Monday, February 7, 2011

PART 2 of "Discovering America's Past through Historical Fiction"

In Part Two of our historical fiction series, Author Elizabeth Winthrop shares insight into her research and in the story behind the character of Grace from her book, Counting on Grace, that we learned about in Part One.  Leave a new comment at the end of the post for a chance to win an autographed copy of the book! Winner to be announced on Valentine's Day. Thank you, Dear Reader, for joining us!

Through the Mill

Because of a Lewis Hine photograph, Addie Card became the poster child of child labor. But what became of Addie Card?

  • By Elizabeth Winthrop

She leans casually on her spinning frame, staring out at the camera, dressed in a filthy work smock. Her bare feet, planted firmly, are slick with black grease. Her left arm rests easily on the huge machinery but crooked at a strange angle, as if perhaps a bone had been broken and never set properly. To keep her hair from the frame's hungry grasp, it is pulled tight and pinned in a style befitting a grown woman. A few wispy strays float around her head like a halo. The elements of her face seem perfectly proportioned: the delicate nose, the small ears tucked back, the curve of her lips, the puff of her cheeks. She is a painter's dream. Or a photographer's.
      I first saw her four years ago in a show devoted to Lewis Hine's pictures of child workers in Vermont. Hine had been hired by the National Child Labor Committee to bolster its written reports with documentary photographs. Records show that he was a traveling man. From 1908 to 1918, he crisscrossed the country by train and automobile, taking pictures that brought home the hard realities of child labor. Because of Hine, comfortable middle-class Americans were forced to look at children embroidering lace in airless tenements on New York's Lower East Side, selling newspapers on crowded streets in St. Louis, cutting sardines in Eastport, Maine. He talked his way into mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where the bounce of his magnesium flash off the whites of a breaker boy's eyes illuminated a blackened, airless landscape. To back up his photographs, Hine scribbled details in a notebook hidden in his pocket. About this sad-eyed Vermont girl he wrote: "Anaemic little spinner in North Pownal [Vt.] Cotton Mill."
      Hine took several photographs that August day in 1910, but the image of the girl somebody named Addie Laird is the one that endured. Who was she? Lewis Hine once said that he was "more interested in persons than in people." The same is true of a novelist. Even though I didn't know what had happened to that child, I decided to imagine a life for her. After I finished my novel about her, I began to search for Addie herself.
I had little hope; the U.S. Postal Service had been unable to locate her in 1998, when officials there put Addie's picture on a 32-cent stamp. But it turns out they didn't look hard enough.
I found her in the 1910 Census when I thought to put "Adelaide" and any logical variant into a database search form. On sheet 12B in Bennington County, Vermont, on May 4, 1910, a Census worker recorded a Mrs. Adalaid Harris, listed as head of household living with six orphaned or abandoned grandchildren, including the Card sisters: Anna, female, white, 14 years of age, single; and Addie, female, white, 12 years of age, single.
So Addie's name was not Laird, but Card. That clue led me and fellow researcher Joe Manning down a trail that twisted through town offices, dusty historical societies, funeral homes and Social Security death records.
     Hine's little spinner lived the dark side of the American dream, according to records and relatives. Her mother died of peritonitis when Addie was 2. She was put to work in the mill at the age of 8. (She had to stand on a soapbox to reach the bobbins.) She renamed herself Pat and married twice, neither time happily. Months after losing custody of her biological daughter in 1925, she adopted another girl, the newborn illegitimate child of a Portuguese sailor. Mother and daughter moved often from the dreary mill towns of upstate New York to the big city itself, where Addie and friends were captured in a studio photo celebrating victory in Europe.
Recently, Manning and I met with two of Addie's adoptive descendants. We learned that by the time she died, at 94, she was living in low-income housing and surviving on a Social Security check. "She didn't have anything to give, but she gave it," Piperlea Provost, her great-granddaughter, told us. "I could not imagine my life without Grandma Pat's guidance." 
Addie never knew that her face ended up in a Reebok advertisement or on a postage stamp issued 100 years after her birth, or that Hine's glass plate negative resides in the Library of Congress. Addie Card LaVigne never knew that she had become a symbol.
Like so many of the subjects of his photographs, Lewis Hine also died in poverty. In the 1930s, the work began to dry up, and he was perceived as rigid and difficult; efforts of friends such as fellow photographer Berenice Abbott to resuscitate his career failed. He died at age 66 on November 3, 1940, a widower whose rent was covered by a friend.
And like Addie, Hine seemed to recede into the mists of history. But his child labor images secured his reputation as a documentarian and as an artist. We return to the photograph of Addie again and again because Hine saw her not just as a symbol but as a "person" with a life beyond the mill. For that reason, the "anaemic little spinner" remains as firmly burned into our national memory as she was etched into the glass of Hine's negative almost a century ago.
Elizabeth Winthrop is the author of Counting on Grace, a novel based on the Lewis Hine photograph of Addie Card.
Learn more about the author's life and books here:
Author Elizabeth Winthrop alongside photo of Addie Card (Grace). This Lewis Hine photograph is hanging in the Met Museum right now in a show called OUR FUTURE IS IN THE AIR, Photographs from the 1910's.  The show's up until April, 2011


  1. Clara, I love this! Thank you so much. Your dialogue around these great stories is inspiring and I admire your dedication --and you! XXO Wendy

  2. Wow! Terrific research Elizabeth! That had to be so rewarding! I haven't read Counting on Grace yet, but I WILL. Adding it to my YA Historical Fiction Challenge now.

  3. Thanks so much for stopping by, Wendy, and congratulations on the release of your new mg book, SUNDOWN RULES! I LOVE it! XOXO

  4. Wonderful to hear from you, Joyce! I need to get over to your blog and see what you're up to! I'm so behind! :(

  5. Being a lover of photography, I had to go and look at Hine's work because photographs document history in a way nothing else can. I really was moved by the image titled, "Migrant Mother". If the mother's face does not tell a story, nothing does. I assume this was around the time of "feels" like WWI.
    LOVEd Hine's photography...can you see the story he tries to tell?

  6. Lovely description and amazing research, Elixabeth. I imagine the discovery of the identity and biography of Hine's anemic little spinner was thrilling.
    Wonderful work!
    Donna Volkenannt

  7. What a great story and a sad one, too. I also admire your research skills, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing, Clara. I love history.


  8. I am Joe Manning, the author and historian who helped Elizabeth track down Addie's family. I wrote a long story about the search, and it is posted on my website. You can see it at:

    Thanks to Elizabeth, I was inspired to create what I call the Lewis Hine Project, which is a quest to track down the stories of many other child laborers who were photographed by Hine. I have since completed successful searches for more than 200 children.

  9. Thanks, Barbaranne, for your photographic insights!

    Donna,(Irishoma) I agree that it is thrilling to bring the past to life! Thanks for stopping by!

    Margo, (history lover) Thanks for stopping by. I thought you'd be intrigued.

  10. Dear Joe Manning,

    I am honored that you took the time to stop by and leave a comment. I'd like to make sure my readers find your links, so I'll include them in the post next week. Thank you for sharing!


  11. Clara, what a very touching story. Sad,too, but then history is often that. It's what people can learn from it that makes it so fascinating. Thanks for sharing this book with us. Wonderful!

  12. I absolutely loved this post. I am fascinated by this time period. It sounds like a wonderful book. It is interesting that the picture led to the story.

  13. Great example of diligent research! I'd love to read this book.

  14. Jennifer, Janet, and Vicky -- Thanks so much for stopping by to comment. Of course, all of your names will be included for a chance to win the book!

  15. It's very humbling to hear the stories of the people who made this life so much easier for the rest of us, by their sacrifices.... we should never forget what it cost to be free.

    Laurie Phelps/Goldman

  16. Hi Laurie, You are so right: We should never forget. I know you have a son in the military and are aware every moment of every day how much our freedom costs. Thank you for stopping by today!

  17. Purely inspirational. Just goes to show you what can be learned from determination. Wonderful post! :)

  18. How much more interesting history class would have been if we could have learned about "persons" instead of just battles, generals, & dates.
    Kathy Cannon Wiechman

  19. Gayle -- Thanks for stopping by. Glad to hear that you were inspired, too!

    Kathy Wiechman -- So nice to hear from you! I agree entirely about history class. Thanks for joining us.

  20. How amazingly hard life was for children, way back in the day! How lucky we are to live in an era where children's rights are least in this country. I'm moved by the story of Addie Card, one of the many faces of child laborers. Thanks for sharing this book, and introducing her story Clara! A must read book.

  21. What an amazing story. It is the next book on my TBR pile.
    Thank you for sharing it and also the behind the scenes research. Very interesting!

  22. Lisa Chaikin-Johnston--This book is just one of the many reasons historical fiction is so important--Lest we forget! Thanks for stopping by.

    Lorrie--Pleased that you've put the book on your TBR pile! Thank you!

  23. Clara,
    What a fascinating story! I really love the photographs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are so many stories in those eyes of the people captured, if only we knew more about them. One of my hobbies, when I have the time, is to research my family history, particularly on my father's side. Some of the pictures that I am lucky enough to have are priceless. So many stories...thanks.

  24. Hi Kate, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree about those old family photographs. Hope you'll recover some stories in the process of your family research!

  25. Toby, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about this post. The research that Elizabeth and Joe did to recover the life of Addie Card is truly impressive. Thanks for the book recommendation, too!