Child Labor in North Carolina Textile Mills (2023)

Why were children used as laborers throughout Southern textile mills during the turn of the twentieth century?

In our modern world of text messaging, online learning, shopping malls, and fast food from almost every culture, the thought of children working today is unimaginable to many. However, not so long ago in children as young as five were up and working 10 hour days; six days a week.

These children, who might have worked a sixty-four hour workweek, were allowed to keep maybe twenty-five cents of their wages, if any, after household expenses were taken care of. Many children looked forward to becoming of age to work in the mill as a way of getting out of the hot and back-breaking work of farming, while others preferred to remain on the farm. The choice, however, was not theirs to make. If it had been, all the women I talked to would have chosen to be in school. Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls. Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1986)Educational Resource Materials, Levine Museum of the New South, 2003. www. museumofthenewsouth. org

The goal of thissitewas to complile and arinformation about how North Carolina's textile mills used child labor during the years 1870 to 1910.It was during this time period that the South was recovering from the Civil War.Southerners, mainly poor, white, anduneducatedprovided acheap labor source that was plentiful. Many mills rebuilt their war destroyed factories into "modern" facilities, while other mills moved their factories from theNorth to the Southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Child Labor in North Carolina Textile Mills (2)This was a great lure to many white Southern families because it provided them a chance to separate themselves from the poor, uneducated, free black sharecroppers that were also plentiful in the South(Sallee, 2004).

Many new mills were builtin North Carolina's Piedmont region becauseof the regions many rivers and tributaries.These rivers provided a cheap energysourceto power the mills. According to the North Carolina Business History website, "By 1870, 113 textile mills were operating in the state, employing 3,053 workers, with $2,237,200 in capital and $2,923,725 in products. Gradually, textile mills moved from Massachusetts and the North, to the Southern states where labor was plentiful and the mills would be closer to the raw cotton materials needed to produce their products. As more mills were built, the infrastructure of North Carolina grew and expanded. The railroads and new advances in electricity were often tested in Southern cotton mills becauseof the rapid growth of the industry.

Child Labor in North Carolina Textile Mills (3)

North Carolina Textile Mill Steam Engine Facts:

1880- only 16% of NC mills powered by steam engines

1900- 64% of NC mills powered by steam engines

(Glass, 1992)

North Carolina Railroad Construction Facts:

1880- 1,500 miles of track

1900- 4,000 miles of track

Major consolidation of three smaller railroads into one larger company to provide service to the state

(Glass, 1992)

North Carolina Textile Mill Production Capacity Facts

1885- 200,000 spindlesand 2,500 looms

1915- 3.88 million spindles and 67,288 looms

When an old state...builds almost two hundred cotton mills within twenty years," wrote historian Holland Thompson in 1906,"...evidently a great economic change is indicated"(Glass, 1992)

By the turn of the twentieth century, many mills were equipped with electric lights, humidification which controlled airmoisture, and someeven experimented with air conditioning. North Carolina mills were known for advances in cotton fiber production and the overall production of textile products. Between 1885 and 1915 the number of textile mills grew from 60 to 318 proving that the industrial revolution was not just a Northern phenomenon. Even though many mills did make their own fabrics, the majority of North Carolina mills were known fortheir production of lower grade yarns that could be sold at a lower costto other factories so they could custom make their own products. In general, North Carolina yarns were used to make heavy woven goods, denims, ginghams, toweling, flannels and industrial grade cloths. It is estimated by Daniel Tompkins that the cotton mills could make a profit of 10 to 30 percent by milling these lower grade yarns (Glass, 1992).

In addition to the advancements made in the factories, many mills created mill villages to provide housing and services forits workers.By building these mill villages, the mill owners created a community steeped inpaternalism. By definition,paternalism is a system wherein one group dominates anotherunder the guise of kindness, duty, or obligation( Anderson, 2000). The mill owners wished tokeep their workforce close to the mill and close at hand thus buildinga community frameworkinvolving themill owners in the everyday lives of their workers.As the millvillages grew, so did the mill owners' abosolute control over the workers' cutlural and institutional lives(Byerly, 1986).

While some villages were boarder line slums, most textile companies strived to provide the best accommodations for its employees and their families. When the workers felt comfortable in their living conditions, factories could count on a stable and loyal labor force. Factory owners encouraged families to move away from area farms into the villages and tried to provide good accom0dations for its workers.When mill villages were considered a being a nice place to live and work, word traveled fastthrough newpaper stories, church meetings andgeneral word of mouth.

In the early 1900s, most mill houses were one-story, four-room affairs, lit by kerosene lamps and heated by open fireplaces. Workers drew water from common wells and pumps, and less than 7 percent of mills in 1907-1908 had sewer facilities more elaborate than simple privies. Many manufacturers had a rule that required families to supply one worker for each room occupied, further encouraging the entry of children into the mills. (Hall, 1987)

At the turn of the twentieth century approached, a new political era dawned in America.Reform movementswere formedand focused their attentionson the ills of society and how we as a nation canbetter look after its people.One of these movements was created on April 25, 1904 at a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC)was organized by men and women concerned with the plight of working children. The organizationhopedto gain the support of prominent Americans and to identify the extent and scope of the problem.

The first item on NCLC's agenda was to bring to life the plight of these working children. They quickly hired photographer Lewis Hines to interview and gather photographs of the conditions facing America's working children. Hines traveled throughout the Eastern United States, spending a good deal of his time documenting the textile mills in the South. From 1910-1920, NCLC published and made public the photographs of Lewis Hine. By allowing these photographs to go public, NCLC gained the public and national support it needed in order to lobby Congress for tougher and stronger child protection laws. Photographs were easy to distribute and often recieved an immediate reaction from the immage. This reaction was what NCLC hoped would encourage people to rally for the end of child labor in the United States. NCLC committees worked for passage of state and federal legislation to ban most forms of child labor, and to promote compulsory education in all states.

Use the tool bar on the top left to help you travel through this site. Be sure to think about the questions posed throughout the site. Think as if you are living 120 or so years ago without all our modern conveniences and know-how. Take yourself on a trip back in time and think as if you were there. Put yourself in every person'sshoes. Think as if you are the working child, the mill owner, Lewis Hine, a mother of one of these children, or the governor of North Carolina. Enjoy your trip through time and when you return to this century, remember what you thought and continue to ask the questions like why do children need to work.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kareem Mueller DO

Last Updated: 04/09/2023

Views: 5980

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kareem Mueller DO

Birthday: 1997-01-04

Address: Apt. 156 12935 Runolfsdottir Mission, Greenfort, MN 74384-6749

Phone: +16704982844747

Job: Corporate Administration Planner

Hobby: Mountain biking, Jewelry making, Stone skipping, Lacemaking, Knife making, Scrapbooking, Letterboxing

Introduction: My name is Kareem Mueller DO, I am a vivacious, super, thoughtful, excited, handsome, beautiful, combative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.