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Voices of the Past: Child Labor in the South Carolina Textile Mills

Emily Perry


This lesson is entitled Voices of the Past: Child Labor in the Textile Mills of South Carolina and it is designed for the fifth grade and specifically related to South Carolina curriculum and standards. 


Students will be able to...

  • Identify child labor laws of South Carolina

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the textile culture and lifestyle as it relates to child labor through writing in the perspectives of a child laborer

  • Analyze the injustices and hardships of child labor and textile mill work

  • Recognize changes in current child labor laws making connections between the past and present


What are child labor laws?

How did child labor in textile mills affect local children?



Explain the effects of immigration and urbanization on the American economy during the Industrial Revolution, including the role of immigrants in the work force and the growth of cities, the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and the rise of big business. (P, G, E, H)


Explain how building cities and industries led to progressive reforms, including labor reforms, business reforms, and Prohibition. (P, G, E, H)


Working Conditions:

The working conditions for the children were very dangerous and difficult. Children could be seriously injured or even killed working in the mills because limbs or clothing could easily be caught in the large machinery. Byssinosis or “The Brown Lung” was a lung problem that many workers developed from breathing in the cotton dust. It was hard work and long hours for the children causing many to look much older than their actual age.

Jobs and Wages:

Children were often the lowest paid employees at the mills. Mill workers usually worked six twelve-hour days each week. Many of the children did jobs such as spinning, spooling, and doffing. Spinning involved turning the cotton to thread, spooling was when the machines would combine the threads together, and doffing was removing waste and seeds from the cotton. Spinners made $3.00 per week, spoolers made $4.00 per week, and doffers made only $2.40.

Family Life:

Most children in the area lived according to the mill schedule. Often, the whole family would work at the mill together. Even children who were too young to legally work would go with their older siblings to “help out” and their pay would be added to the older sibling’s check. Most children entered full time work at age 12 and often dropped out of school at that time too. Mill villages developed around the textile mills with its own a church, stores, school, and homes all developed by the mill. The mills would pay for schooling until the seventh grade which was the point at which children could start working legally.

The Child Labor Laws of South Carolina:

  • Age Limit for Employment In Factories, 12 YEARS.

  • Exemptions: Orphans and Children of Dependent Parents Allowed to Work at Any Age.

  • Children Who Have Attended School Four Months of the Current Year and Can Read and Write, Allowed to Work at Any Age During June, July and August.

  • Certificates for Children Under 12 Furnished By Magistrate on Affidavit of Parents or Guardian.

  • Age Limit For Night Work, 12, Except that Children Under 12, as Above, May Work Until 9 P. M. To Make Up Lost Time.

  • Hours of Labor for All Operatives in Textile Mills, 60 Per Week.

  • No Factory Inspection. Employers Must "Knowingly" Violate the Law Before Being Convicted.

The child labor laws were often not followed among the South Carolina textile mills. Young children entered the work force illegally working long days and night shifts without any education. Between 1880 and 1910, about one-fourth of all cotton mill workers in the South were below the age of sixteen.
For More Information Refer to the following Websites and Texts:

 Carlton, D. L. (1982). Mill and Town in South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana

     State University Press.

Child Labor. (2005). Retrieved May 14, 2008, from

(1987). Like A Family. Retrieved April 21, 2008, Web site: http://ftp.ibiblio.org/sohp/laf/overview.html

Phillips, W. H. (June 1985). Southern Textile Mill Villages on the Eve of World War II: The Courtenay Mill of South Carolina. The Journal of Economic History, 45, Retrieved April 18, 2008, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/view/2121694?seq=1&cookieSet=1

Proctor, Victoria (2003 May 7). Dillon County History. Retrieved April 21, 2008, Web site: http://sciway3.net/proctor/dillon/history/cotton/1909childlabor.html

McKelway, A. J. (2004). Child Labor in the Carolinas. Retrieved April 21, 2008, from Documenting the American South Web site: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/childlabor/childlabor.html

Parker, T. F. (1911). Some Educational and legislative Needs of South Carolina Mill Villages. Columbia, SC:

Waldrep, G. C. (2000). Southern Workers and the Search for Community. Chicago:
     University of Illinois Press.


  • local artifact: spools of thread from mill

  • photographs of child laborers (attached on hard copy)

  • Variety of materials for journal visual (magazine, newspaper, computer graphics, drawing, etc)


  1. Teacher begins the lesson by generating a casual conversation about chores and responsibilities at home. Refer to sample questions to begin conversation.

  • Do any of you have weekly chores or responsibilities at home?

  • What are your typical chores?

  • Do your parents pay you allowance or reward you for your work?

  • Which chores do you dislike the most?

  • Have your chores ever kept you from your daily life or school?

  1. After the opening discussion about the students, the teacher gives brief information on the lives of the child who labored in the textile mills. Introduce the laws of the past, working conditions, wages and family life (refer to background for extensive information). This portion of the lesson should be more conversational than lecture style. Ask the students questions and allow responses to the information so that students identify and understand the material. Remember to reiterate that children from this area and all over South Carolina worked in the textile mills. This would also be a good time to pass around the spools of thread for the students to touch and investigate.

  2. Next, Separate the Students into small groups. Pass around photos from actual SC child mill workers to each group and allow the students to hypothesize about possible stories behind their pictures (i.e. wages, hours, homelife) based on the background information previously discussed.

  3. Then, each student or group takes a photo and writes from the perspective of a child laborer in the SC textile mills (journal style). 

  4. After personal and peer editing, students go to a computer lab and type their stories.

  5. Students then choose a visual that reflects their journal entry (picture, drawing, computer graphic, magazine cutout, etc). Allow an array of materials for students to choose from to best depict their entry.

  6. Students orally present their reflections and visual to the class.

  7. The teacher combines the projects into a scrapbook with each student’s journal entry and visual.


Informal assessment includes observation and participation in discussion. Also, observe the effort and diligence with the writing process and forming the visual aspect of their presentation.


Rubric: The students will be graded by the rubric as it relates to the overall process, journal entry, and presentation. The students can be given an overall grade for the entire process or a social studies grade for the process and presentation and a grade for the journal entry as related to language arts standards.

Research Report : Voices of the Past: Child Labor in South Carolina

Teacher Name:

Student Name:     ________________________________________






First Draft

Detailed draft is neatly presented and includes all required information.

Draft includes all required information and is legible.

Draft includes most required information and is legible.

Draft is missing required information and is difficult to read.

Quality of Information

Information clearly relates to the main topic. It includes several supporting details and/or examples.

Information clearly relates to the main topic. It provides 1-2 supporting details and/or examples.

Information clearly relates to the main topic. No details and/or examples are given.

Information has little or nothing to do with the main topic.


No grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors.

Almost no grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors

A few grammatical spelling, or punctuation errors.

Many grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors.


Illustrations are neat, accurate and add to the reader's understanding of the topic.

Illustrations are accurate and add to the reader's understanding of the topic.

Illustrations are accurate and sometimes add to the reader's understanding of the topic.

Illustrations are not accurate OR do not add to the reader's understanding of the topic.


Accurately portrays the ideas of the children and uses meaningful thoughts and phrases to depict the textile lifestyle

Accurately portrays ideas of the children and uses somewhat meaningful thoughts and phrases to depict the textile lifestyle

Most of the ideas accurately portrays the children and somewhat meaningful thoughts and phrases to depict the textile lifestyle

Few ideas portray the children accurately and the thoughts and phrases are less than meaningful in depicting the textile lifestyle


Presentation is clear, accurate, organized, and effective for peers

Presentation is clear, accurate, somewhat organized, and effective for peers

Presentation is somewhat vague, accurate, semi-organized, and somewhat effective for peers.

Presentation is vague, many errors, unorganized, and ineffective for peers


Local History: This lesson plan connects local history topics to broader historical issues such as child labor. The lesson is based on the lives of children who worked and lived in the textile culture. It is important for students to make connections between larger historical themes and the history of their city and state. The local aspect of the lesson will provide the students with stronger connections with the material because it allows the students to understand through personal identification with the area.

Language Arts: A written journal entry, peer editing, and oral presentation are all vital to this lesson. The students will practice writing and mechanics through the journal entry. Each student's journal entry will require personal and peer editing reinforcing basic mechanic and grammar skills. The journal will also allow the students an outlet to practice voice and stylistic qualities in their writing as well. The oral presentation will allow the students an opportunity to present their journal and visual. Students must demonstrate speaking and presentation skills as they briefly share their work with the class.

Visual Art: The students must create or find a visual that reflects their journal entry in some way. Whether through magazines, newspapers, computer graphics, or a personal drawing, the students will demonstrate creativity and visual expression.

Photos Courtesy of:



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