‘Not Just a Picture’: The Story Behind This Iconic Child Labor Photo

A 10-year-old girl looks longingly out a window from inside the cotton mill where she works. Perhaps she’s thinking about what it might be like to play or go to school, to breathe the fresh air instead of stagnant, dusty factory conditions.

The girl in Lewis Hine’s photo taken in 1908 in a Lincolnton, N.C., mill is one of thousands of photographic symbols of the sadness surrounding child labor.

Lewis Hine lincolnton photo of child labor
A girl identified as a 10-year-old “spinner” in the Rhodes Mfg. Co., in Lincolnton, N.C. The photo caption by Lewis Hine noted that the girl said she had been working for more than a year. (Photo credit: Lewis Hine/Library of Congress)

She was only identified as the “spinner” in the photo, but author and historian Joe Manning became fascinated by what her story — and that of other unidentified Lincolnton people in historic photos — might be.

After years of research and searching, Manning thinks he may have found it.

“Now, we’re finding out she was a person, not just a picture. She becomes a human being,” Manning told the Charlotte Observer more than a century after the photo was taken.

After five years and various techniques to try to identify the girl, Manning found the name “Lala Blanton.” The Observer reported that he posted the girl’s name, and others, on sites for people who might be doing ancestry research. A couple of months later, Manning received a message from a Kentucky woman named Myra “Carol” Cook whose grandmother went by “Lalar” Blanton.

Using information about her grandmother and having a facial recognition expert look at her adult pictures compared to the child, Manning and Cook think Lalar Blanton is in fact the girl in the iconic photo.

Cook told the Observer her grandmother was a“kind, generous, godly woman, but not the quintessential sweet old lady. She was no shrinking violet. She had a sharp tongue and was real feisty. She could be tough.”

Though Cook said she remembers her grandmother saying she quit school in the second grade to work, she doesn’t remember her specifying it was in a mill.

“But I do know she was very protective of children, especially little girls,” Cook told the newspaper. “She was determined I would have pretty things  — clothes, dolls — all the things she didn’t have as a little girl. She spoiled me rotten. She wouldn’t let mother spank me.”

Believing the girl in the photo is her grandmother, Cook told the Observer that seeing her as a child laborer makes her sad, but also proud that “she’s a big part of American history.”

To Manning, who is a retiree in Massachusetts, finding the identities of people in the photos gives the subjects and their families a special gift.

“I’m not only giving them back their history, but I’m giving the children back their dignity,” he told the Observer.

Read more about the process of identifying the girl in the photo and Manning’s other historical research into this era of photographs in The Charlotte Observer’s full article.