Georgia: Massachusetts Mill, Lindale, Georgia

Child Labor in the American South: Georgia: Massachusetts Mill, Lindale, Georgia.


Lindsey Engler


Lewis Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on September 26, 1874. He studied sociology in Chicago and New York (1900-07) before finding work at the Ethical Culture School. As a school teacher, he was very critical of the United States’ child labor laws, which were only enacted in a few states. There were no federal labor laws at the time, so in 1908 the National Child Labor Committee employed Hine as an investigative photographer. He traveled twelve thousand miles around the country within the year. In photographing young children working in factories, his motive was to “accurately capture the reality of the situation” (Lewis Hine website).  Hine photographed several different aspects of work including those working in agriculture, canneries, coal mines, glass factories, mills, street trades, tenement homework, and other miscellaneous industries in which child labor was found. Thanks in large to Hine, Congress passed the Keating-Owen act in 1916, which placed restrictions on the employing of children in factories and mills if they were under the age of fourteen. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee for eight years, during which he published two books: Child Labors in the Carolinas (1909) and Day Laborers Before Their Time (1909).   

The National Child Labor Committee, founded in 1904, set out with the goal to “promote the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working" (Natanson). Fashionably dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas--including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery--to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace (Natanson).

By the 1920’s, textile production in the South had far surpassed that of the once prominent New England. Southern mills and factories were in most cases located closer to raw materials, and laborers in the South were so desperate for work, that entire families labored together in textile mills in Georgia and the Carolinas. Similar to what New England had learned years before, cheap labor was vital for high profits (First American Cotton Mill). In the South, still segregated, mill work positions were mostly saved for whites. Seldom were blacks hired as a majority of the mill workers were impoverished whites who were once share croppers and tenant farmers who left their depleted farms for steady employment and wages in the mills (Freedman, 32). In taking advantage of Rome, Georgia’s major cotton growth and cheap labor force, the Massachusetts Cotton Mill Company built a plant in Lindale, Georgia located just South of Rome, between 1805 and 1903 (Pullen).

It was in April of 1913 that Lewis Hine visited and photographed the young workers of The Massachusetts Mill in Lindale, Georgia. Most of these photographs are taken outside of the factory, to which one can only assume that the owners and managers prohibited him from entering the mill to take any incriminating photographs. “Hine found kids at work in every part of the country and in some of the nation’s most important industries. Textile mills were big offenders [of child labor laws], especially in the South” (Freedman, 31). One in every four workers in the mills was between ten and fifteen years old. As for those workers younger than ten, no one knew as they were not counted (Freedman, 31). 

The few states that had enacted child-labor laws were rarely enforced. “Georgia was the last of the manufacturing states in the union to pass a child labor law” (NCLC Pamphlet #138). The laws of child labor had been questioned several times before, but were never passed due to the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” within the Georgia Industrial Association. In not hiring children for work, factory and mill owners lost a lot of money, as children were a means of cheap labor. Hine himself stated that “I am confident that in every one of these mills there were gross violations of the existing child labor law. In many mills the violations were numerous, in some of them the number of young children that work regularly is unbelievable” (NCLC Pamphlet #138).

Jobs in textile mills most often reserved for children included spinning, doffing, and sweeping. Girls were most often hired as spinners. They walked up and down long aisles, brushed lint from the machines, and watched the spools of spinning cotton for breaks in the thread. If there was a break in the string, they had to quickly fix it by tying the ends together. These young girls were often on their feet all day long, working eleven to twelve hour shifts, six days a week (Freedman, 32). Young girls were preferable for this job because they had small hands that could fit in between the bobbins of thread, and could easier tie the small cotton threads. Boys who worked as doffers often began at age seven or younger. Their job entailed removing the whirling bobbins when they were filled with thread and replace them with empty spools. A majority of these children worked barefoot, as it made it easier to climb the machines without slipping to reach the bobbins and broken threads. If a child was careless in climbing the machine, they could fall into the machinery or get caught in the moving parts. “The accident rate for children working in the mills was twice as high as it was for adults” (Freedman, 35).

Cotton mills were often hot and steamy, as that was the best environment for the threads to keep from breaking. The machines often created a lot of noise, dust and lint, which made breathing difficult, and opening windows was prohibited. Many individuals working in textile mills developed Tuberculosis, chronic Bronchitis, or other respiratory diseases including the “brown lung,” where pieces of lint essentially tore apart a person’s lungs. Those who ran the mills did not take care for the well-being of their employees nor did they offer benefits or pensions. In several instances, children had to go to work in factories because of a parent being injured and unable to work. So those who owned these factories and mills, benefited immensely from exploiting cheap child labor.

The following photographs were taken by Hine himself on his April 1913 visit to the Massachusetts Mill. Several contain the caption:

“Noon hour at Massachusetts Mill, Lindale, Ga. During the days following this, I proved the ages of nearly a dozen of these children by gaining access to family records, insurance papers, and through conversations with the children and parents, and found those that I could prove to be working now, or during the past year at ten and eleven years of age, some of them having begun before they were ten. Further search would reveal dozens or more.”  

Noon Hour at Massachusetts Mill (#1)

            The first photograph featured, does not have children posing, but just going about the mill like usual on their lunch break. They are walking around a tall, wooden picket fence, which seems to be the barrier around the factory.

            Noon Hour at Massachusetts Mill (#2)

           The second photograph shows boys lined up along the fence to have their picture taken. All of them are covered in white lint, and look very dirty. Few are wearing shoes, and most appear to be discontent with the state of things.

            Noon Hour at Massachusetts Mill (#3)

           The third photograph also shows a group of boys along the fence which seems to be the perimeter surrounding the factory. Again, all of these boys are poorly dressed, barefoot, covered in lint, and do not look their age. They look old, tired, and their faces are worn and dirty from working in the mill.

           Tarlton Gree, Began at Ten Years Old

           The fourth photograph shows Tariton Gree from Lindale, Georgia, in front of railroad tracks. He began working at ten years old in Massachusetts Mills and at the time this photograph was taken, he was thirteen. He was a doffer in the spinning room, which best explains why he is not wearing shoes, as he would be more likely to slip on the machines and injure himself if he were. He looks small and underdeveloped for someone who is thirteen, although his face can best be described as “an old kid.” While you can still tell that he is a young boy, his face is wrinkly, and he looks very tired.

           Norman Hall, Went to Work over a Year Ago

           Finally, the last photograph features eleven year-old Norman Hall. He started working in the mill as a doffer a year before this photograph was taken. The caption states that there is no real reason for him to work as his father and several others are working. Similar to Tariton Gree, Norman appears very small for his age, but looks old in the face. Both are probably suffering from malnutrition, lack of sleep, and sheer exhaustion from working, which may be plausible for stunted growth.

           In all of these photographs, none of these young boys look happy in the least, nor do they look like children. While financially it may have been helpful, beneficial, or convenient to their families for them to work, it was a poor decision. The only fair job for a child is to be a child. If it were not for the photographs of Lewis Hine, and the pamphlets from the National Child Labor Committee, many would have remained unaware and oblivious to child labor. The NCLC photographs, together with the captions, provide insight on the lives of working class families, with a particular focus on children and women (Natanson). It is thanks to the work of Lewis Hine and other photographers, along with the help of the National Child Labor Committee, that the Keating-Owen act was passed, and restrictions were placed on child labor, so that child labor no longer exists in the United States today.