Textile workers labored under harsh conditions in the early 20th century, often losing limbs to fast-moving machines and breathing cotton dust that caused byssinosis — brown lung — during 12-hour shifts, six days a week. That was child’s play in North Carolina, where a quarter of the workforce was younger than 16. In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired photographer Lewis Hine to document working and living conditions of children in the U.S. He spent part of that first year in North Carolina, where he took the picture above at Rhodes Manufacturing Co. in Lincolnton. It became one of the cause’s prized pieces of publicity in the campaign for child-labor laws. But the girl, captured with her mother and older sister in another photo, remained anonymous for more than a century — until a retired social worker living in Massachusetts organized a search party. Joe Manning began tracking down Hine subjects in 2005. He took up this shot in 2009, asking the Lincoln Times-News to publish it. No response. Three years passed before he tried again, culling local 1910 census records for white girls born around 1898 with a sister about two years older. There were 12 possibilities; one was Lala Blanton. He posted the name on his website, so that Internet searches for it would find the picture. Two months later, he got an email from Myra Cook. The Louisville, Ky., resident believed the girl was Lalar Blanton, her grandmother, who had died in 1973. “A week later, she sent me several pictures of Lalar as an adult. I compared them to the girl in the Hine photos and concluded that they were the same person,” Manning writes on his website. A facial-recognition expert confirmed the match. “If Granny ever mentioned working in a mill, I don’t recall,” Cook told The Charlotte Observer. “But I do know she was very protective of children, especially little girls.”
To see more of Lewis HIne’s North Carolina photos, click here.