Alabama: Avondale Mills

In the early years of the twentieth century there had been many industrial factories employing children in unsanitary, inhumane conditions. Lewis Hine inspired to progressively sunder the grueling labor of young lives in horrid industrial conditions. Posed as a salesman of insurance, machinery, or even bibles, Hine gained covert access into these factories, revealing their atrocities to the world and the National Child Labor Committee (Levander, 81). Hine was able to uncover more than just children working at a factory; he revealed a realm of impoverished workers crying for help, calling out to national compassion, and humanity. Hine’s photographs revealed realities, atrocities, and a uniqueness of antebellum industry.

Hine visited the Avondale Mill, located just east of Birmingham, Alabama, where he captured images of young children involved in demanding labor. There, an entire town was built, surrounding a mill eventually, providing parks, schools, hospitals, and housing for the population of mill workers. The cotton mill employed numerous children who had mere weeks of education, if any. They had to work in order to provide for their families, whether voluntary or not. Many children got involved in labor out of curiosity. They would carry their father’s or sibling’s lunch to the mill, but on these visits their relatives began teaching them the skills needed to complete the job, mocking an apprenticeship. The children, at first, were not "employed" by the factory, but were there helping their parents during the long strenuous twelve hour work days, resulting in a necessity for the child’s productivity in the factory.(Hall, 61)


These two girls were only fourteen and fifteen years old, acquiring only a couple weeks of education at the first grade level. Numerous rows of compact housing entrenched the land with excess cotton debris scattered throughout. Their father tried to remove them from schooling in order to place them back in the cotton mill. Hine noted that their father did not have an occupation. Some children realized the impact their labor had on the survival of their family and took it upon themselves to get a job. This was the fate of families where the father was unable to work or produce an income (Hall, 63). The ability to help provide for their family gave pride to young laborers. Early textile factories were successful, not because of the decline in artisanship and farming, but the labor of their children. (Flamming, 25) Factories such as Avondale Mill knew that in order to keep their inexpensive child labor they needed to satisfy the heads of the households. The inexpensive shelter provided by the Mill encouraged families to become deeply rooted in the mill village, as long as the family kept the rooms occupied they could continue to have the supplied housing. Through paternalistic actions such as schools and housing the factory was able to keep the fathers satisfied which allowed a static use of child labor.


Hine had captured a glimpse of playfulness from these children caught outside of the mill, surrounded by soot-covered houses. The children impatiently waited in their lint-covered garb as Hine snapped his photograph. The child in the middle replied to Hine, "I’ve been to school my eight weeks. Work now. Been workin’ a year." None of the children admitted to be younger than twelve. Education was overshadowed by the priority of a productive factory. The mill bosses and superintendents arrived at the school at any time, during the day, and removed children to work in the mill. During slower sale seasons the mill required less workers, allowing the children to attend school. The knowledge being taught there encouraged the children to join their parents in the factory. Education standards improved in the mid-1910s after schooling was required up to the age of twelve (Hall, 128).


Rules adopted by most the factories, at the time, required children to be the age of twelve before they could work their own machine for a wage. Doffers had a repetitive task. They were required to replace the bobbins on the ring bar; removing full bolts of yarn and replacing the spindle with empty bobbins. This was a fast paced job that would fill the room with lint, leaving their lungs and clothing full of debris. Many kids were involved with these jobs because they learned fast and it required dexterous hands, not technical know-how. (Hall, 65) "Our baby doffer" hesitated when communicating with Hine, finally he revealed his age of twelve. Another child quickly blurted that he had to be twelve to work there, indicating conspicuously placed mill regulation signs. Eager boys would attempt to work before they were of age, excited to work in a mill. Many mills required a six-week unpaid training period where a new laborer would learn and master their machine. Some mills would work young boys for the six-week unpaid period only to fire them before they made it to the payroll, taking advantage of these young boys. (Halls, 64)


The dingy doldrums of the tenement houses that densely occupied the land surrounding the mill was hardly an escape from the foreman’s eye. The houses, owned by the Mill and occupied by the workers, were carefully studied by the mills private police force. The force, assembled by the mill, consisted of superintendents and lawmen trained by the deputy sheriff. The inexpensive shelter came at a cost. The mill workers were forced to abide by a strict moral code. If one wanted to drink or miss Sunday mass his foreman would know and scold him. Worse, the mill police would evict and remove them of their job. Most workers decided that a moral, religious life was better then being unemployed and homeless. (Hall, 124) The intrusiveness of mill overlords removed the mill workers civil rights.


Before strict time regulations were imposed, many workers had periodic breaks during the day, especially the doffers. The average doffer had work half of the day and had leisure time the other half. A doffer named Ralph Austin used to spend his free time to "play baseball, cut up, and throw rocks at one another, just like kids would." (Hall, 88) The doffer machines had to be started at the same time, taking some time to fill the bobbin. The periodic breaks gave doffer boys plenty of cigarette breaks. Children laborers wanted to mock their parents in every way: labor, and bad habits. Even though the doffers were able to spend up to half of their twelve-hour shift on a break, many would get diseases such as brown lung from the cotton dust. Along with the noxious debris in the air the machines threatened serious injuries. Many of the fast moving machine engines would burn the incautious. The machines fast moving parts were exposed ready to snag a piece of clothing, or even worse, a finger. Broken bones and even death occurred from these unsafe machines. There was no worker insurance to cover any injuries sustained on the job regardless. If a worker had hurt themselves they went home without pay until they were able.

Many textile factories such as the Avondale mill destroyed many children’s lives. They drained their body, stunting their developing bodies, mentally and physically. Thanks to abolitionists such as Lewis Hine child labor had been revealed in the American south. Supported by the National Child Labor Committee, Hine had made pamphlets to appeal to the humanity in all. He had committed his life to an admirable salvation of the lives of children.