Lewis Hine caption: Stringing wooden buttons (button moulds) in a crowded home, Williamsburg, Mass. Mrs. Weeks and her children 13 years, 11 years, 7 years and her grand children 7 years, 5 years and 4 years old, all working after school, holidays, etc., stringing these button moulds. Mrs. Weeks said that the most they ever made was from $7 to $10 a month; usually less. The house was crowded up and the floor not very clean. Mrs. Weeks said that one time the children were all confined to the house by scarlet fever, and then she strung the most buttons she ever did. Location: Williamsburg, Massachusetts, September 1912.
Most of Hine’s child labor photographs depicted children, but some were of women working at home, since many companies farmed out work so that mothers did not have to bring small children to the mill. And because some states had established limited child labor regulations, companies could easily bypass them by claiming that children found working at home were simply helping their mothers.
In the summer of 2007, I noticed a few photos Hine had taken in the Northampton, Massachusetts area, three of which were of women working at home (see stories about Lucy Lampron and Lena Helems). I live in the Florence section of Northampton. This one was taken around the same time as the others, this time in Williamsburg, a town that borders Northampton.
Just a few minutes with the census revealed that the woman was Nellie Weeks. Within days, I had connected with a family member in Connecticut who had compiled the Weeks family tree, and that led me to several of her grandchildren in the area. They identified the two girls in the photo who are sitting next to Nellie as daughters Nellie, on left, and Viola; and they said that the boy sitting on the floor to the left was son Edward. No one was able to positively identify any of the others.
But finding the house where the photo was taken turned out to be an adventure. Through the Meekins Library in Williamsburg, I contacted local historian Eric Weber, who was a terrific resource. It seems that Nellie moved around a lot, living in four or five houses in Williamsburg and Haydenville (distinct village in Williamsburg) over a 30-year stretch. I put on a lot of miles, and visited four prospective houses, looking carefully at each room, hoping to discover the one Hine visited. Weber finally determined that the house was probably at 9 Village Hill Rd, in Williamsburg, the only one I didn’t visit – and for a good reason – it was recently remodeled top to bottom.
Ellen Jane (Nellie) Howard was born about 1866, in Northampton. She married Watson Weeks about 1880, and apparently lived in nearby Westhampton until shortly after 1900. She had at least five boys and seven girls. Nellie and Watson separated sometime after 1910, and she moved to the house that still stands at 1 Kellogg Rd in Williamsburg. Records indicate she and daughter Viola bought it in 1919, and sold it two years later to her son Fred. Watson died in 1923.
Nellie was obviously working for one of several button mills that were in the Williamsburg area at the time. Nellie’s granddaughter, Bernice Lyman, of Florence, told me that her father, Charles Weeks, often mentioned that he used to go down in the cellar and play with the buttons. She had some colorful stories about Nellie.
“The whole family would go over to her house every Sunday, when she was living in Chester (Mass). She lived near a couple of her sons who worked in the lumber camps. They used to call her “nurse,” at all these camps, because she took care of them. Even today, when I’m not feeling well, I’ll use the medical things she used when she went around to these camps. I had a boy that had pneumonia when he was two months old. The doctor gave up on him. Grandma Weeks had skunk’s oil, so I gave it to him. The doctor said, ‘What did you do to this baby? He’s out of danger now.’ I told him, and he said, ‘Well, it’s an old fashioned remedy.'”
Nellie Weeks died in 1953, at the age of 87, leaving nine children, 46 grandchildren, 76 great-grandchildren and nine great-great grandchildren. She is buried at Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg, right next to the remodeled house where she might have been photographed by Lewis Hine almost a century ago.
*Story published in 2008.