LEWISTON, Me- Child labor is a consistent topic of conversation when educational tours visit the Museum L-A, in Lewiston. A new museum exhibit looks at the hard truth about child labor, including excellent visuals and photographs. I enjoyed my visit to view this exhibit, and will soon be returning with my husband and friends!
There was a time in Maine when child labor was evident in the state’s manufacturing mills, where cities with large Franco-Americans and immigrant residents were often expected to help support the labor needs. Indeed, my mother in law worked in a Biddeford shoe factory when she was only in the fifth grade. She left this job after suffering a major finger injury caused by an industrial sewing machine and was subsequently educated in a local convent. Moreover, my husband recalls how his middle school class in Sanford was taken on a student field trip to tour the town’s Goodall Mills, because it was expected that after leaving the 8th grade, many of the youths would work in the textile factory, rather than go on to high school.
Maine’s child labor history is the focus of “All Work and No Play” exhibit at Museum L-A, located in the Bates Mill Complex. The exhibit is focused on Lewiston and Auburn, Maine, but reflects the national policy issues about child labor. It includes compelling black and white photographs taken with child laborers, by the American sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine. Among the featured photographs are loans from the Franco-American Collection, at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC FAC). Photographs and collections from six historical organizations with locations throughout Maine are featured in the exhibit. One particularly moving visual image is a large black and white group portrait taken with child laborers and some adult mill workers who were working in a factory without wearing shoes. Museum executive director Audrey Thomson said the exhibit was able to acquire many historic items including a piece of the Maine Labor Mural that caused a controversy in 2011, when Maine’s Governor Paul LePage ordered it to be removed from the Department of Labor. Eventually, it was moved to the Maine State Museum.
An opening public reception on January 30, attracted a large audience. “Our opening reception was extremely well attended,” said Thomson. “Many who attended shared stories about a family member who worked in one of the Maine industries as a child. The history of child labor and the Lewis Hine photos that played a major role in documenting the abuses, continue to draw adult visitors and students to Museum L-A.”
Employing children to work in manufacturing mills became illegal when the social reformer Francis Perkins became involved in passing the Fair Labor Standards Act, to reduce workplace injuries and implement child labor laws. Perkins was the first woman to be appointed a Cabinet member and she served in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. In fact, Perkins had roots in Maine and her family’s history can be visited at the Francis Perkins Center in Damariscotta.
A grim timeline in the Museum L-A’s exhibit marks the decades when child labor was legal. Included are examples about the children who worked as laborers in industries such as textile mills, sardine canneries, and family farms throughout Maine. Also, the exhibit describes the history about how labor laws were passed to stop the exploitation of children. Exhibit items and photographs showcase the experiences about children whose stories have been under-represented in the industrial mills workforce. In fact, the exhibit is impressive and fills the Museum L-A’s gallery.
Emma Sieh is Museum L-A’s collections and exhibits coordinator. She explains how one of the issues confronted in the exhibit responds to whether or not Lewiston’s Bates Mill employed child labor? She says teachers that visit the museum want to create awareness about the roles of children in the textile mill operations as a way educate today’s generation about how to protect the laws currently in place to prevent this practice.
“All Work and No Play” will be on display through the middle of June 2020, but prior to closing, a capstone event will be hosted at the museum as a place to discuss, and understand how child labor still affects social policy and, sadly, is still employed worldwide.
Museum L-A is located in the Bates Mill Complex, at 35 Canal Street in Lewiston, ME. Check the website for more information.