Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Down the Rabbit Hole:Turn of the Century Child Labor Images

Both my maternal grandmother and Paul's father picked cotton as small children to help support their families. My grandmother picked out in fields in Arkansas and Paul's father in Dimebox, TX back in the 1920's. 

When my Gata told me her cotton-picking stories when I was a young child I couldn't believe it. Small children working out in hot dusty fields all day long to help support their families? It just seemed unbelievable and shocking to me. But my Gata said it was no big deal, it was what all the poor kids did in her town. 

This is the same woman who found out in horror one day that the skinned "rabbits" her mom was bringing home for dinner were often stray cats. Life during the Great Depression wasn't a walk in the park by any means. But my Gata was one of the most decent, loving, and happy people I have ever met. And she had an incredible strength about her that is seems lacking in many adults of my generation, including me.

The other day I was looking at public domain photos and ran across a group of images of children working in fields to help support their families back in the early 1900's or so. Unfortunately I can't remember exactly where I found them, but they are on this site

These images are so incredibly beautiful and yet so heartbreaking. I have such mixed feelings viewing them. I know many of these children were like my Gata and Paul's father and grew up into fulfilled, strong, hardworking, and content adults. But when I think of my children working out all day in a hot field so we could afford to buy some bread for dinner so we won't starve, it makes my heart ache.

Each image included a little information about the child's age, where they lived, and even little notes on what they did and how they felt about it. 

The age ranged from toddler to teenager, and their comments on their jobs were so interesting and sometimes quite heartbreaking.

One child was 6 years old and said he had been picking cotton already for 3 years. Another child said he was proud to help support his family and wouldn't work for less than a quarter a day. One little girl said she worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. 

When I was looking at this images I was thinking of how much things has changed. I hand my boy a list of chores and you would think either they were doing me the greatest favor performing them, or that their unpaid labor to keep their own household running smoothly was killing them.

This poor child below is making the exact same face my boys make when they spend 30 minutes weeding my flower beds. Yet she is probably working 12-14 hour days out in the hot sun and doesn't come home to a dinner of beef nacho and a viewing of Stargate SG1.

I showed my boys these images to put things in perspective. Whether they got anything out of looking at them I can't really say, but all we can do is teach our children history so that they can learn from it.

I hope you enjoy looking at these images as much as I did. Would love to read any of your ancestral stories of children having to work to support their family in my comments.

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  1. Down the rabbit hole is right! Though, while things may have changed here in North America with child labour having strict laws, unfortunately, in many of the less developed countries in the world, child labour is still very much present. The images you've showcased are amazing Rita. It is quite interesting that there were notes to go along with some of them. Funny, how back then it was an honour to help the family in their time of need and as you say, just getting kids to basic chores to help out the family can be like pulling teeth. It really is fascinating how the ideals and characteristics of each new generation turns out! Thanks for sharing these! ~Lisa

    1. You are so right about child labor still going on in many other countries. And it is so interesting how much has changed here in the US since the 1920's. Not complaining, just fascinating to study the past.


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