The mystery of the mill girl

Figure 1 - Unknown spinner, Lewis Hine, c1908, from the LOC and in the public domain.

Figure 1 – Unknown spinner, Lewis Hine, c1908, from the LOC and in the public domain.

I’d like to start today with the image of Figure 1.  Taken between 1908-1912 it shows a young girl, who at age eleven had already been working for a year in a mill owned by the  Rhodes Manufacturing Company in Lincolnton, North Carolina.  The picture was taken by social reformer and photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who documented mill life and child labor in the mills.  It was one of five thousand photographs taken by Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, documenting abuses of child labor laws in textiles and other industries.  These photographs are now housed as an important social record in the Library of Congress.

Children were prized as laborers in the mills, since their small hands and bodies enabled them to reach inside the intricate machines.  The results were often disastrous.  Hine’s photographs were three decades later instrumental in the establishment of the Federal regulation of child labor began with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which for the first time set minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children. We can pat ourselves on the back, until we realize that all that has really happened is that child labor of this sort has mere been exported.

The picture itself is compositionally wonderful.  The girl stands gazing out the window, symbolic perhaps of lost childhood.  At any rate there is an outside, but pushing up and ready to devour her are the huge looms.  And these stretch on infinitely in the photograph. The picture not only represents the life of the little girl and her loss of innocence, but also of the greater loss of national innocence brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

For over a century the name of that young girl has remained a mystery, as if industrialism had swallowed up her identity.  She was identified in the picture as only as a “spinner” at the Rhodes Manufacturing Co.

Now, according to the Charlotte Observer, author and historian Joe Manning used the photograph to find her descendants and give her back her name.  He feels confident that the girl was named Lalar Blanton and is the grandmother of Myra “Carol” Cook of Louisville, Ky. Thus, this image has served two powerful purposes: first, as a tool to bring about social change, and second, a hundred years later, to resurrect the life of the subject.  Such is the power of the image.


This entry was posted in History of Photography, Reviews and Critiques.

One Comment

  1. Marilyn Fuss January 29, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Stunning, on all counts.