North Carolina: Doffers

Child Labor in the American South: North Carolina: Doffers

Maggie Miller

During the early twentieth century, the American south was plagued with the social problem of child labor. Young children had given up school in the prospect of earning wage to help their families make ends meet. At the heart of this problem was the textile industry, Historian Hugh Hindman remarks, “In many ways and for many reasons, cotton textiles (and especially southern cotton textiles) became the major battleground on which the social, political, and economic war over child labor was fought,” (Hindman, 153). This problem however had not gone unnoticed. The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was founded in 1904 in hopes of combating those who ignored child labor laws already on the books. This effort was helped tremendously by one photographer named Lewis Hine who traveled the country taking raw, emotional pictures of sad, shoeless children that would act as propaganda for the NCLC. In North Carolina, Hine visited various mill towns to see if the laws were being enforced. In 1909 the NCLC summarized these laws in North Carolina:

Age Limit for Employment in Factories, 13 Years. In Apprenticeship Capacity, 12 Years. Age Limit for Night Work, 14 YEARS. Hours of Labor for Children Under 18, 66 Per Week. Employment Certificates, Written Statements of Parent or Guardian. Employers Must “Knowingly and Willfully” Violate this Law Before They Can Be Convicted. No Factory Inspection. Commissioner of Labor has no Authority to Enter a Factory. No Prosecutions Under the Law (McKelway, 3).

The interesting thing about these laws was that the commissioner has no way to enforce them. These state laws, however, where not being enforced in the south because they were written in a way that made them nearly impossible to enforce. Occasionally they would hire an under aged person, not re-hire them for a season because of fear of legal repercussions, then they would re-hire them.



As mentioned, this problem was mainly a southern one. The worst violations of child labor laws were concentrated along the piedmont,  and Alexander McKelway, using data from the 1904-5 Industry “Blue Book,” estimated that in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama alone, there were 62,000 under 14; 75% of the spinners were under 14 and only 30 percent of the entire work force was under 21 (Hindman, 153). These children were subject to long hours, horrible conditions, and often the loss of limbs or other health problems. Brown lung was one of these health problems; the amount of lint on the air caused a condition similar to what coal miners are prone to. Other ailments included tuberculosis and chronic bronchitis (Freedman, 35). One can see evidence of the poor air quality in these cotton mills with Hine’s pictures of children covered in lint.



A boy working in a cotton mill had less of a chance of reaching twenty years of age than one who worked outside of a mill (Freedman, 38).

            The job that many young boys had in these textile mills was doffer. A doffer’s duties often provided them with more time to play than to work, with many of the children playing games on company time (Hindman, 162).  A doffer may be seven years old or younger, and had the potential to be promoted to spinner, a higher paying job that was often reserved for girls right away (Freedman, 35). Hindman explains:

            Boys generally started as doffers and sweepers, but many progressed to spinning after gaining experience. Girls were more likely to start out as spinners. Doffing involved replacing full bobbins, filled by the spinners, with empty ones. It was intermittent work involving relatively short bursts of high activity with extended rest(or play) pauses in between …  (Hindman, 161).

Doffers sometimes also doubled as sweepers, a job that included sweeping up the cotton lint in between the doffing runs, but in larger factories, these were two separate jobs (Hindman, 161).



Boys were most often chosen as doffers probably because they did not possess the patience of young girls. This is probably why many of the photographs of doffers show boys and not girls in the mills. The doffers often went out to play in the yard surrounding the mills. This was often the only opportunity Hine had to photograph them, because their lives were very often controlled by the mill supervisor who had the town and the mill policed. Hine stated:

At noon I saw boys and girls, dozens of them, from nine to thirteen years old, going and coming. Saw a number of very young doffers playing outside at various times of the day. At the evening change of shift I waited close outside the main door concealed in the darkness of the woods. I did not see many go in, but a few were very small . . . I met one boy during the day at his home who said he is working nights and is ten years old (qtd. In McKelway, 3).

            The job of doffer may have offered time to play, but was not void of danger. Some of these boys were so short they had to climb up onto the machinery to do their job. (Hindman, 161). One could easily slip and get caught in the open bobbins and spindles, causing serious injury and perhaps death. Hine reports, “A twelve-year-old doffer boy fell into a spinning machine and the unprotected gearing tore out two of his fingers…”(qtd. In Freedman, 35).  One can imagine the psychological effect on these children of loosing a limb or being sick without the company even compensating them. Many of these children wore little protection when entering the mills; they often wore as little as possible because of the heat and most of the boys did not even own a pair of shoes.



            Another one of the atrocities pointed out by Hine’s investigations is that these children not only worked long hours, but had been doing this for several years. These children would have worked their way up, and by the time they were technically of legal age they would be making much more money than they did when they started.

            The mill town was often the place Hine visited first to get pictures when the mill turned him away for fear of legal repercussions. These towns were full of entire families that worked for the mill. The mill towns were very expensive to create and thus created a burden for the people living in these towns. Although the owners may invest in homes, stores, and even schoolhouses, their incentive was to get as many of the villagers working in the mill as possible (Hindman, 156).   Many of the families fell in debt with company stores and other profit centers set up by the mill; this only increased the recruitment of younger and younger workers (Hindman, 157).  These mill towns were usually located near a railroad line and in the case of North Carolina, more than half were within fifty miles of Charlotte (McKelway, 3). Lewis Hine took most of his photographs here, in these villages built up around the mills. In Gaston county, there were an abundance of textile mills and mill towns. Hine visited Cherryville, Gastonia, and High shoals, all within thirty miles of each other.  Also, even though schools were available to many children, they often did not participate. Many of the children interviewed by Hine and others could not even write their names (McKelway, 9).



            The effect of these pictures was the eventual enforcement of child labor laws throughout the south. After these particular photos were taken and  the pamphlet for the Carolinas was produced, the North Carolina labor laws had already been altered. An amendment to the North Carolina constitution said to go into effect in 1910, cut hours down for workers, raised the age of female laborers to 16, and also included some degree of factory inspection for under aged employees (McKelway, 10).  This was the first of many steps to come in the fight to end child labor. Hine’s emotional photos created a storm of propaganda that showed the true nature of child labor, and that the consequences are universal. One can assume the NCLC would have never accomplished its goals without these touching photographs.