Curator Emma Sieh hangs a photo on the wall as part of the new “All Work and No Play” exhibit at Museum L-A opening at the end of January. Museum L-A photo

Put down your tablets and phones children, and pay close attention. It’s not a pleasant topic of conversation we have for you today, but it sure is an important one. 

Museum L-A for the next few months will be featuring its new exhibit highlighting the horrors of child labor in the Twin Cities and other parts of Maine. 

The exhibit, which opens to the public Thursday, is expected to draw schoolchildren from all over because, as it happens, teachers and parents want them to see what childhood was like for previous generations. Museum L-A Program Coordinator Denise Scammon has already scheduled tours for students from Durham, Oak Hill, Portland and other areas. 

Newspaper articles reporting on tragic accidents resulting in death and disfigurement of child workers in Lewiston’s mills are on display in an exhibit on child labor at Museum L-A in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The idea,” said exhibit curator Emma Sieh, “is that you don’t know how good you have it, because there were definitely kids who were being worked to the bone, losing their fingertips and all that kind of stuff.” 

The exhibit will touch upon child labor in Lewiston and in other areas around the region. 

“We’re touching on things like: What is child labor? How do people feel about it? How have times changed?” Sieh said. “How was it reformed and abolished, but also how did it work in textile mills, in canneries and on family farms throughout the state?” 

It’s a dark topic, but also historically significant. It’s estimated that by 1900, 18% of all American workers were under the age of 16. The children, forgoing school, often worked long hours in dangerous factory conditions for very little money. It wasn’t uncommon for children as young as 10 to be paid about 48 cents for a 12- to 14-hour day — amounting to a little more than a dollar an hour today.  

Factory owners favored kids as laborers, historians say, in large part because their small size allowed them to move in confined areas of a factory or mine where adults could not fit. It was hard work, and often dangerous. There are plenty of local news clips – some of which will be on display in the exhibit – revealing the horrors of children hurt or killed in factory accidents. A 12-year-old boy’s head was crushed at the Androscoggin Mill. A 14-year-old girl’s leg was mangled by an elevator at the Bates Mill. Arms chewed to pieces, limbs caught in pulleys.

Photographs of child workers are featured in Museum L-A’s exhibit “All Work and No Play.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Against this bleak backdrop, one goal of the Museum L-A exhibit is to remind people how things used to be – and how they still are in some parts of the world. 

Much of the exhibit will be dominated by the photos of Lewis Hine, who in 1908 left a teaching position to take a job as photographer with the National Labor Committee. It was a dangerous job – police and factory foremen did not look kindly on this kind of exposure – but Hine continued his work for decades in various parts of the country. 

“He did come up here to Maine and took 13 photos right here in Lewiston,” Sieh said. “Although he could not go inside of a textile mill because they knew who he was. But he took photos of the canneries and they are stunning, sad as they are.” 

“These photos,” said Audrey Thomson, Museum L-A’s executive director, “were crucial to changing social attitudes and enacting child labor laws in our country.” 

Because the exhibit doesn’t focus on Lewiston alone, Museum L-A reached out to various organizations to compile photos and documents from across Maine. 

Historic quotes advocating and disparaging child labor are on display at Museum L-A’s exhibit. “All Work and No Play,” including the one above from the founder of Coca-Cola. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We wanted to really expand it out,” Sieh said. “We actually have photographs and some collections from eight or maybe nine organizations throughout the entire state. They’ve sent us photographs or we’ve accessed them through Maine Historical Society. And they’ve kind of connected us to different organizations, which was really great.” 

The exhibit explores the historic use of children as laborers in industries such as textile mills, sardine canneries and family farms throughout the state of Maine. And though it’s tempting to think of children toiling at hard and dangerous work as something from the past, “All Work and No Play” isn’t history alone. 

Thomson, who lived in the Philippines for three years, knows firsthand that abusive child labor is still a problem in some parts of the world. 

“Being a Third World country, there was still that sort of child labor and that hasn’t changed,” she said. “My daughter lives in South Africa. Same thing. So there’s that whole dichotomy between First World and Third World. 

“This part of it is history,” Thomson said of the exhibit. “But sadly, history continues to repeat itself.” 

Museum L-A’s exhibit includes a sizable collection of photographs by Lewis Hine, who documented labor conditions around the country. Hine visited Lewiston and made 13 images, including child workers. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“There’s the idea that well, there’s still child labor in the world,” Sieh said. “Although we handled it here, there are other places that aren’t as fortunate, and that may be eye-opening for adults and kids alike. What should we do about it? What CAN be done about it?” 

The exhibit will also feature the work of Joe Manning, an author, historian and genealogist known for tracking down details of people depicted in historical photographs. 

“He actually goes in and tries to find their descendants,” Sieh said, “and to find out the stories of all the children in the photographs. So we’re featuring that and we’re also featuring a section of the labor mural that’s actually on display up at the Maine State Museum. So all of these kinds of things are coming together to create one big, very cohesive exhibit.” 

For Museum L-A, located in the center of what used to be a very active mill community, child labor has been a consistent topic for educational tours. Many teachers, especially those with younger students, request that their tours provide information about children’s roles in textile mill operations as a way to open the eyes of newer generations and to highlight how different their way of life is today. 

Facts detailing the working conditions for children are on display at Museum L-A’s exhibit on child labor in Maine. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“And so we decided it would be apropos to do a full-scale exhibit that explores all of these things,” Sieh said. 

The public is invited to attend the free opening reception for the exhibit from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30. Visitors will be able to explore the exhibit and enjoy light refreshments. 

“All Work and No Play” will be on display in the Museum L-A gallery through mid-June 2020. Prior to the closing of the exhibition, the museum will host a capstone event as a place to discuss and understand how the use of child labor historically can still affect popular opinion about its worldwide use today. 

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