in front of him in the process.

In some ways, though, factory life wasn’t always bad. Some factories were far less dangerous than others, and employers would sometimes let their workers hire a reader, like this man, to read books and newspapers to them while they worked. For many young factory workers, this was the closest thing they could get to an education and was considered to be quite a job perk.

Home Workers

While working from home is considered a luxury these days, in the 1800s, most people who worked at home may as well have been in a sweatshop. Whole families would work on menial tasks in cramped tenements with no air conditioning and dim lighting, usually earning less than $1 a day – that’s per family, not per person. Inflated to today’s monetary value, that would mean an entire family could earn about $25 per day. On the upside, at least these workers were in a fairly safe environment.

Hunched over a tiny table, Mrs. Gay and her children, aged 5, 7, 12 and 13, would work to set stones into inexpensive jewelry pieces. The Gays were lucky in that their children could actually attend school. After the children got out of school each day, they would work into the evening, all so the family could earn an extra $5 a week.

This family worked together to make artificial flowers. Even the five-year-old would work with the rest of the family. For every 150 or so flowers completed, they would earn $.08.

Mrs. Weeks would work with her children and grandchildren, ages 4-13, to string wooden buttons. The children in this family were able to go to school, but after school and on holidays, they would join in to help string the buttons. Even with all the extra hands, Mrs. Weeks rarely made more than $7 a month, approximately $180 in today’s currency.

This family was already training the youngest daughter, a two-year-old, to make flower wreaths with the rest of them. They expected her to be able to work within the next year.

While these pictures can make you grateful that many countries have strict child labor laws in place, remember there are many places where scenes like this still occur on a daily basis.

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Harry Trimble
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Design
Delightful Photo Series Celebrates Britain’s Municipal Trash Cans
Harry Trimble
Harry Trimble

Not all trash cans are alike. In the UK, few know this better than Harry Trimble, the brains behind #govbins, a photo project that aims to catalog all the trash can designs used by local governments across Britain.

Trimble, a 29-year-old designer based in South London, began the series in 2016, when he noticed the variation in trash can design across the cities he visited in the UK. While most bins are similar sizes and shapes, cities make trash cans their own with unique graphics and unusual colors. He started to photograph the cans he happened to see day-to-day, but the project soon morphed beyond that. Now, he tries to photograph at least one new bin a week.

A bright blue trash can reads ‘Knowsley Council: Recycle for Knowsley.’
Knowsley Village, England

“I got impatient,” Trimble says in an email to Mental Floss. “Now there’s increasingly more little detours and day trips” to track down new bin designs, he says, “which my friends, family and workmates patiently let me drag them on.” He has even pulled over on the road just to capture a new bin he spotted.

So far, he’s found cans that are blue, green, brown, black, gray, maroon, purple, and red. Some are only one color, while others feature lids of a different shade than the body of the can. Some look very modern, with minimalist logos and city website addresses, Trimble describes, “while others look all stately with coats of arms and crests of mythical creatures.”

A black trash can features an 'H' logo.
Hertsmere, England

A blue trash can reads ‘South Ribble Borough Council: Forward with South Ribble.’
South Ribble, England

A green trash can with a crest reads ‘Trafford Council: Food and Garden Waste Only.’
Trafford, Greater Manchester, England

Trimble began putting his images up online in 2017, and recently started an Instagram to show off his finds.

For now, he’s “more than managing” his one-can-a-week goal. See the whole series at govbins.uk.

All images by Harry Trimble

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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