Lost Childhoods: Mill Labor in the Early 1900’s
My grandmother Nina Alexander was born in 1901, 36 years after the Civil War. She spent her earliest years on her family farm. Death at an early age was not uncommon during those times. She lost four of her ten siblings.
When her diabetic father died from complications from a hunting wound, her mother had to find a way to support a large family. Since she could not support her children with the erratic income from farm produce, she sold the farm and moved her family to a new home in Athens, Georgia to find mill work.
Hope for a Better Tomorrow
In the early 1900’s many farmers and their families were moving to the bigger cities to find work. Back then farmers could only make roughly $.75/day. Some mill recruiters advertised $2/day causing many small towns with industrial centers to expand as much as four times their population in a matter of thirty years from the influx of farm families looking for a better life and more income.
On the family farm, kids were expected to help with increasingly difficult chores as they grew older. So after moving to work in the mills when parents had little money and a lot of younger kids to feed and care for, parents and their older children (6-9 years old) went to work to help support the family. Since sometimes children were paid adult wages in the early 1900’s through the Depression, (equal pay for equal work) this probably seemed a reasonable path to save a family from starvation.
Nina, at the age of 9, like many other kids in those circumstances had to quit school to work in a mill.
Children started as young as 6 years old sweeping the floors to control the cotton dust and the fibers that flew from the cotton bales, and hundreds of combing, spinning and weaving machines.
The air was so full of cotton particles that it saturated the air, and got in the hair and clothes. These conditions not only gummed up the vital machinery but sometimes gave the workers “brown lung.” On top of that, the mills had no air conditioning; even with the wall sized fans, the heat from the machines could be stifling.
I can’t help but wonder how these children felt as they left the hard, outdoors work of the farm with mostly the sounds of farm animals around them to enter a mill with rooms in a building probably bigger than they had ever seen; with the clacking, humming, whirring sounds of hundreds of machine parts and with hundreds of people working and talking.
Children Working in Mills
Some little kids brought their parents’ lunches to them in the mills and became accustomed at an early age to the machinery and noise. The youngest ones could become “helpers” in some mills, earning twenty-five to fifty cents a day.
By the age of 10 many children worked up to 66 hours a week. Some parents and mill owners felt that the children learned discipline and responsibility by working in the mills. Others felt their kids were safer working in the mills than being unsupervised while both parents worked.
Life in Mill Villages
Many families rented homes from the mill company and were situated around or near the mill, forming a mill village. One such 5 bedroom mill house rented for $.50/week. Some mills had a provision that each bedroom had to have a worker at the mill. A few mill villages offered electricity, but only a quarter of them had running water or flushing toilets in the early 1900’s. The rent as well as purchases from the local mill store, were subtracted from their “checks,” leaving the family only the leftovers for other bills and emergencies.
From the song made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons” about working in a mine, I always wondered what the line “I owe my soul to the company store,” meant. Now I know. This was during the depression when having any job prevented a fall into poverty and starvation. Some mill owners provided their employees welfare programs or even made loans to them.
The Mill Family
A strong sense of community emerged from walking or riding the bus to work, living near each other and working with each other every day. Many mills fostered a paternal relationship with their employees by supporting a school, a church,and/or a social center. Sometimes there were weekly social events to cement the sense of community among the employees.
Baseball and other games were a common activity that bound the mill families together through shared competitions. This is where the now famous “Shoeless” Joe Jackson got his baseball start in South Carolina.
Memories from Mill Workers
My husband was the minister for a group of older people who had lived in a mill village around the hill their church sat on. After their mill starting cutting back on expenses, the owners of their village told the workers they could move their houses to their own lots. But the houses left would be burned down. Many of those people had to make plans to move and do it quickly. They maintained the family feeling with each other afterwards by continuing to attend the church on the top of the hill.
Many times those retired workers were overheard recalling how they remember their son playing under a certain tree, now overgrown with kudzu; missing the familial spirit they shared back “in the good old days.” Many said as children they knew that their neighbors could paddle them if they misbehaved, because everyone raised everyone else’s kids. They truly missed their old homes and those friends who had moved away.
Changes in the Child Labor Laws
Mill work was often perilous for young children. Since children could be easily distracted while working with the rapidly moving machinery, severe injuries to fingers and hands were not uncommon. The danger for kids and the frequency of injuries to children was one of the factors that began the outcry against child labor in the United States. Awareness of the hours these children were working helped bring about the Owens Keating Act was passed against child labor but with weak enforcement and hidden infractions, it was soon overturned.
People protested the lack of education of the working children and stricter child labor laws were finally passed in 1933 in North Carolina. The laws set ages of 14 for girls and 12-14 for boys (unless special permission was given) to end children working in mills and other such industries.
Today in many other countries children still work with machetes, poisonous pesticides, and worse conditions with no education. It is good to remember our history and try to help other countries to move out of the era of child labor. More information about this part of our history can be found at “Child Labor in the Cotton Mills” a collection found in Stories of the American South.