Exhibit to portray hardscrabble life of mill children
He looks like he’s about 10 years old. Barefoot, he sits on the curb in the early morning light one day in August 1911. He is waiting for the doors to the Berkshire Mills to open so he can go to work.
He likely spent much of his youth working at the mill in Adams, as did many of his contemporaries.
His nickname may have been Pee Wee.
But Ralph Brill, an artist and owner of Brill Gallery, wants to know more about Pee Wee, like where he lived, whether he survived to marry, and did he have any children? Did he ever get out of the mill life?
Pee Wee was photographed by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), the groundbreaking photographer who was commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee to document the working life of children in America. From 1908 to 1917, Hine hauled his big box of a camera through most of the nation, photographing children working in mills, mines, fisheries, farms and factories. His images -- which captured often harsh and dangerous working conditions and children as young as 6 working in factories -- eventually spurred the federal government’s first child labor laws.
Hine’s roughly 5,000 images portrayed a generation of American youth condemned to hard labor, little education, marginal nutrition, little pay and little chance of getting out.
Pee Wee’s photograph will be part of "The Mill Children" exhibition, presented by The Brill Gallery, which will be open from June through December at 5 Hoosac St. -- a former mill building -- in Adams.
Exhibition organizers want to be able to tell Pee Wee’s story and those of the others Hines photographed in Northern Berkshire County. So far, Brill and his team have been able to identify other children in Hine’s photos, and thereby tell the story of a generation of young people who devoted their youth to helping provide for their families.
Typically, an entire family would work in a mill, with the father making about $12 per week and the mother netting $9. Girls made $5 -- a dollar more a week than the boys -- because their slender fingers could get into hard-to-reach parts of mill machinery. Of course, $30 per week for a family of four did not go far.
Working conditions at the mills were difficult and sometimes dangerous, especially for children who toiled on assembly lines using factory equipment without the dexterity of their adult counterparts.
But once they were committed to the mill worker’s life, many mill families found it hard to get out. The mill owner typically owned the tenements rented by the mill workers along with the nearby company store where the workers would get their clothing and food. They had no cars and couldn’t own horses, so they were limited in how far they could go.
Between the rent and the cost of necessities at the company store, a lot of mill families found themselves paying their entire wage back to the company. It was a trap that was difficult to break: They couldn’t quit their jobs until they paid off their debt to the company, but the company paid so little, paying off such a debt could be insurmountable.
Gail Sellers, a local artist and resident in the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, noted that both her parents worked in local mills before the age of 18.
While it was a difficult life, it was normal for the area. And as her parents grew older and had kids of their own, they were determined that their children would have it better than they did.
"It was a tough life and they didn’t want us to follow in their footsteps," Sellers said. "They didn’t want us to have to work in the mills."
Hine’s photos were instrumental in effecting a cultural shift in both American industry and the educational system. By 1916, it was illegal to employ anyone under the age of 16, and schooling was required.
"He humanized the child labor problem," Brill said. "People were seeing these photos and realizing those children could be anybody’s kids. They were no longer French-Canadian or Polish. They were human."
So who was Pee Wee? Was his family from another country as was typical with many mill families? Many in this area were from Poland, Italy or Canada, and were considered by some to be second-class citizens. Pee Wee is barefoot, which is not unusual at that time: For many families, shoes were hard to come by.
Brill chose to seek Pee Wee’s back story because he was the only photo from the 1911 period that had a partial name, although Hine tried to keep copious notes. But for a number of Hine’s shots in Adams in 1911, he didn’t keep any. So Brill is turning to the public for help.
"Maybe some relative can connect with the Pee Wee name," he said.
And once they have a full name, Pee Wee’s story will be brought to light.
Historian Joe Manning, author of two books about North Adams’ history, has been working with Hine photos for eight years and has already documented the names and lives of about 350 of the children Hine photographed.
He has been working with Brill on the project, and hopes to get a name from someone out there so he can do the same for Pee Wee and his family.
"I work with their descendants to find out what happened in their lives, who they married, what did they do for a living, how they were viewed by their peers," Manning said.
In researching the children in other Hine photos, Manning found out something interesting: "None of these families were even aware these photos ever were taken," he said. "For many of them, this was the only time they’ve ever seen their relative as a child. It brings some of them to tears."
Hine did his work by claiming to be from the insurance company, which gained him nearly unlimited access to the interior of the mill and its workers. But in 1911, the word got out, and when he arrived in Adams, he was not allowed inside any of the mills. So he would set up outside the mills before the shifts began so he could photograph young workers headed into the mills.
Pee Wee was one of them.
"If we can find a name, we can start making connections, and maybe more will come forward with new information about Pee Wee," Brill said. "It will also bring the community into the project and start some conversations."
If anyone has a clue about who Pee Wee is, or know of someone who might know him, they should call the Brill Gallery at (413) 664-4353, or Joe Manning at (413) 584-0679.
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On Twitter: @BE_SStafford
Learn more ...
For more information on the Mill Children, visit www.morningsonmaplestreet.com and click the link to Lewis Hine Project.
The Mills of The Berkshires inside today’s edition
Nearly every community in Berkshire County has one. Chances are you live here thanks to an ancestor who was lured by the opportunity to work in one. Today, you might work or live in one. The mills of Berkshire County.
Mills made the Berkshires the place it is today. At times fueled by wars and at times fueled by peacetime prosperity, the mills made millionaires of the industrialists who owned them and provided reliable -- though not always easy -- work for the people. Thriving mills bustled with cotton looms or pumped out capacitors from the mid-19th to the latter half of the 20th centuries. Life centered around the work.
When economies and product needs changed, the jobs went south. The mills stayed behind. A few of them have stayed true to their original purpose -- papermaking, for example. Others remain empty and waiting for a new purpose.
Yet many more have found new life as museums, artists studios, incubators for small businesses, lofts, condominiums, storefronts, office spaces, business warehouses -- the list goes on. This annual edition of the Berkshire Business Outlook -- the special section inside today’s Berkshire Eagle and online at berkshireeagle.com/mills -- celebrates the history of the mills, the industry of yesteryear, and the rebirths of many as places to live, work and play.
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