TIME explores the story behind Lewis Hine’s “Cotton Mill Girl” image, part of his monumental series on child labor.


Watch at TIME explores the story behind some of the most important images of our time. What is it about these extraordinary photographs, and why did they change the course of history. Let’s take a closer look Lewis Hine’s “Cotton Mill Girl” image, part of his monumental series on child labor that over some 35 years influenced the legislation surrounding child labour in the United States.

“Working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, Lewis Hine believed that images of child labor would force citizens to demand change. The muckraker conned his way into mills and factories from Massachusetts to South Carolina by posing as a Bible seller, insurance agent or industrial photographer in order to tell the plight of nearly 2 million children. Carting around a large-format camera and jotting down information in a hidden notebook, Hine recorded children laboring in meatpacking houses, coal mines and canneries, and in November 1908 he came upon Sadie Pfeifer, who embodied the world he exposed.

A 48-inch-tall wisp of a girl, she was “one of the many small children at work” manning a gargantuan cotton-­spinning machine in ­Lancaster, S.C. Since Hine often had to lie to get his shots, he made “double-sure that my photo data was 100% pure—no retouching or fakery of any kind.” His images of children as young as 8 dwarfed by the cogs of a cold, mechanized universe squarely set the horrors of child labor before the public, leading to regulatory legislation and cutting the number of child laborers nearly in half from 1910 to 1920. ” [TIME, 100Photos.com]

Be sure to check out the TIME online store.