Sylva Marcil, Page One

Sylva Marcil, 14 years old, Adams, MA, July 10, 1916. Photo by Lewis Hine. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Back boy - 14 years old - Mule room. Berkshire Cotton Mills. Location: Adams, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine, July 10, 1916.

"In our family, the boys all had to start working at 14 years old, to help out. My first pay was $3.70 for a 48-hour week, and I would get 50 cents allowance." -the late Sylva Marcil, from a brief family history he wrote when he was about 65 years old

"My dad loved the outdoors. I imagine that came from having to be cooped up in the mills all the time. He used to hike up Mount Greylock. He would round up me and all the neighborhood kids on Columbus Day, and take us up the Cheshire Harbor Trail. He made sure we always had our walking sticks, a paper bag lunch and a bottle of water. He would get us in a line, and like in the Army, he would give us an inspection to make sure we were all set." -Claudette Marcil, daughter of Sylva Marcil

Lewis Hine visited Adams twice, once in 1911, taking pictures outside of the mills of the massive Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, immediately following a similar visit to the Eclipse Mill in neighboring North Adams. In both cases, he documented children working under the age of 14, which was the minimum age at that time for child workers in factories in Massachusetts.

Sylva Marcil (far right, front row), Adams, MA, July 10, 1916. Photo by Lewis Hine. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Back boy - 14 years old - Mule room. Berkshire Cotton Mills. Location: Adams, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine, July 10, 1916.

Hine returned to Adams in 1916. His assignment was to find out if a new Massachusetts child labor law that took effect in January of that year was being complied with and enforced. On the very day Hine photographed Sylva Marcil, July 10, the following was published in the Lowell Sun (Mass.)

"The present year has smashed Lowell's record for employment certificates all to pieces, the total number issued thus far being 710. This number includes 438 employment certificates to children between 14 and 16 years of age who have never worked before and 272 educational certificates to 272 minors between the ages of 16 and 21."

"There's another new law that is quite important and of much interest to employment seekers. It has to do with the employment of certain minors in the summer. Heretofore it was not allowable to employ children who were over 14 but under 16 years of age, and who did not possess ability to read, write and spell the English language, at any time of the year, or at any stage of the game, but the law has been amended to read that they may be granted an employment certificate good for the summer vacation."

Note: The law also specified that children who were 14 or 15 years old must show that they had attained at least a fourth-grade education.

Also in 1916, the federal government passed the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, which had restrictions that were substantially the same. Two years later, the law was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but the ruling did not affect the Massachusetts law.

Hine took 18 pictures that day, all inside the mills, He appeared to confirm that the new law was working, which was the obvious reason why the owner gave him permission to take his camera inside. Some of the children, including Sylva, were noticeably "dressed up" in clothing not typical for mill workers, indicating that the owner was quite prepared for the visit from Mr. Hine. But Hine did not give the names of any of his subjects in his captions, perhaps at the request of the owner.

Sylva was eventually identified in three of the pictures, two of them almost identical. Because he was not identified by Hine, there had to be a way to publicize the pictures, in hopes that someone would recognize him. Eugene Michalenko, president of the Adams Historical Society, posted them on the society’s website, which caught the eye of Adams resident Claudette Marcil, Sylva’s daughter. I contacted her, and she provided me with photos of her father, which confirmed that the boy was, indeed, Sylva. 

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