Skip to content

Historian identifies 'young spinner' featured in upcoming show

With dark braids and a piercing, determined gaze directly into the camera, the girl identified only as “young spinner in Carolina mill ” helped photographer Lewis Hine change child labour laws in the U.S.
For 100 years the identity of this young girl, who worked as a spinner in a North Carolina mill, was unknown. American photographer Lewis Hine took her photograph in 1908 as
For 100 years the identity of this young girl, who worked as a spinner in a North Carolina mill, was unknown. American photographer Lewis Hine took her photograph in 1908 as part of a movement to end child labour, but he did not record the girl’s name. A Massachusetts historian identified her in 2008. This photograph will go on display in Canmore Friday (Feb. 14) as part of an exhibition featuring historical and modern black and white photographs.

With dark braids and a piercing, determined gaze directly into the camera, the girl identified only as “young spinner in Carolina mill ” helped photographer Lewis Hine change child labour laws in the U.S.

And since her photograph, taken in 1908, was published in last week's issue of the Outlook, alongside a story about an upcoming exhibition at the Canmore Art Guild Gallery, Massachusetts historian Joe Manning sent an email to say that the girl does in fact have a name.

Her name is Cora Lee Griffin.

Griffin's photograph will be displayed at CAG Gallery as part of The Art of Black and White Photography - Historical and Modern Perspectives, opening Friday (Feb. 14) from 7-9:30 p.m.

Along with Griffin, Manning had compiled histories for 350 of the 5,000 children Hine photographed between 1908 and 1924. The National Child Labour Committee used these photographs to convince the American government to introduce the Keating-Owen Act of 1916 and restricted the movement of goods produced by child labour from one state to the next. The act was declared unconstitutional and struck down in 1918. It was revised, but once more struck down. The U.S. government wouldn't successfully regulate child labor until 1938.

Hine, a former schoolteacher and photographer turned investigative photographer, travelled throughout the eastern U.S. photographing children wherever they worked, be it in mills, canneries, mines or out on the street, shining shoes or hawking newspapers. Hine often posed as a fire inspector to gain access to facilities where children worked.

Rather than make children look pitiful, Hine wanted to give them dignity. He wanted to make them look like any other child from any other family in the U.S.

“He felt he couldn't persuade anybody that these kids were worth fighting for if they didn't look like everyone else's kids, ” Manning said. “He wanted to make them loveable, likeable, accessible. He had them looking right in your eyes. ”

In the U.S., 1.5 million children were employed by industries in 1890, according to the U.S. National Archives. That number climbed to two million by 1910.

Hine encountered Griffin in December 1908 at Whitnel Cotton Manufacturing Co. in Whitnel, N.C. and, while he did not record her name, she did tell him that she had been working in the mill for a year with some of her shifts at night, all for 48 cents a day. She couldn't remember her age but she did tell Hine “I'm not old enough to work, but I do just the same. ” That particular mill, Hine recorded, employed 50 people, with 10 of them being children.

Griffin was the first child Manning tried to identify whose name Hine had not recorded. Manning, knowing that many people in the South tend not to move far from home, approached the Lenoir News-Topic, based in Lenoir, N.C., which published the photograph of Griffin, and wrote a story about Manning's project.

Manning received an email from Griffin's grandson within a day of the story and photograph being published. A few weeks later, with the help of facial-recognition and historical photo expert Maureen Taylor, and working from Hine's photo and photos of Griffin later in her life, confirmed the two people were indeed one in the same.

“Hine did such a magnificent job with (Griffin). He had her, it looks like, lean into the camera. She's a beautiful girl. In her case she didn't look like she was in distress. She does look like she's looking at Mr. Hine saying ‘can you do anything about this?'

“A lot of the Hine children, I found, grew up to be like your first impression when you see them (in the photo); she grew up to be a very determined person. All four of her children went off to college. She married well. She married a guy who was a foreman in the mill. In those days the foreman made fairly decent wages and she was very well off and she was determined, ” Manning said.

He added that Griffin ensured that all four of her children excelled at school and continued on to college.

“That was an exception, ” said Manning. “Particularly in the south, it would have been the exception for a child of a child laborer to go to college. That would have maybe happened in the next generation. But the fact is she had great innate intelligence and she also had great determination and not necessarily from being a child laborer. People will tell you the reasons she excelled were because she worked as a child and that is not the case at all.

“She had the personality and traits that made her a hard worker and greatly cared for her children to advance beyond her. She told her kids, ‘I didn't go to school, I want you to go to school and have what I didn't have.' ”

Manning undertook his Lewis Hine Project after his friend and author Elizabeth Winthrop wrote a novel - Counting on Grace - inspired by one of Hine's photographs of another young cotton millworker, Addie Card.

After the book was published, Winthrop asked Manning if he could learn more about the girl that inspired her book.

“I'm a pretty good researcher, but I had never done anything like this before. But I said I'd do it and I found a granddaughter (of Card's) in 11 days, ” he said. “And I interviewed descendents and they were totally shocked that this was in the library of congress. They knew their grandmother, great-grandmother worked in a mill when she was young, but they never thought they'd see a picture of her while she was doing it.

“This was a total shock to them. They broke down and cried a few times. ”

Winthrop later informed Manning the Library of Congress had 5,000 of Hine's photographs available on its website.

“I went and looked at them and picked out a photo and I said if I could do it for Addie Card I could do it for another person and I was equally successful and I said, I just found something I could do with the rest of my life. ”

Surprisingly, despite the work Hine did to help convince the government to change the laws to protect children, he is not well known.

As a result, Manning finds that when he contacts them, the families of the children Hine photographed are usually both surprised and grateful. And often, the descendants of the child labourers, such as Griffin's family, are proud that their ancestors helped to change the laws.

“The interview with (Griffin's) daughter was amazing. She had been very well taught and very smart and recognized the role of history. She talked in a plainspoken way, but you could tell she was tremendously impressed that her mother's picture was used to persuade people to support child labour laws. She thought that her mother was a hero, ” Manning said.

He had found the families of 375 of the 5,000 children Hine had photographed, but this was the first unidentified child he had tackled. He has since identified 15 unidentified Hine children.

For Manning, his Lewis Hine Project gives the children Hine photographed a story beyond the photograph.

“I turned a child whose only public persona is that they are a child laborer into a human being with a life which in a sense affirms the notion that some people hold that everyone's life is important and worth remembering. Their place in history is equal to Andrew Carnegie (steel tycoon) and they participated in part of the 20th century, ” he said, agreeing with the idea that their faces helped change the way children were treated in the U.S.

Visit for more information about Manning's Lewis Hine Project and an interview with Griffin's daughter.

Hine's photograph of Griffin will be on display at the CAG Gallery alongside photographs taken by the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorthea Lange. The exhibition ends Feb. 25.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

About the Author: Rocky Mountain Outlook

The Rocky Mountain Outlook is Bow Valley's No. 1 source for local news and events.
Read more


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks