Today I am feeling thankful. The story of these pictures, from 1912 Providence and surrounding towns, depict a kind of poverty that, thanks to my ancestors who moved themselves beyond this life, my siblings and I never saw.
My grandmother Edna Darling was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1905. Her parents, Russell and Eva, soon had a second child, Russell Jr. During World War I, her mother found work at Gorham Manufacturing; I wonder if it was in silver manufacturing or perhaps some special war work. Her father was a stone setter in the fine jewelry industry, but depending on the economy, was sometimes out of work. During World War I they lived at 52 Prairie Avenue, renting in a tenement building long since lost to urban renewal.
Grandma said that once her mother found work, she had to come straight home from school to do the cooking and cleaning; make the beds, wash dishes, start dinner. There was little money; she felt threadbare and, at times, worried about her circumstances. Her parents never in their lives owned a vehicle of any sort, never owned a home; after the Depression began, her father never worked in the jewelry industry again, but found work as a night watchman.
But until I saw the pictures, below, by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, taken in Providence around 1912-1913, I never realized how lucky my grandmother was, and how removed she was from the grinding poverty of newly immigrated families. When she grew up, Grandma found a respectable job in the billing department of the phone company, and made sure to marry a successful businessman. After seeing these pictures, I get a better idea of what she was so afraid of, and what she wanted to make sure never happened to her children.
It’s strange that I think of my grandmother when I see these pictures, because they depict, really, the lives of her grandfather’s people, who arrived in the U.S. from England around 1830. I’m sure most or all of their existence was spent in conditions like this, near various cotton mills up and down the east coast. While I’m quite sure their lives were no better in England, I am awed by their determination and courage, and awed that their children built better lives each generation.
They also make me think of my father, selling newspaper and magazines, and stoking furnaces as a boy in the 1930’s. Although born in the U.S., his parents were from Canada and his father died when the four children were small.
The immigrant experience hasn’t changed much; people coming from desperate situations into what they think will be a life with choices and freedom, only to find themselves very poor and looked at with suspicion and fear. And they carry on. We are a nation of immigrants. Because of them and their hard work, we are here today.
This Christmas season, I’m feeling grateful.
Photos by Lewis Hine (1874-1940) for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Pictures and captions from the Library of Congress.
From the Library of Congress’ website, Child Welfare Exhibit, 1912-1913.
Cigar factory of F. Delloiacono [?], 205 Atwells Av., Providence, R.I. Eight year old boy and ten year old girl are stripping. This room is the living, -sleeping-and-working room and adjoins the store. Nov 23, 1912. Very dirty and ill-kept. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04797 (color digital file from b&w original print)
A growing family and perhaps other relatives or associates. I can’t quite imagine how the photographer talked his way into this back room. Was there a kitchen set up at the end of the room? This is a troubling picture, but I am confident the children somehow did better.
Jimmie Rudgeway, 8 year old newsie, Providence,. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-03807 (color digital file from b&w original print)
When I look at Jimmie, with his ragged pants and heavy load of newspapers, I worry about an 8 year old being so comfortable out in the streets. The photographer’s notes make it clear many of these boys were out until midnight attempting to sell all the papers.
Back-yard, Spruce Street, Providence, R.I. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04798 (color digital file from b&w original print)
A girl and her goat. Of all the pictures, this is the only one I actually like. I can’t tell what she is offering the goat; it does not look like food. Like many back yards in the photographs, this one appears crowded and haphazardly full of stuff. No place for children, or goats either. I had relatives on Spruce Street in the 1860’s.
Overcrowded home of workers in cotton mill, Olneyville, Providence. Eight persons live in these three small rooms, three of them are boarders. Inner bed-rooms are 9 x 8 feet, the largest room 12 x 12 feet. 23 Chaffee Street, Polish People. Property owned by the mill. Rent $4.50 a month. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-02722 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Reading the caption, knowing that eight people live in this space, this picture haunts me. I find the Polish wife so beautiful. Likely, the elaborate stove, probably a relic of decades earlier, comprised most of the kitchen facilities. There is a black cord winding around the crib. Could that have been to an electric light in the bedroom?
Housing conditions, Elm St., Pawtucket, R.I. Location: Pawtucket, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-02709 (color digital file from b&w original print)
It took me a minute to realize what I was looking at. Of course every back yard had an outhouse. New England has a way of looking barren like this in late fall or early spring, but still, this is a grim dirt yard full of trash.
Sewing class in Sprague House Settlement Providence, R.I. The Director is holding a newly-arrived deserted baby. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04795 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Given that many moms were working hard, it seems like a good idea for the Settlement House to teach girls to sew – it would help them clothe themselves and their children in the future. My grandmother sewed for many decades, often clothing her children herself. After looking at so many of these pictures, I can tell the Settlement House was a clean and ordered place.
Entrance to the crowded, dirty house of a Midwife, rear tenement on Spruce Street, Providence, R.I. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04793 (color digital file from b&w original print)
A couple of these pictures featured midwives’ homes, probably based on the photographer seeing shingles hanging out front. Looking closely at the picture, an additional child appears in the lower, dark corner. The children are so tiny. Wouldn’t midwives go out for births? Would the women have come to them? I can’t quite reason out why so many children would be in this unkempt yard. Trash-burning was obviously taking place here, although the basement windows of the “rear tenement” seem mysterious and unexpected.
“Speed”, one of the young W.U. Messengers. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-03805 (color digital file from b&w original print)
You’ve got to like this guy. Working hard at age – 11 maybe? He looks so capable. I’m hoping Speed had a great future.
View in Lonsdale R.I. Mills. Location: Lonsdale, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-02704 (color digital file from b&w original print)
In 1912 Rhode Island was still full of mills. Lonsdale Mills in Smithfield were among the largest. This is probably a cotton mill. If you look at it for a while, with windows on all sides, you realize something’s missing – there is no artificial lighting. How dark it must have been on cloudy days. Were working hours shorter in winter, I wonder?
Peddling Bills, Atwells Ave., Providence, R.I. Location: Providence, Rhode Island.
LC-DIG-nclc-03806 (color digital file from b&w original print)
This boy on Atwells Avenue is probably Italian, looking older than his years. I don’t think the streetcars were exactly new in that era, but I know they continued for a few more decades.
View of warping room, Lonsdale, R.I. Mills. Location: Lonsdale, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-02701 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Another view of Lonsdale Mills, with girls running the machines. I’m sure there were many dangers to working outside the home at a young age, but still, it seems more humane and social to me than life spent working in a crowded home.
Elvira Christofano, 110 Spruce [?] St., Providence, making chain-bags. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04299 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Looking closely, you can see Elvira is working on a chain-link fabric, with tiny metal pieces in front of her. Is she creating the chain fabric? or attaching it to something with the tiny links? It’s unclear to me why she’s surrounded by fabric pieces. She looks dedicated, and tired.
Tiny girl with big bag she is carrying home, Spruce St., Providence, R.I. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04300 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Of all the pictures, this one breaks your heart the most. What can be in that bag? It seems too big to contain something heavy like food or firewood … maybe laundry? Or some materials for a home industry? The sign on the building says Do Not Spit. The rest of the family must have been working very hard if this was the most practical way to transport goods. Childhood? I don’t think so.
Setting stones in cheap jewelry, Ernest Lonardo, 11 years old, Thomas, 14 years old, 6 Hewitt Street, Providence, R.I. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-04298 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Knowing boys this age, the concentration here seems exceptional. Imagine doing that all day.
Crowded Italian home, 46 Crary St., Providence, R.I. Nov 26, 1912. Property owned by wealthy family. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. LC-DIG-nclc-02721 (color digital file from b&w original print)
The picture in the corner is of a king, perhaps, with his children. I can’t imagine people ever forgot where they came from. There are five children in this picture and, perhaps, another on the way. When I look at this picture I think, they loved each other. What a legacy.
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