Child Labor in the Carolinas

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Title: Who profits from their work?

Text: Collection of photos from Textile Mills “Child Labor in the Carolinas”, New York City: National Child Labor Committee 1909 Lewis Hines Library of Congress

Oral History Interviews Learn NC

Objectives: Demonstrate understanding of how the “second industrial revolution” changed the nature of work and conditions of work.

Evaluate, take and defend positions on issues regarding economic rights.

Ideas and Values: Industry, Labor, Childhood, Law, Necessity, Family


Content: Hand out article on background information about the during the “second industrial revolution”. Have each student chose a sentence or phrase that is the most dynamic in the text and be prepared to explain the choice.

As students come in room using the jigsaw strategy have them divide into groups. On tables have three photos from the Hines Collection displayed and ask each group to choose a photograph. Each group is to answer the question “What do you see?”

Process: Have the group form the seminar circle and hand each student copies of the 3 photographs. Once in a circle have the students choose a group goal and an individual goal and write them down.

Write on the board or put on the overhead the following quote from Lewis Hines (1908):

There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work."?

Seminar: Opening: What word or phrase would you use to describe you photograph?

Core: What is work?

Based on the photographs, what is childhood? When does childhood end?

What does Hines mean in the quote: There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work."?

What was the photographer’s purpose in taking these photos?

Who was the intended audience?

What do you think the response of the audience was in 1909?

Closing: What do these photos tell us about work 100 + years later?

Play the oral history interview.


Process: Reflect on your individual goal and journal if you met you goal.

Content: If you were to take a series of photos to show the nature of work in America what would you include and how are they different from the Hines collection? (Write at least a page)

Child Labor -

“Labor” was not a new concept to children who went to work in the mills. Many spent their earliest years on their family’s farm, helping their parents with chores and working in the fields. Making a living on a family farm was difficult, especially when the family was renting the land from a large landowner. Everyone on the farm worked hard at raising enough crops and livestock to support the family, but farm families rarely made a profit. Some went into deep debt during years with poor crops.

Mill owners looking for employees capitalized on the frustrations of farm families. They sent recruiters to rural and mountain farm areas to hand out pamphlets singing the praises of mill life. For families struggling to grow enough food to feed themselves and make a small profit, the prospect of a regular paycheck was appealing. Ethel Shockley and her husband moved off the farm they were renting in Virginia to work in the cotton mills of Burlington, NC in 1921. They made about 75 cents a day working on the farm and could make 2 dollars a day working in the mills. Like the Shockleys, thousands of farmers across the South made the decision to trade in their self-sufficient farm life for life in the mill village, and they brought their children with them.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the few laws prohibiting child labor were moderate and rarely enforced. In North Carolina, the age limit was 13 for employment in factories such as mills, and children under 18 were allowed to work up to a shocking 66 hours per week! Mill owners had to “knowingly and willfully” break these laws before they could be convicted. Even more lenient laws were in place in South Carolina, where the age limit for factory workers was 12 years old. However, orphans and children with “dependent” parents (those too sick to work) could work at any age and any amount of hours. These laws were rarely, if ever, enforced. Former child workers remember scrambling to hide in closets on the few occasions when factory inspectors would visit to check on working conditions in the mill.

The system of “helpers” was another way mill owners got around child labor laws. Very small children as young as 6 or 7 years old would visit the mill to bring meals to their parents or older siblings during the work day or simply to play amidst the machinery. These young “helpers” would begin to learn the jobs that older workers performed and try their hand at various tasks. The presence of tiny children in the mill could be explained to inspectors by saying the children were only “helping” and not on the payroll. As they got older, they spent more and more time helping until they began working full-time in the mills, usually between ages 10 to 14.

Many young mill laborers worked in the spinning room because mill owners felt their small hands were well-suited to this work. Work in the spinning room was not especially skilled or difficult, but required a watchful eye. Spinners were usually preteen or teen girls, who had to constantly attend to the cotton being spun on machines. These were the workers who “put up ends”, or repaired breaks in the thread. Doffers, often small boys, walked back and forth in the spinning room, replacing the full bobbins of thread with empty ones. Sweepers, also small boys, swept up the cotton fiber and lint from the floor and machinery to keep things running smoothly. Spinners and doffers were usually required to keep up with a certain number of machines on a side, and many workers remember“running sides” or being paid by the number of sides they worked.

Many former child workers speak of their eagerness to earn money, which pushed them to drop out of school and begin working in the mill. Some even began working against their parents’ wishes. It was difficult for some to see the advantage in continuing their schooling when recruitment ads claimed they could make as much as adult mill workers. Workers under 16 usually began working for 25 to 50 cents per day during the early 20th century, and could increase to $1.50 per day or more as they became more experienced.

For the child workers, working in the mills wasn’t always uninterrupted drudgery. Children were allowed to take breaks when their work was caught up, and some of the less strict supervisors let them go outside to play during breaks. The child workers were also allowed to talk to one another in the mill across the openings in the machinery. Sometimes, the workers learned how to read lips because the machines were so loud they couldn’t understand each other otherwise!

Workers in the mills also played pranks on each other. Frank Durham remembered workers teasing new employees who had just moved from the farm and didn’t know much about mill work. “There was something like that going all the time, some little old tricks and then playing pranks,” said Durham. “A new hand would come in down there sometime to work, and they’d send him after a left-handed monkey wrench, or go down there and get the key to the elevator, or the bobbin stretcher and all that stuff. Somebody that didn’t know there was no such thing.”


Child Labor Hines Collection


"There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work."

-- Lewis Hine, 1908

After the Civil War, the availability of natural resources, new inventions, and a receptive market combined to fuel an industrial boom. The demand for labor grew, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many children were drawn into the labor force. Factory wages were so low that children often had to work to help support their families. The number of children under the age of 15 who worked in industrial jobs for wages climbed from 1.5 million in 1890 to 2 million in 1910. Businesses liked to hire children because they worked in unskilled jobs for lower wages than adults, and their small hands made them more adept at handling small parts and tools. Children were seen as part of the family economy. Immigrants and rural migrants often sent their children to work, or worked alongside them. However, child laborers barely experienced their youth. Going to school to prepare for a better future was an opportunity these underage workers rarely enjoyed. As children worked in industrial settings, they began to develop serious health problems. Many child laborers were underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.

By the early 1900s many Americans were calling child labor "child slavery" and were demanding an end to it. They argued that long hours of work deprived children of the opportunity of an education to prepare themselves for a better future. Instead, child labor condemmed them to a future of illiteracy, poverty, and continuing misery. In 1904 a group of progressive reformers founded the National Child Labor Committee, an organization whose goal was the abolition of child labor. The organization received a charter from Congress in 1907. It hired teams of investigators to gather evidence of children working in harsh conditions and then organized exhibitions with photographs and statistics to dramatize the plight of these children. These efforts resulted in the establishment in 1912 of the Children's Bureau as a federal information clearinghouse. In 1913 the Children's Bureau was transferred to the Department of Labor.

Lewis Hine, a New York City schoolteacher and photographer, believed that a picture could tell a powerful story. He felt so strongly about the abuse of children as workers that he quit his teaching job and became an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine traveled around the country photographing the working conditions of children in all types of industries. He photographed children in coal mines, in meatpacking houses, in textile mills, and in canneries. He took pictures of children working in the streets as shoe shiners, newsboys, and hawkers. In many instances he tricked his way into factories to take the pictures that factory managers did not want the public to see. He was careful to document every photograph with precise facts and figures. To obtain captions for his pictures, he interviewed the children on some pretext and then scribbled his notes with his hand hidden inside his pocket. Because he used subterfuge to take his photographs, he believed that he had to be "double-sure that my photo data was 100% pure--no retouching or fakery of any kind." Hine defined a good photograph as "a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others." Because he realized his photographs were subjective, he described his work as "photo-interpretation."

Hine believed that if people could see for themselves the abuses and injustice of child labor, they would demand laws to end those evils. By 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established the following child labor standards: a minimum age of 14 for workers in manufacturing and 16 for workers in mining; a maximum workday of 8 hours; prohibition of night work for workers under age 16; and a documentary proof of age. Unfortunately, this law was later ruled unconstitutional on the ground that congressional power to regulate interstate commerce did not extend to the conditions of labor. Effective action against child labor had to await the New Deal. Reformers, however, did succeed in forcing legislation at the state level banning child labor and setting maximum hours. By 1920 the number of child laborers was cut to nearly half of what it had been in 1910.

Lewis Hine died in poverty, neglected by all but a few. His reputation continued to grow, however, and now he is recognized as a master American photographer. His photographs remind us what it was like to be a child and to labor like an adult at a time when labor was harsher than it is now. Hine's images of working children stirred America's conscience and helped change the nation's labor laws. Through his exercise of free speech and freedom of the press, Lewis Hine made a difference in the lives of American workers and, most importantly, American children. Hundreds of his photographs are available online from the National Archives through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) .


Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Nash, Gary B., et al. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990.

Tindall, George Brown, with David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.


In discussing the issue of slavery in the south and then mentioning the conditions the conditions in northern factories my students made the following connections: both were work forces used to make individuals prosper and not the workers; both lived in housing provided by the mill owner or the slave owner; both worked long hours without breaks in horrible conditions; both were owned – slaves by the southern plantation owner and the children/factory workers “owned” by the company (shopped in company stores, always owed the company money and never took home a profit).

It was amazing to hear the students make connections at such an early age. They were all worried about the injuries the children may have sustained due to the dangerous type of work they did in the mills.

Nancy Huston

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