Texas: Cotton pickers


Jonathan Soulen

            Child labor was no new phenomenon during the Gilded Age (1865-1901). The idea of children working for a living goes far back in human society, even back several centuries. What made Gilded Age child labor so different were two things: first being the blossoming industrialization of America during the Gilded Age and second being the anti-child labor movement that brought many of the horrible conditions to the attention of the average American. The second can be largely attributed to the efforts of the famous photographer Lewis Hine.

            The origin of child labor goes back to humanity’s agricultural roots. In order for a family to be self-sustaining, they need to produce enough crops to feed every member. A larger family could in turn operate a larger farm and, in theory, produce a bumper crop that could be taken to market and bring in extra money for the family. This of course is from the perspective from a non-cash crop farm. The rules change only from only some of the crops going to market to all of the crops going to market. The later was often the case, as the South was well known for its production of tobacco and cotton. So, with the family unit working towards a common goal, familial preservation, it was no wonder that children, even as young as five years old, would be helping the family with several daily farm jobs. Now these jobs were never difficult, manual labor, no. These jobs were usually feeding animals, watering crops, picking crops…very light and simple activity, something a child could do with little training. Adding to this, the children were never the sole source of labor on the family farm. It was often the father who was working the land and doing the heavy labor. The children, depending on their age, were usually supplemental help.

            Amongst the southern farmers, this way of life has existed before the Civil War, for decades on end. It is for this very same reason that the idea of the familial working unit continued on into the Gilded Age. With the Rapid industrialization of the northern states, and to a limited extent certain pockets of the American South, there was a call for more supplies that could be used for manufacturing. Combine this with the growing plight of the rural farmer who cannot keep up with a demanding market and a growing cost of living; it wasn’t uncommon for families to quit the farming lifestyle in order to keep on living in an ever-evolving America. For these farming families that could not afford to keep their way of life, the alluring and stable call of wage work became practical and acceptable. With this transition from farm work to wage work, the idea of the family unit, working as one to support itself, converted over. This saw the origin of child labor being applied to wage work.

            Now, while children working these jobs might seem unorthodox and even cruel, keep in mind the mindset of the southern family, where each member puts in what effort they can for the good of the family as a whole. Not only is it tradition, but also it is expected. The family needs to survive; there is no question of that. For the family to survive on such meager wages, it is expected that every able member of the family put in as much effort as they can. This now shows us, the 21st century viewer that there is a perhaps necessary evil to child labor in the South during the Gilded Era. This is, of course from the perspective of the family of the child, to the employer it was merely a chance to gain labor at a low hourly pay rate. As noticed from pictures two and three, these young children are working with their father and aunt. This familial pairing is contrary to the traditional family pairing, and it would indicate that there might have been a possible disruption in the family hierarchy. Perhaps the mother of the children was sick, or even dead, or perhaps she fled her family in pursuit of some other goal. While we can come up with theoretical reasons why the mother is never mentioned, this familial unit shows us, the contemporary viewer, that the family unit doesn’t always fit the stereotype we all know. Perhaps this, coupled with poverty and lack of job skills, is the reason this family have become cotton pickers on the H. M. Lane’s cotton farm.

            While the family of workers is used to best explain the occurrence of child laborers there is one, and perhaps many more, reasons to explain child labor in the cotton fields of Texas. Most notably are the orphans of a Baptists of Texas run orphanage located in Waxahachie, Texas. This is an interesting, and perhaps an exception to the child labor of the Gilded Age South. Now, a non-profit organization like an orphanage to exist in the Deep South during this time period, there will need to be a decent amount of funding to keep the orphanage up. Donations, while kind and generous, are not enough to keep twenty or so children fed, clothed, and educated. While it is heart breaking, there is going to be another source of income needed. From this need to survive, comes the reality of having to have the children of the orphanage to act as a labor source for a local cotton field.

            While it would seem terrible now that children would be used as labor, and thus being denied yearlong schooling, there are other factors that have yet to be taken into account. With the cotton harvesting being seasonal, the children must pick cotton in the extreme heat of a Texas spring. The spring brings a dry heat that doesn’t benefit from clear and harsh sunny skies. Children are given an ultimatum in this weather, either wear long sleeve and long pants, as to avoid sun burns, or wear short sleeved and shorts, and thus expose your skin to the bright Texas sun, risking sun burns. This was a difficult decision for the child labor of the cotton fields, who often worked from sunrise to sunset. Combine this with the dry heat of the region, and you are left with a situation that, daily, could fatigue any child.

            While the physical aliments can harm the child working in the fields, there are other elements that are working against the child worker. The elements, however, are longer lasting than immediate toiling in the hot Texas sun. When placed into the child labor system, these children are put into dangers unknowingly to both child and parent. Children and required not only to pick many pounds of cotton, but are expected to lift and transport the cotton as well. This daily regiment of heavy lifting can put irreversible stress on their young bodies. Combine this with the clothing of the children pictured in this page. As anyone would notice, none of these children have any sort of shoes or foot protection. While not as bad as children working in a cotton mill, there is bound to be machinery where toes have the chance of being caught in. Also, the lack of footwear also indicated a level of poverty that one might overlook. Combine these dangers with the biggest danger of all, the lack of a decent education. Many of these children could be receiving a decent state offered education but cannot accept it due to the desire of familial survival trumping their own advancement. Through this denial of education, one can notice an unending loop of workers sending their undereducated children to become future workers and so on and so forth. The conditions of the inescapable system become apparent to the onlooker, but sadly the child worker is unaware of their future vocation. With no knowledge of other possible vocations, or even a world outside cotton picking, the child is doomed to grow up into an adult who is stuck picking cotton and will find a mate and then their offspring will then be culled into cotton picking, as to help the survival of the familial unit.

            The cycle for this lifestyle of servitude was thus defeated through the efforts of the anti-child labor movement, which sprung up from the progressive movement. From the efforts of many progressives who were opposed to child labor over child education, one of which being Lewis Hine, the photographer who was able to bring the attention of the plight of the child worker to the average American, many of the states began to pass child labor laws which in turn created a federal child labor law which forbid children from being hired for menial tasks until the age of sixteen and from possibly hazardous tasks until the age of eighteen. These legislations would seem to spell victory for the anti-child labor advocated and the children themselves, who can now attend a yearlong education.

            While this is an overall moral and ethical victory for the respective advocates, and arguably the country as a whole, this would hurt the familial unit. Until the prices of crops would level to the point where they would benefit the poor cotton picker and his/her family, there would be less hands working the fields, which would directly translate into lower wages earned by the familial unit as a whole. This was a change that would hurt the poor rural Texan family until decent paying jobs were made available. Until then, it was hard work and perseverance that kept the poor rural family going in the harsh Texas agricultural field.