South Carolina: Belton

Child Labor in the American South: Belton, South Carolina

 Daniel Reiner


            The end of the Civil War in 1865 presented the former members of the Confederacy with sudden, extreme changes to the way their economy was expected to work.  A recently freed black population served as the impetus for finding a new way of conducting business.  Tenant farming and sharecropping, both part of the crop lien system, all proved to be successful in trapping blacks in the snares of a slavish existence once more.  By the turn of the 20th century, however, a mechanized textile industry was beginning to make its presence known in the South thanks to the construction of railroads.  Along these new railways, mills began to spring up, creating towns around them.  "Nothing better symbolized the new industrial order than the mill villages that dotted the Piedmont landscape" (Hall, Korstad, Leloudis 247), but the mills were not always a welcome alternative to farming.  Belton, South Carolina is a brilliant example of the way factory-style mills came to dominate the South. 

            North and South Carolina were home to the vast majority of textile mills in the early years of the 20th century because the construction of railroads had barely extended into Georgia and the Carolinas were in close proximity to the existing mills and ports on the East coast (Hall, Korstad, Leloudis 248).  Belton was fortunate enough to have a railroad station built in it before the Civil War started - the depot and city hall were completed in 1855 (  While a cotton gin and cotton seed-processing mill were both established during the second half of the 19th century, the biggest boost to the town came in 1899, when Belton Mill was established to process cloth (  Textile mills like the ones in Belton presented an appealing alternative to Southern farmers, particularly growers of cotton, who had suffered in various degrees due to a market flooded with cash crops.  By the end of the 19th century, farmers who were oppressed by the crop lien system or other forms of unending debt flocked to fledgling mill villages in droves.

A Part of the Hopkins Family

            It was noted on the picture taken by Lewis Hine that all the members of the Hopkins family, including several who were not in the photograph, were working in the mill "'except the least one.'"  While this was certainly a difficult burden for a child to bear, the plight of the Hopkins was all too common for families throughout the industrialized South.  Wages for mill workers were far too low for a family to survive on even the combined income of a mother and a father.  This led to children working in the mill at the cost of their education; they were needed in the mills to help support their families instead.  "In 1900, 30 percent of the South's textile force was under sixteen years of age," and some mills were willing to hire workers as young as six years old (Cobb 72).  Mills were able to pay children substantially smaller wages than adult workers and the children were just as capable of performing the tasks required of them; mills saw child labor as nothing but a benefit to the rates and costs of production.  While "boys were more likely than girls to be in the labor force" (Matthies 174), both were employed by the mills in varying positions.

Group of Boys at the Belton Cotton Mill

            Milton Honnicut and other young boys who worked in the Belton had their picture taken by Lewis Hine, and are an example of a significant portion of the work force in Southern textile mills.  Before the age of sixteen, boys in Southern textile mills were often employed as sweepers and doffers at much higher rates than girls (Matthies 179).    Doffers were required to go around the spinning room of the mill and replace bobbins that had become full of processed thread with empty ones (Hall, Leloudis, Korstad, Murphy, Jones, Daly 49).  Sweepers were given the task of keeping the floors of each section of the mill free of lint, which would accumulate quickly when the machinery was running at full speed.  Both jobs could certainly have been accomplished by girls, but their slender hands and smaller builds were needed elsewhere.

Three Boys from the Belton Mill

            It would have been rare to find a boy like Broadus McCoy, one of the subjects of Lewis Hine's photograph of three young male workers at the Belton Manufacturing Company mill, working in a mill as a spinner or spooler.  As little as male children were paid for their work, girls were paid even less, and were often employed in more diverse positions.  Girls were primarily employed as spinners, weavers, and spoolers in mills.  While only slightly more popular as weavers than boys, girls outnumbered boys by a 3:1 ratio as spinners, and a 46:1 ratio as spoolers (Matthies 179).  As spinners, girls were required to watch over machines that combined the small, fine threads into larger ones, and wrapped these thicker strings onto bobbins.  Spoolers were expected to run "machines that combined the thread from 10-15 bobbins" (Hall, Leloudis, Korstad, Murphy, Jones, Daly 50).  Girls were preferred for these jobs because their hands tended to be smaller, allowing them to fix problems in the moving machines faster.  It was also believed that they tired quicker than boys did.

Extremes of Age in Belton Life, Some of the Youngest Working at the Belton Mill

            Lewis Hine's pictures of young male workers standing with older ones in front of the mill and out in a field are glimpses of the families that got completely engulfed by working at textile mills.  By providing jobs for every member of a family, mills not only assured that there would be a labor force available at all times, but also gained the confidence of its workers.  This sense of paternalism was something that would lead to serious friction between the mills and the workers during the Great Depression, but during the dawn of industrialization in the South, people flooding to the new mills were generally pleased with the amenities and services provided by the mill village.

            The primary function of paternalism "was to protect the operatives, and thus society, from the demoralization that many ... saw implicit in industrial life" (Carlton 90).  A work force that was moving to an unfamiliar industrial setting, often reluctantly, needed to be boosted and paternalism helped with this.  Regulations varied from mill to mill, but they tended to be place on activities such as drinking and gambling.  These regulations, in conjunction with provisions ranging from free schooling and housing to sports teams and a church, gave the workers everything they needed to properly raise a family.  "While ‘education and citizenship' was an important goal, [mills] received more immediate benefits in public relations" (Carlton 93).  In almost every respect, it was in a mill's best interest to support it workers.

            The Belton Manufacturing Company's cotton mill was certainly a place where work was difficult.  However, the benefits that mills provided to the South should not be understated.  It is also important to note that blacks are not pictured in the photos of Belton taken by Lewis Hine because the mill was segregated.  Race relations and the use of mill stores and low wages to trap workers were all issues that would boil over during the Great Depression, ultimately shattering the mill paternalism system and paving the way for reform at the national level.  "Textile mills built the New South" (Hall, Leloudis, Korstad, Murphy, Jones, Daly xi), but the prosperity that industry promised was not one that mill owners were capable (or often willing) to fulfill for workers.  Nor were mill hands prepared for their new, mechanized environments and the strain that the work would put on their lives and families.  Mills were a new start for the South, but Lewis Hine's photographs show us that the system was doomed from the start.