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From Photo Of A Lawrence Girl 100 Years Ago, Discovering The Legacy Of Child Labor

Mill worker Eva Tanguay photographed by social reformer Lewis Hine in Lawrence in 1911. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

Mill worker Eva Tanguay photographed by social reformer Lewis Hine in Lawrence in 1911. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

ANDOVER, Mass. — The question was: Whatever happened to that girl?

Her name was Eva Tanguay. And she was a “doffer in [the] spinning room of Ayer mill,” according to social reformer Lewis Hine, who photographed her when he visited Lawrence, Mass., in 1911 to document child laborers there. “A half hour car ride in a crowded, stuffy car to and from work. Leaves home at 6 A.M. and returns at 6:30 P.M.”

“When you look at that photo and you look at her face, she’s 14 but she’s already worked at the mill over a year,” says University of Massachusetts-Lowell history professor Robert Forrant. “Her eyes look 40.”

From 1908 to ’24, Hine vividly photographed the working and living conditions of American kids to help turn public opinion against child labor as part of the National Child Labor Committee’s campaign to end the practice.

The question of Tanguay’s story came when the Lawrence History Center sought to track down the biographies of children Hine photographed as part of the center’s efforts to commemorate last year’s 100th anniversary of Lawrence’s landmark 1912 Bread and Roses Strike.

“What Hine was capturing was what the workforce looked like right before this very famous strike,” Forrant says. Thousands of mill workers successfully fought a pay cut imposed by mill owners in what became a historic victory for workers rights and the labor movement in America.

Forrant and Joe Manning, who did most of the research, speak about the project at 8 p.m. Feb. 6 at Phillips Academy’s Kemper Auditorium, near the intersection of Chapel Avenue and Main Street in Andover. Their free public talk is related to an exhibit, the “Lewis Hine Project—Stories of the Lawrence Children,” on view in the school’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Library through March 15. (The exhibit was originally displayed at the Lawrence History Center last year.)

“Stories of typical, average mill workers in 1912 don’t usually make the history books,” Forrant says. “So to see these stories is kind of incredible.”

Mill worker Eva Tanguay (second from left) with her family in Lawrence in 1911, as photographed by social reformer Lewis Hine. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

Mill worker Eva Tanguay (second from left) with her family in Lawrence in 1911, as photographed by social reformer Lewis Hine. (From the collection of the Library of Congress)

Forrant and his students teamed up on the project with Manning, a retired social worker in North Hampton, who’d already tracked down the family of a Vermont girl in a 1910 Hine photo as part of a book project. Subsequently he’d also traced subjects in photos documenting Americans taken under the government’s Depression-era Farm Security Administration project.

Led by Manning and using Hine’s detailed notes, they found obituaries and records of births, marriages and deaths for 10 children in the photos. Manning then tracked down and contacted living relatives. In most cases, Forrant says, “the descendents had never seen the photos.”

The exhibit features reproductions of the Hine photos, which are now in the collection of the Library of Congress, as well the life stories and later family photos of the featured children. Among the 10 photographed child workers, a couple boys died in World War I. Some others spent their lives working in mills. Some went on to open their own successful neighborhood groceries or small bottling companies.

It turned out that Eva Tanguay was born Oct. 10, 1896, in Manchester, N.H. She was the first of 11 children born to French Canadian immigrants Joseph and Roseanna Tanguay. Joseph, a carpenter, and his family had moved to Lawrence by 1900 and settled near the mills where Eva found work as an adolescent.

Eva married Frederick Holdsworth, a railroad machinist in 1916. They lived in Lawrence, until moving to Wakefield in 1930, and raised four children.

Eva’s husband died in 1938. In the early 1940s, she remarried, to Oliver Hoover, who worked at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Portsmouth, N.H., where they lived. Two of Eva’s sons died during military service during World War II. And then her second husband died as well. She married another Navy Yard worker, Robert Raymond Dibbert, in 1947 and they moved to Berkeley, Calif.

Manning tracked down her granddaughter Kathleen O’Boyle, who remembered Eva as a “wonderful seamstress” who worked in a bridal shop in California.

“The last time I saw Grandma was about 1980,” O’Boyle told Manning. “She was quite a stinker. She always had a cigarette in her mouth. She loved to gamble. She was just full of the devil. We took our kids out to California in 1980. We visited my sister and her husband. Our son Todd was about 15 years old. We spent some time with Grandma. One day we went to the zoo. We walked past the chimpanzee cages, and one of them was shaking the cage like crazy. All of a sudden, he pooped in his hand and threw it at Grandma. And she said to Todd, ‘Damn it. Pick it up and throw it right back at him.’ Things would come out of her mouth that were hilarious.”

Eva’s third husband, Robert, died in 1968. She lived for 14 more years, passing away in Santa Clara, Calif., on March 10, 1982, at age 85.

“The photos were instrumental in pushing the country to end child labor,” Forrant says. “I look at them as the beginning of the passage of laws to keep kids in school and to pay parents better wages so the kids don’t have to work.”

In 1916, Congress passed the first federal law restricting child labor, but it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later. A congressional effort to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing child labor restrictions in 1924 failed. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act finally put federal limits on child labor in 1938. From the foundation of these labor regulations grew the American middle class.

Those kids Hine photographed, Forrant says, “Their life stories say in a way that the generation that worked in the mills had really hard, difficult lives. But in many cases what happened to them coming into the mills and working so hard is that the later generations did better.”

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  • todd

    I met Joe Manning a few years ago. The work he has done is amazing.

  • MickeyLong

    Decades after prohibiting child labor, Americans passed “free trade” treaties (NAFTA, e.g.). Now American companies can employ kids, for even less than minimum wages. All companies have to do is close their American factories and move to Mexico, then China, now Vietnam. It worked! Millions of adult American workers lost their jobs, and are now willing to work for less. Millions of children in those countries became employed, for pennies. And American folks learned that free trade means, freedom to hire children, pollute the air, avoid unionization, and navigate the globe pitting adults against kids, worker against worker, nation against nation. This globe-trotting model keeps kids and adults hungry for work. Now, smart multi-national corporate executives can earn record compensation packages, while looking like good-guy “job creators” who only want to help the hungry poor.

  • joehark

    In 1948, as a High School sophomore, I learned an anti-child labor poem. In the 1990s i got to quote it during a speech objecting to plans to build a private golf course on part of what is now Liberty State Park in Jersey City. As in the golf course in the poem, the links in Jersey City would have been in view of the children of an impoverished urban community that would have lost the park’s access. That golf course was never built. I think the poem from the late 1800s helped stop it.

    The Golf Links
    by sarah cleghorn (a contemporary in England of Charles Dickens)

    “The golf links lie so near the mill
    That almost everyday
    The laboring children can look out
    And see the men at play”

  • FNA

    I did some research on conditions in the mill owned housing of the Cabot Mfg, Co. in Brunswick, ME in the late 19th c and found ample evidence of child labor. Kids as young as ten worked full shifts at this textile mill. Horrible conditions in the housing helped spread diseases that killed many children. Three generations of my family worked in these mills and it’s easy for me to imagine them when I see the young worker in the photo. Some research here: http://frenchnorthamerica.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-case-of-cabot-mill-part-1.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/nancy.caswellwashell.9 Nancy Caswell Washell

      my great-grandfather was 4 years old and his brother 6 years old working in the mills in MA

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