Breaker Boys Research Essay

Child labor was dominant in the 19th century. Poor families could release their children from a tender age to go and work in very risky working environments. These children worked for many hours and only brought home meager wages. No one makes this vivid than Lewis Hine in “The Breaker Boys” that contains photographs of young boys at a working site with deplorable working conditions. Hine took this photograph in 1910 in Pennsylvania. His intention was to reveal the truth behind child labor and in an attempt to influence the public to reform the child labor laws. The photograph reveals the boys’ clothing, their working environment, the reality of child labor, and possibly the emotions of Hine about child labor.  This researcher paper analyzes these photographs, how the explain more about child labor, and their significance in photography.

The Significance of “The Breaker Boys”


In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of child labor in the United States. Because of the absence of clear laws on this practice, the industry grew rapidly among the working class and hence created more job opportunities. Child labor grew because of two possible explanations. First, most parents, particularly those from poor backgrounds, decided to send their children to work for more income since parents considered work more important than children education.  According to Adams, “Coal, the cornerstone of industrialization in the US, had become a necessity for everyday living by the 20th century.” The second explanation was the development within the capitalist labor markets.

Working Conditions

Young boys could spend up to 10 – 14 working hours, each day, arranging coals within a high temperature, risky, and dingy working environments. These boys worked ten hours a day for the entire week and could earn a paltry 45 cents per day. In addition, the employers could punish and flog these children for lateness. The machines operated fast and could pose a risk to the lives of these children. Moreover, the environment produced toxic air that jeopardized the lives of the poor boys.

Apart from the state of the working conditions, Hine paid attention to the attitude and behavior of the boys, as he saw them chewing, smoking and swearing (Wilde). The photographer figured this to be an adverse and risky working environment that influenced them both physically and psychologically. By taking the photographs, Hine knew that was the best way to bring out the truth about child labor. Hine’s intention was to transform the thinking of the world in order to let them understand how nerve wrenching and saddening it is to young boys suffer under the tyranny of enormous work. Therefore, using photography, Hine managed to teach the world a significant lesson (Hine).


Hine’s photograph encoded messages on the adverse working environment for the young boys. While they worked to help their poor families, the working conditions had a negative impact on their health and the impact was incongruent to the pay they got from their work. In the nineteenth century, the truth was every family member (including children) was to participate in work. Poor families prioritized work over education. No wonder, in the “The Breaker Boys”, Hine photographed the young boys at a working place rather than at school.
The main emphasis was on the way the capitalist took advantage of workers. The capitalist underpaid the workers, punished them, did not care about the dangerous working environment, and overworked them. The low pay, from the capitalist, caused poor families to send their young children to work and supplement the family income. Conversely, rich families invested in providing the best education for their children. Obviously, poor families could not afford quality education for their children, as it was expensive; hence, they focused on working to obtain income for their basic needs.

Photographic Concepts

According to Roland Barthes, studium describes the photograph’s documentary evidence. This is actually the truth function of the photograph (Strawberry). In Hine’s photograph, the truth function of the image is actually the photographic evidence of the group of children that the capitalist treats as child workers or servitudes. The second concept manifested through the photograph is the punctum. Roland Barthes argues that punctum refers to the effective element of certain photographs, which pierce someone’s heart with a deep feeling (Strawberry). The photograph by Hine gives the viewer a feeling of depression and sympathy, or possibly a sense of resentment and dishonor towards those individuals that subject children to hard labor. Therefore, the photograph enlightens the public on the problem of child labor besides motivating the public to stand for the children’s rights.

Like other photographs, Hine’s “Breaker Boys” entails both connotative and denotative meaning. Denotative meaning refers to the explicit and literal meaning of an image. On the other hand, connotative meaning comes out through the historical and cultural context of the image from the perspective of the viewers. In Hine’s photograph, the denotative meaning reveals itself through the group of boys being treated as slaves or child laborers. One can make such a conclusion by looking at the clothing of the young boys – dirty uniforms. Meanwhile, from the expressions on their faces, none of the boys smiles or appears to enjoy the moment. On the contrary, most of them seem fatigued, possibly because they work for longer hours.

The connotative meaning in the photograph represents the shameful reality in the 19th century. This is because it reveals young boys, who are yet to attain adolescence and yet they have taken up the duty of a working adult that overworked. Moreover, use of child labor deprived children a right to pursue education and become better people later on in life.

The other concept reflected through Hine’s photograph is gaze. As the producer of the photograph, Lewis Hine portrays his feelings towards child labor that he stands against. The aim of photograph is for the entire public to see. Perhaps, it appeals to the upper class members of the society or the most influential in the society with an attempt to encourage them into discovering the hard reality that young children are undergoing child labor.

The Photographic Truth

Hine and his fellow photographers visualized this as a risky and harsh working environment for such young children. Therefore, Hine chose to take photographs, as he knew that was the best way to reveal the truth. He wanted to discourage child labor and thus wanted the world to figure out how depressing it was to see children suffer from forced labor. Consequently, he managed to change the world’s outlook through photographs, which lead America to formulate laws that ban child labor.


Influenced by Hine’s photography, the Fair Labor Standards Act stopped child labor (Barrow). With the understanding of how history has used photography in documenting injustices and social issues, Hine’s work really helped to push for a social change. As a result, the National Child Labor Committee offered free education for all children in a bid to quell child labor (Bennett). Hine’s photographs are not just historical encounters but also powerful constructions of events and people. They remind everyone of the common experiences that enhance national identity. The photograph portrays the truth on child labor while the encoded message went out to people to help them see the disgracefulness within the American society. Thus, the photograph’s truth transformed the perspective of the world. In deed, people will change their ideological assumptions because the child labor act has a new face.

Works Cited

Adams, Reuben. “Breaker boys’s images a catalyst for change.” The Australian Mining Review,2013. Web. 17 March, 2013.
Barrow, Mandy. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Victorians. Web. 17 March, 2013.
Bennett, Robin C., Hodne, Carol., Sherer, Jennifer. “Child Labor in U.S. History.” Child Labor Public Education Project, 2002. Web. 17 March, 2013..
Cole, Allan. “Lewis W. Hine took Photograph to a Whole New World.” Let’s Get Visual Page., 2012. Web. 17 March, 2013.
Hine, Lewis. “Breaker Boys 1910.” Center for Civic Reflection, 2012. Web. 17 March.
Strawberry. “Roland Barthes: studium and punctum.” Museum of Education, 2013. Web. 17
Wilde, Diane. “Break Boys.” Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Web. 17 March, 2013.