Today, the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is the kind of trite shortcut your English teacher deducts points from your essay for using. But at the turn of the century the visceral power of a photograph was a new concept.
One responsibility of the House is to investigate. To conduct the hearings that are often part of the investigative process, committees prepare by gathering extensive evidence related to the issue. In the early 1900s, new methods of photography lowered costs, increased ease of reproduction, and spurred the development of news photography. These documentary photographs, depicting often gritty, true-to-life scenes, made their way into the investigative files of House committees.
In 1908, Lewis Wickes Hine, one of the most famous early documentary photographers, was hired as a staff photographer for the non-profit National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), and he began documenting the conditions of young workers in Washington, D.C. This photograph of boys, all younger than the age of ten, selling newspapers outside of the Capitol in 1912, ended up in the files of the Committee on the District of Columbia. It was taken by Hine and submitted to the committee along with a pamphlet compiled by the NCLC entitled “Child Labor in the National Capital,” as well as a number of similar photographs. The notation Hine typed on the back of the photograph observes that the three boys were about nine years old. One was a “chronic truent [sic],” and another had already been working as a newsboy since the age of 6. Their work required them to rise early and work long days, until all their papers were sold.
The pamphlet and accompanying photographs were apparently persuasive enough that the committee drafted legislation to curtail the employment of minors in the District of Columbia during the 63rd Congress; however, this bill appears not to have made it out of committee. The issue of child labor re-emerged from the Committee in 1928 as H.R. 6685, “To Regulate the Employment of Minors in the District of Columbia,” which became P.L. 70-618. House Report No. 703, which accompanied the bill and recommended its passage, states the purpose of the bill is “to remedy the weaknesses of the present child-labor law and to give the children of the District of Columbia a measure of protection from working conditions detrimental to their health, education and general well-being equal to that which is given children in the majority of States.”
A decade later, Hine’s photographs of newsboys seem to have factored into the committee’s deliberations. The 1928 law included specific restrictions on the sale of newspapers by children, including limits on the hours children could work and an age restriction that boys could be no younger than 12. (At a time when boys as young as five could be founding hawking papers on the streets of Washington, this was an improvement.)
A newspaper reporter, after viewing an exhibit of Hine’s photographs curated by the NCLC during the time Hine was employed by it, wrote:
“There has been no more convincing proof of the absolute necessity of child labor laws . . . than these pictures showing the suffering, the degradation, the immoral influence, the utter lack of anything that is wholesome in the lives of these poor wage earners. They speak far more eloquently than any [written] work—and depict a state of affairs which is terrible in its reality—terrible to encounter, terrible to admit that such things exist in civilized communities.”
Although it was another decade until child labor laws were codified on a federal level in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the photographs Hine took, like the ones in the records of the Committee on the District of Columbia, supplied crucial, irrefutable documentation that provided the impetus for Congress to take action to protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Sources: To Regulate the Employment of Minors in the District of Columbia, 70th Cong., 1st Sess., 17 February 1928, H. Rep. 708; Records of the Committee on the District of Columbia, 63rd Cong., Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; “Public Law 70-618: An Act To regulate the employment of minors within the District of Columbia.”(45 Stat. 908; May 29, 1928); Russell Freedman, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (New York: Clarion Books, 1994).