This photo caught my eye because of the unusually large amount of description that accompanied it:
“122 Sullivan St. 2nd Floor rear. Leveroni family. Earn 4 cents a gross making violets. Can make 20 gross a day when children work all day. Father has work. Mrs. Leveroni; Tessie Leveroni, age 9; Stephen Leveroni, age 6; Margaret Leveroni, age 7; Josephine Cordono, age 10. These children work on Saturdays on afternoons after 3 o’clock, and evenings until 8 or 9. Location: New York, New York (State)”
We look at this photo and description in 2013 and we immediately are struck by the use of child labour. We feel bad that this family is so poor that the children are forced to labour every day after school for 5 hours and on Saturdays. Piece work, i.e. taking sewing work home and being paid by every piece completed, was lots of work for small pay. In this case, the family is sewing fake violet flowers.
However, another way of looking at it was that Italian immigrant families often moved to New York City as a way to make money and they chose piece work so that they could maintain their family life. Lower-class Italians in the beginning of the 20th century were predominantly farmers, but many who moved to the U.S. didn’t continue farming – it was seen as too permanent and Italians actually had a high rate of return to Italy. When you run a family farm, you are surrounded by your family all day – piece work was a way for Italian immigrants to replicate this in their new country. I’m not saying that this photo is positive – it does show poverty and a family living in a New York City tenement at the turn of the century – but sometimes our view can be coloured by our own context.
I always find it neat how it can be difficult to avoid interpreting a photo with our ‘modern’ point-of-view!