Mississippi: Magnolia Cotton Mills

Child Labor in the American South:  Mississippi: Magnolia Cotton Mills

Joshua Kuderna

Years prior to the era of the New South, Southerners witnessed the North take full advantage of the Industrial Revolution with its mills and factories. After the Civil War, the South wanted to enter the arena of the Industrial Revolution as well. Southerners saw it as their chance to move out of the shadow of their past and step into the future. As historian C. Van Woodward wrote, "Burdened with emotional significance the mill has been made a symbol of the New South, its origins, and its promise of salvation."  From the attempts to modernize the New South, cotton and textile mills sprang up all over the South. The mills had an abundant amount of new technology for the production of cotton goods and much of it required little physical strength to operate, enabling mill owners to employ large numbers of women and children (Hall, 46).

By the end of the nineteenth century, cotton mills had expanded all over the South and, nearly 100,000 people labored in Southern mills, one third worked in South Carolina, one third in North Carolina, one fifth in Georgia, and the rest were distributed throughout Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Much of this growth and expansion is accredited to the labor of children because they were a large part of the mill workforce. As Jacquelyn Dowd Hall states, "Between 1880 and 1910 manufacturers reported that about one quarter of their work force was under 16 years of age, and many more child workers went unreported." (Hall, 56) The cotton mills in the South utilized and exploited child labor, provided poor housing in the mill villages to their workers, and the child and adult laborers who were in the mills worked in appalling conditions for meager pay.  

The Magnolia Cotton Mill in Magnolia Mississippi is representative of many of the cotton mills that were in the South at the turn of the nineteenth. The mill began operations in 1903. The mill was powered by steam and initially operated 4,000 spindles and 160 looms to produce a variety of fabrics, including stripes, tapestries, and shirtings (Strickland, 29). The Magnolia Cotton Mill was organized with a capital investment of $200,000 from the brothers Lampton who would later run the company. And like many owners of cotton mills, "they saw their workers as any other factor of production, a commodity to be purchased as cheaply and used as efficiently as possible." (Hall, 53) In Mississippi this was truer than in any other state. According to the documents of the National Child Labor Committee, Mississippi in 1908 had "a lower standard of wages for both children and adults, of the cotton mills, than any other state" (NCLC, 12). Despite the obvious hardships of working in mills, people came in droves to work in the cotton mills.

Many families made the decision to move from the farm to the mills for numerous and diverse reasons. Major factors for families moving from the farm to the mill were the "sad state of Southern agriculture" and the technological advancements in the production of cotton goods. These factors created a push for whole families to enter into the labor market to attempt to get out of debt and there was a high demand for their unskilled labor (Hall, 52). The "sad state of the Southern agriculture" was due to the immense pressure that cash crops put on the land which had worn out the soil, also due to the decline of cotton prices, many families left for the mills.  

Some migrants, such as widows, thought they could gain a sense of independence from "public work." Widows with children found the mills to be a "place where they could keep their families together and live without dependence on others..." Also "a family with several young daughters was worth far more in a factory than in the countryside." (Ayers, 113) The Hughes family most likely took this into account when they migrated to the farm with their six daughters. The picture below shows only two of the daughters, Young Ollie, who is eleven years old, and Ruby Hughes, who is ten years old, in front of their new mill village home after migrating from the farm to the mill two months prior. (And there is no mention of their father.)

Ollie and Ruby

The mill collected little or no rent for the mill village homes they provided, "although rental rates did not have to be excessive to represent a sizable portion of a family's take home pay." (Cobb, 70) The conditions of these homes were beyond appalling. In 1907-8, federal investigators shared the same sentiment when they toured the Southern mills and villages. They reported that "the smaller villages and those in the country are often primitive in the extreme. The streets are mere wagon roads and there are no sidewalks. Frequently the yards are not fenced off, and chickens, pigs, and cows run at large." (NCLC, 14) Survival in these impoverished conditions of the mill village and the grueling nature of the work in the mill proved to be quite hard.

Migrants from the farms, however, were no stranger to hard work, as farm work was particularly trying but, "mill work took a different toll." (Hall, 53) Millhands rose early in the morning, still tired form the day before. For ten, eleven, or twelve hours a day they walked, stretched, leaned, and pulled at their machines. Incredible noise and stifling heat and humidity engulfed them (Hall, 53). Lint and cotton dust was everywhere and it entered their lungs, which could eventually cripple or kill them. As Hall states, "At best, millwork was a wrenching change." (Hall, 53) All of the Hughes children except the two youngest were entrenched in these conditions in the mill as stated in the picture below.

Hughes Children

They were ten, eleven, fourteen and the oldest was fifteen. Girls of their age typically worked in the most challenging of situations, and worked for more than 60 hours a week. The young girls that entered the mill, like the Hughes girls, usually worked as spinners (Ayers, 72). The spinner's job was to "move quickly up and down a row of machines repairing breaks and snags" (Hall, 49). In the words of a  spinner in a cotton mill, "What the spinners have to do, is put the ends up - we call it putting up ends - put this threaded up that breaks and falls you take the end of that thread and you stick it up to where that's coming out between these rollers. It'll twist it and then run up and down and keep going." (Hall, 49) The risks of working as spinner were very abundant. Alice Evitt recalled the extreme heat that she was exposed to as a spinner, "Oh it was awful hot. All that machinery a-runnin' makin' heat. It was bad. Terrible hot out here. You'd come out of there, your clothes was plumb wet." (Hall, 84) Mozelle Riddle, also a spinner, recalled the heat in the spinning room. "You could walk into the frames and burn your legs, that's how hot the heat was...The motors'd burn you, when you walked around them." And inside the room the heat reached oppressive temperatures, "It'd be eighty, it'd be ninety in there in that spinning room. Work and sweat yes, sir." (Hall, 84) These children would be exposed to these conditions for over 10 hours a day. While these girls did not work in the Magnolia Mills, their experiences mimic the experiences of other spinners in cotton mills.

Hughes Children

The girls and boys that "helped," (like the young Hughes girls in the link above and the workers in link below), in the cotton mills were a staple of the Southern cotton industry. A child who was "helping" in the mill was usually working with a relative to assist them and learn the trade as well, as there was no formal training program (Hall, 61, 62, 64). "Helping" also allowed for the children's labor to be facilitated into full-time work and many parents supported this as families needed kids to help provide for the family. For a large family, "with many mouths to feed, outside pressure was often unnecessary," such as the Hughes' with six children (Ayers, 62). "Helping" was also a way for mill officials to get around restrictions of age limits and having to pay wages for the labor of working children. See for example overseer in the link below who stated that every one of the children "works or helps." 

In 1908, Mississippi officially became the final state in the South to pass a child labor law. The law called for no children under 12 to be employed in cotton or woolen mills. The laws also called for no more than 10 hours a day for children under 16. The National Child Labor Committee found in 1911 that workers of the Magnolia Cotton Mill were working 63 hours a week, and "the children [were] apparently putting in full-time." (NCLC, 14)

The photo below was taken three years after the law was passed and it is obvious that many of these children are below the age of the 12, as were several of the Hughes girls who were employed in the mill. Thus, "helping" allowed mill owners to take full advantage of a loop hole in the child labor laws by using child labor, not paying them, and avoided breaking the law, as the children were not officially employed but, only "helping". Also in the link below, Lewis Hine, the photographer, noted that all of these children worked the entire work day. In Hine's research he found that all of the children he encountered in Mississippi were trained to say "12" whenever a matter of age was concerned, "even the tiny helpers I knew were not over 8 years old....they all had the answers on their tongues." (NCLC, 13

Overseer and His Flock

  As described earlier, the role of the spinner involved many dangers and the spinning room involved numerous hazards as well. Also, as stated before, mill owners did not abstain from exposing children to these hazards either. This is evident in the link below which shows the spinning room floor and the numerous children scattered about the exposed machines where many of them are not even wearing shoes. Dangers were everywhere inside the mill and a "threat to a worker's health could be as sudden and violent as the snapping of a bone or as insidious as the relentless clouding of a lung." (Hall, 84)

Spinning Room Floor

As former mill worker Cal Thompson recalled, "It was pretty dangerous...You'd have to watch yourself. There were so many things that you could do. Even cleaning up...I've seen [hands] jerked in [the machines] and maybe get their whole arm and all broke and the skin pulled off, maybe slam through bone." (Hall, 82) Not only were workers at the mercy of the machines they were also at the mercy of the cotton as well. The mills were seldom properly ventilated and were humidified in order to protect brittle threads. The "Workers had no choice but to breathe the lint filled air that hung in the damp sweat box." (Hall, 71)  Many workers in the cotton mills commonly suffered the consequences of this which was the "brown lung" or byssinosis, a disease that resulted from prolonged exposure to cotton dust. The cotton and dust fibers got in the lungs of the workers and caused lung complications or it eventually killed them.  Resistance by the textile industry delayed any action against the disease until the 1970's in the U.S.

Besides spinners, doffers were also present on the spinning room floor. The doffer's job was to replace the spinning frames that filled with thread, and replace them with new ones (Hall, 49). As described earlier, the spinner's job was to move quickly up and down a row of machines repairing breaks and snags. Like the picture in the link below, the young boys, Herbert and Walter, are reflective of the "youngsters of 7 or 8 [who] commonly doffed, spun, and did all sorts of casual labor..." These children are clearly not 12 and are a violation of Mississippi's child labor laws. Like the other children across the South who labored in the mills, these boys were also exposed to the many dangers in the mill. And as stated before, the workers of the Magnolia Cotton Mill were working 63 hours a week, including the children.

Doffer and Spinner

The children who labored in the Magnolia Cotton Mill were exploited and forced to work in unbelievable conditions. What is truly tragic is that this took place all over the South and even parts of the North. Through the photos of Lewis Hine and the work of the NCLC, they exposed these tragedies, showing these "human documents" to inspire legislation that attempted to put an end to the exploitation of children in the workplace.