Child labor in America was a major issue among Progressives in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1906, the National Child Labor Committee, or NCLC, a leader among reform efforts, hired the Wisconsin-born photographer Lewis Hine to travel the nation to document all the abuses he could find. 

In the spring of 1911 and 1916, he visited the Gulf Coast, investigating child labor conditions in the region’s oyster and shrimp canneries. In a series of reports back to the NCLC, he claimed these canneries exploited immigrant children more than any other industry. He found thousands of Polish and Bohemian (now Czech Republic) immigrants hired by bosses in Baltimore and other southern cities and shipped by train to the Gulf Coast. 

One of those canneries was in Dunbar, Louisiana, a factory-owned village once located just across the Orleans Parish line on Pearl Island at the mouth of the Pearl River. According to New Orleans archaeologist Brian Ostahowski, hurricanes and rising sea levels destroyed Dunbar almost a century ago and the site now is mostly underwater. 

When Hine visited Dunbar in March 1911, he found what he was looking for. In his report, he described the scene in this 1911 photograph: “Four-year-old Mary Kosco, who shucks two pots of oysters a day at Dunbar. Tends the baby when not working. The boss said that next year Mary will work steady as the rest of them. The mother is the fastest shucker in the place. Earns $1.50 a day. Works part of the time with her sick baby in her arms. Father works on the dock.” 

The work, he said, was “hard, exhausting and deadening in its monotonous simplicity.” Toddlers wandered about the sheds, playing among the shells and imitating their parents. When a little older, bosses assigned them either to shuck at the tables or to take care of the smaller children, or both. 

At another cannery, a young girl told Hine, “I shucks six pots if I don’t got the baby; two pots if I got him.” Parents desperately needed the money their children earned. Children’s wages were meager, but every bit helped. Small children rarely received more than five cents a day.

He described still another location at three in the morning: “Near the dock is the ever present shell pile, monument of mute testimony to the patient toil of little fingers. It is cold, damp, dark. The whistle blew some time ago, and the young workers slipped into their meager garments, snatched a bite to eat, and hurried to the shucking shed. The padrone told me, ‘If dey don’t git up; I go and git ‘em.’ . . . Boys and girls, six, seven, and eight years of age, take their places with the adults and work all day. Some shuckers took short lunch breaks at noon, but most continued to work while they ate.” 

In 1918 Hine left the NCLC and two decades passed before Congress enacted meaningful child labor laws.