Child Labor in the American South: Pell City Cotton Mill
Courtney S. Atkins
Mr. Lewis Hine took the following pictures during November 1910 at the Pell City Cotton Mill in Pell City, Alabama. The pictures are of children working in the mill and it was pictures like these, as well as others from many places of labor around the country, that led to the enactment of strict Federal Child Labor Laws. Now, children are not allowed to work like the ones featured in these photographs.
Pell City was founded in 1890 by a railroad investor named Mr. George H. Pell. Mr. Pell owned the Pell City Iron and Land Company. It was this company, as well as many others, that financed the founding of the city (Pell City Chamber of Commerce, 2007). In 1902, a man by the name of Mr. Sumter Cogswell built and started the Pell City Manufacturing Company. The company, commonly know as the Pell City Cotton Mill, was in operation until 1919 when it then became the Avondale Mills. For many years, the mill provided much to the community and as quoted in 2006 a local newspaper serving the Pell City region, David Murphy, Avondale Mill’s manager of carding and shop, said, “When Pell City needed something, Avondale was there to provide it.” The people of Pell City enjoyed the many benefits of the mill until it closed its doors in 2006 after 87 years of service.
Photograph #1782, the first of five pictures to be discussed from this collection, is of a group of girls at the Pell City Cotton Mill. The notation at the bottom of the picture states, “Some of the spinners in the Pell City Cotton Mill, grouped for me by the Overseer. Mr. E. A. Thompson, Superintendent of the Mill, is also Mayor of Pell City.” Mr. Hine labeled all the pictures he took. The labels give the observer some insight into the picture but if you look closely you can see more.
These young female spinners, whose job it was to watch the thread being spun onto rows of spindles, and to tie up broken threads, took this picture outside what appears to be the mill. Some look happy to be taking the picture as conditions in the mills of the time were harsh and any break from work was welcomed. Others appear to be upset. The ages of the girls appear to range from seven to the teenage years. All are wearing dresses and it was what women were expected to wear during the time period. Their dresses appear to be clean and with that in mind and with most mill workers having some debris on them from work since conditions were dirty, the girls could have just arrived for work. Spinners, working in the spinning room, made on an average $3.00 per week while the overseer, not pictured, made about $10.50 a week (Hall, 2000).
The next photograph, #1784, reads at the bottom, “Some of the youngsters working in Pell City Cotton Mill.” Hine once again, as in all the other pictures from the mill, notates Mr. Thompson, the superintendent of the mill and the city’s mayor, on the label. These young men look as if they range from ages seven to the teens, like the girls in the former picture but unlike the girls, some are wearing shoes while others are not. The boys are all wearing some kind of hat also. The label on the picture did not mention what kind of job they had but the hats may have required for their job and like the girls with the dresses, men were expected to wear some kind of hat during the time. The young men appear to be standing outside the mill, smiling while others are not. Some even have the look of curiosity on their faces like, “who is this man and why is he taking this picture of us.” That was probably the most uniform thought of all the children when Hine took the photographs at the mill and elsewhere around the country.
The label at the bottom of the next photograph, #1786, reads, “Group of doffers working in Pell City Cotton Mill arranged by the Overseer.” One definition of a doffer states that a doffer stripped carded fiber from a carding machine while another definition states a doffer removes material, such as full bobbins, from textile machines. If these young men were at work when asked to take a break for this picture, they seem to not like it. Once again, as in the previous pictures, they have a blank stare and show no emotions. One of the boys, the young man in the front left, is covering his right arm with his left. Was he asked to do that and if so, why? Work in the mills was dangerous and giving their jobs, it was easy for a doffer, or anyone in any position in the mill, to loose a limb on a moving textile machine. Off to the rear and the right, one young man appears to be sitting alone. Why? Was he told to stay out the picture or did he excuse himself? The images of him and the young man covering his arm can be very suggestive. Child labor was cheap and if any child got hurt, reform was surely on the way. The young man in the back may be squatting in attempt to hide a wound as a result from work. The ages of the young man seem to range from seven to the teenage years. Finally, as in the previous picture of the males, they all are wearing some form of hats but not all are wearing shoes. Doffers, who also worked in the spinning rooms of textiles mills, made about $2.40 a week (Hall, 2000).
Picture #1787 states at the bottom, “Group of Sweepers in Pell City Cotton Mill arranged by the Overseer.” The overseer seemed to have arranged all the young people for the pictures but under the direction of superintendent of the mill of course. All of the boys are without shoes except for one but they are all wearing hats. They also still have the clueless look on their faces, like the others in past pictures but unlike the others, the ages of these young men seem to be pre-teen. Off to the right of the picture is another person, perhaps the overseer, but most likely a teenager. He was probably left out for Mr. Hine may have wanted to take pictures of the young workers by age groups as they stand outside the mill. A sweeper in a textile mill made about $3.60 (Hall, 2000) a week and as the name says, they probably swept up debris off the floors of the mill. Not much can be found on their job. Sweepers were mostly found in the spinning room but they were likely found in other places in the mill as well. Sweepers were very young, prehaps five to ten years in age.
The last of the photographs, photograph #1789, is a unique one. The label simply reads, “Doffers in Pell City Cotton Mill,” and unlike the others which show groups of children, this picture is a close on three young boys faces. The boys seem to be the same age and as in other pictures of young boys, they all wear hats of some type but on a closer look the two boys on the left have what appears to be white fibers on their hats. The young man on the right has some too but since he is taller than the other two, the fibers can barely be seen. The hats were a focal point when spoken about the boys in picture #1784 earlier. Remember, in that picture, the jobs of the boys was not noted but they could have been doffers as well. In the background of the current picture a line of boys stand against the wall of the apparent mill. They seem to range in ages from those of the three pictured to teenagers. They show no emotion, like the others, and may have the same wonder of the true intentions of Hine. To go even further, the two boys on the left look like brothers so these three may be family working in the mill. This was common practice of the time.
The pictures from the Hine Collection are wonderful to look at. As you look at them you can’t help but to put yourself in the place of these young people and ask many questions. What would make a young person work so hard? Where were the parents? Where was the overseer who arranged the young people? Much can be assumed from the pictures but the truth is the kids were too young to work and it was a good thing Hine pictures moved the government to end harsh child labor. It simply was not right.
Some of the Spinners at the Pell City Mill
Some Youngsters at the Pell City Mill
Group of Doffers at the Pell City Mill
Group of Sweepers at the Pell City Mill
Three of the Doffers at the Pell City Mill