Boys in Glass Houses

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Before the passage of child labor laws, underage workers in local glass factories were photographed by Lewis Hine.
By Jim Talone

When he came down here in November of 1909 Hine was an unknown photographer working for the National Child Labor Committee who were concerned that America’s children were losing their youth to the factory.
Lewis Hine was new to photography when he started but his great photos of children working from 1907 to 1915 painted a searing portrait of working conditions for the children and for the poor and immigrants that brought their problems to the attention of the American public.
In 1908 Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to travel the country and take pictures of children at work.  He traveled over 30,000 miles in those first couple of years. He photographed children in the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the shoeshine boys and messengers of New York City, and boys and girls working in the mills from North Carolina to Maine. When he came to New Jersey he went where the children were and recorded children shucking oysters on the bay and working in the fields. One of the main sources of paid work for children was in the glass factories, so he visited as many as he could in Bridgeton, Millville, and Vineland and down in Cape May Courthouse.
He would come into an area and spend a few days taking photos and recording what information he could about the children. As his photos began to be published, Hine became a problem for the bosses and often had to pretend to be a postcard vendor or fire inspector in order to get in the factory. By the time he arrived on the scene there were already some laws about children not working before they were 14 years old and in New Jersey where there was to be no night work. But these were laws that were not well enforced and it wasn’t uncommon to have the boys and their parents lie to say a 10-year-old was really 14 years old. A man with two or three boys working in the glass mills could do very well financially. There were recorded instances of unscrupulous people adopting 10 to 12-year-olds out of orphanages and putting them to work in the factories and living off the wages.
New Jersey with its great clean sand was producing much of the country’s glass, and it was a well-paying job for a skilled glass blower. They had strong unions and were making as much as $5 or $6 a day for an annual salary over $1,000, which would put them comfortably in the middle class in those days. But a young boy without a union might earn only $3 to $4 for a 60-hour week. Night work was very important in the industry as the owners had to keep the furnaces at 3,000 degrees. When the furnace was going they wanted to make glass and if that meant that the boys had to start at 5 p.m. and work until 3 a.m., so be it.
Work was divided so that glass workers functioned as small teams of five or seven people. There would be a union glass blower and finisher who would do the skilled work and three or four boys who would take the molten glass from the furnace and take it to the blower and from there to the finisher. Much depended on the speed of the boys and it was hot difficult work.
There were no OSHA regulations in those days and accidents were not uncommon. The Cape May County Gazette reported “A young lad by the name of Barterson had an eye burned out with a hot glass tube on Monday…it is thought that the unfortunate lad will not survive.” The West Jersey Press reported that “Martin, a son of Henry Lolo, is slowly recovering from the effects of being painfully burned by accidently dropping molten glass into his shoe while working in the factory a few days ago.”
Lewis Hine’s photographs created quite a stir in the nation, and there were many calls for laws to protect children. But progress was not made in that area until the Depression of the 1930s when there were so many men out of work, it didn’t make sense to employ children.
If you would like to learn more about this subject check out SNJ Today’s upcoming 22-minute documentary entitled “Boys in Glass Houses.”
SNJ Today in association with HRT collaborated to create this original documentary directed by James Talone about child workers in glass houses in the early 1900s.