Mass. man searches for stories behind century-old child labor photos

Mamie La Barge at her Machine. Under legal age. Winchendon, Massachusetts. September 1911.
Library of Congress

(CBS News) WINCHENDON, MA - Photographer Lewis Hine is well known for his iconic pictures of workers high atop the Empire State Building. But before becoming famous for snapping pictures above the streets of New York, Hine worked as an anti-child labor investigator.

Between 1908 and 1924, Hine worked for a private advocacy organization, The National Child Labor Committee. Over the course of 16 years, he took more than 5,000 pictures of children working, often illegally, in mills and mines across the United States.

The photos were meant to shock Americans into reforming child labor laws. Almost 75 years after labor reform was enacted though, one man is still haunted by the photos.

70-year-old Joe Manning is a retired social worker from Florence, Massachusetts. A friend first showed him Lewis Hine's child labor photos on the Library of Congress' website. He was fascinated by the young faces frozen in time.

But to Manning, the photos only represented half of the story, "because Hine never went back and [said], I wonder what happened to that kid."

For the past seven years, with just names and locations as clues, Manning has tried to fill in the blanks. Census records and obituaries have led him to various mill towns, including Winchendon, Mass.

In 1911, Lewis Hine took 40 photographs of child laborers in Winchendon. One of those photos is of a 13-year-old textile worker named Mamie La Barge.

"Who the heck was Mamie? Who was she? What was she like? Whatever happen to her?" says Manning. "How could you not ask? How could you not want to know what happen to that kid?"

By combing through death notices published in the local newspaper, Manning was able to track down Mamie's surviving family.

Her granddaughters, Sheryl Szlyk and Deborah Begonis, remembered playing near the old mill as children, but never knew their grandmother, Mamie, had worked there.

"She was part of that era that we learned about in high school - my grandmother was in child labor with 12 of her siblings", Szlyk said.

It turns out that 10 years after Hine took that photograph, Mamie got married. She had three children and lived to be 79 years old.

So far, Joe Manning has been able to connect 300 families with their past and counting.

"All these people, who don't get into the history books. Well, I'm trying to put them into, at least, my history book. They deserve it."

Manning is giving a full picture to a snapshot of American history. The website for Manning's project is available here.