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New York City’s Working Families in the Early 20th Century Through Lewis Hine’s Lens

Today, we’re taking a sobering journey to explore the challenging lives of working families in early 20th-century New York City. Through the powerful lens of the esteemed photographer Lewis Hine, we’ll gain a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by those living in poverty during this era.

A sociologist and photographer, Lewis Hine was renowned for using his camera for social reform. His work played a crucial role in raising awareness of the harsh living and working conditions faced by many Americans in the early 1900s. Hine’s photographs not only documented the realities of life for working-class families in New York City but also helped to galvanize support for social change and improvements in labor laws.

In the early 20th century, New York City’s working families faced many challenges as they struggled to survive and thrive amidst the rapidly growing metropolis. Living conditions were often harsh, with families crammed into overcrowded tenements that lacked proper sanitation and ventilation. Many adults labored tirelessly in physically demanding jobs while their children, forced into child labor, worked long hours in factories and sweatshops.

As we journey through Hine’s collection of images, we’re confronted with the stark contrast between the luxury and glamour often associated with New York City and the harsh realities many of its inhabitants face. Hine’s photographs depict crowded tenements where entire families lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Children, often forced to work long hours in factories and sweatshops, are shown with tired eyes and worn expressions, illustrating the cruel impact of child labor.

#1 Leveroni family. Earns 4 (cents) a gross making violets.

#2 Malestestra family. Get 6 (cents) a gross and make regularly from 10 to 12 gross a day.

#3 Mrs. Battaglia, Tessie (12 years), Tony (7 years), 170 Mulberry St. Rear house, 5th floor. Garment workers.

#4 A family picking nuts. Mother nursing baby while picking nuts.

#5 -year-old Antoinette ties like an old hand. Dominick, 9, works some. Annie, the oldest girl, works in a factory. New York City, January 1912

#6 Everybody works but….. A common scene in the tenements.

#7 Family of Mrs. Motto making flowers in a dirty tenement. Josephine, 13 years, helps outside of school hours until 9 P.M. sometimes.

#8 Father hanging around the home while family works on feathers. Said, I not work.

#9 Florence, 12 years old, and her sister, Jennie, working on crochet hats in dirty kitchen of their tenement.

#10 Home of Mrs. Schiaffo. She is a contractor, getting lace from the home workers in the neighborhood.

#11 John Sachatello, a barber with a steady job helping family make flowers. Making bluettes at $2 a gross.

#12 Mary Prenda, 13 years old. Short-sighted girl with glasses working after school on flowers with Mary’s aunt. New York City, December 1911

#13 Mrs. Capello makes 50 (cents) to $1 a week making willow plumes. Husband works irregularly as a tailor. New York City, December 1911

#14 Mrs. Caporale, (a widow), picking nuts, while her two daughters help her. The dirty children are handling the nuts and playing with them.

#15 Mrs. Lucy Libertime and family, Johnnie, 4 years old, Mary 6 years, Millie, 9, picking nuts in the basement tenement.

#16 Mrs. Marengin. Pepino, 10 years old, cracking nuts with her teeth.

#17 Mrs. Mauro, and family working on feathers, make $2.25 a week. In vacation two or three times as much. Victoria, 8, Angeline, a neighbor, 10, Fiorandi, 10, Maggie, 11.

#18 Mrs. Palontona and 13 year old daughter, working on pillow-lace in dirty kitchen of their tenement home.

#19 Mrs. Salvia, Joe, 10 years old, Josephine, 14 years, Camille, 7 years, picking nuts in a dirty tenement home.

#20 Mrs. Totora, makes from $2 to $2.50 a week making lace for a contractor.

#22 Mrs. Ricca, making rompers for Campbell kids. Husband out of work. New York City, December 1911

#23 Basso family, making roses in dirty poorly lighted kitchen.

#24 Camela, 12 years old, making Irish lace for collars. Works until 9 P.M. in dirty kitchen. New York City, January 1912

#25 Julia, a 6-year-old child making pansies for her neighbor. They said she does this every day but not all day.

#26 Katie, 13 years old, and Angeline, 11 years old, making cuffs, Irish lace.

#27 Mrs. Molinari and family making feathers.

Mrs. Molinari And Family Making Feathers.

6-year-old Antoinette ties like an old hand. Dominick, 9, works some. Annie, the oldest girl, works in a factory. New York City, January 1912

Written by Frederick Victor

I've been a history writer for a while. I love to explore historical sites because they connect us to our past. They make us feel like we are part of something much bigger.

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