An Archival Treasure: Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Phoebe Thomas

Yesterday, while conducting research for our project on New York’s Little Syria, I stumbled upon a great sequence of photographs by the renowned sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine. In addition to producing numerous iconic photos of the construction of New York’s skyline, Hine’s photographic work was instrumental in helping to reform child labor laws. My research revealed a startling discovery: Hine captured a series of photographs in 1911 that show a momentary glimpse into the life of an Arab American child laborer.

In the images shown below, Hine documents a young Syrian American named Phoebe Thomas, who is seen running home from a canning factory in Eastport, Maine after cutting her thumb with a knife. This is the first series of photographs I’ve seen that depict an Arab American child laborer at the start of the 20th century. It is both an impressive photo essay and an important look at the Arab American community in Maine at the turn of the century.

Eight year old Syrian girl, Pheobe [i.e. Phoebe] Thomas, going to work at 6 a.m., August 14, with great butcher knife, to cut sardines in Seacoast Canning Co. Factory #4, Eastport Me. Said she was a cutter, and I saw her working later. (See photos of her accident, #2444, #2445, #2449.) Location: Eastport, Maine.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-nclc-00965] Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)

In center of the picture is Phoebe Thomas, 8 year old Syrian girl, running home from the factory all alone, her hand and arm bathed with blood, crying at the top of her voice. She had cut the end of her thumb nearly off, cutting sardines in the factory, and was sent home alone, her mother being busy. The loss of blood was considerable, and might have been serious. (See succeeding photos.) Location: Eastport, Maine.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-nclc-00966] Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)


This is a detail of the previous image.

Phoebe’s thumb [Phoebe Thomas], a week after the accident. She was back at the factory that day, using the same big knife. Location: Eastport, Maine.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-nclc-00971] Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)

Phoebe [Thomas], a little while after the accident. Location: Eastport, Maine.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-nclc-00967] Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)

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3 Comments

  1. You should contact Joe Manning in Mass. he has a website called morningsonmaplest.com he has been in touch with several families and I believe The Thomas family is one of them. It is a wonderful site with a lot of information on the Lewis Hines project.

  2. Thanks. I discovered Manning’s site a couple of days ago. He has some interesting info on tracking down the Thomas family.

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