Kentucky: Tobacco Work

Child Labor in the American South: Kentucky TobaccoMark K. Gradoni 



Winchester, Kentucky lies in the center of the eastern portion of the state.  Winchester serves as the county seat for Clark County.  Tobacco is still a major part of the agricultural component of Kentucky's economy: during the 2005 fiscal year tobacco was Kentucky's most profitable export, worth approximately 339.9 million dollars, and the state produced more than any other state.[1]

This picture shows thirteen year old Roland Lowe topping tobacco on a tenant farm rented by his father.  Young Roland was one of his family's nine children, all of whom assisted their father in the cultivation of tobacco.  After the end of slavery, tenant farming presented an opportunity for the owners of plantation to continue their business.  The tenant farmer, however, was often trapped in a "cycle of indebtedness"[2] that led to a state of effective serfdom for the farmers and their families.  Burdened by debts that took years to repay, many farmers were effectively bound to the land, realizing all too late that it was useless to try anything other than too eek out a meager living from their plots.[3]

The process of topping tobacco was a regular part of the cultivation of the plant.  As the plant grew, it would bud and eventually produce a flower.  By removing the bud, the nutrients that the plant absorbed would go towards the leaves and stalk of the plant, rather than towards the flower which had little economic value.[4]  This process was believed to ensure larger and heavier plants.

Child labor was prevalent throughout the United States in the early twentieth century and is still a problem today.  There are several reasons why children were employed as agricultural laborers.  Foremost among these reasons is economics: children can be paid less than adults.  Moreover, children have always met the need for cheap labor.[5]

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 "made it illegal to employ children under 16 years of age while school was in session,"[6] and banned children from more dangerous occupations.  Unfortunately for children like Roland Lowe, this law arrived two decades too late for them, and was riddled with loopholes and exception, particularly with respect to agricultural labor.[7]


            While documenting child labor in Winchester, Kentucky in 1916, Lewis Hine photographed a young boy driving home a horse along route 1 through rural Kentucky.  Like many other children in rural Clarke County, Kentucky, 14 year old John Aldridge worked on a tobacco farm.  Aldridge told Hine that he expected to begin school in ‘a couple of weeks.'  In the original caption of the photograph, Hine included a bleak observation, stating that "it is now several weeks after school opened."

Aldridge's poverty is clear in the photograph: he wears no shoes and is protected only by a tattered hat from the sun.  There are several "justifications" regarding why young John was not in school several weeks into the semester.  Perhaps his family, much like the families of other tenant farmers, may have required the income from their son's daily labor in order to ensure that nights' meal.  Or maybe the family worried that they would never succeed in harvesting the crop without the continued efforts of their son.  In either case the results were veritable legions of young children working the fields, and not receiving schooling, in the rural south. 


In this photograph from Hedges Station, Kentucky, two children are seen working in a tobacco field.  The children were Willie and Ora Fugate, ages 12 and 10 respectively.  The duty that the children are performing is uncertain: the time at which the picture was taken, August 7th, renders both topping and worming highly unlikely.  The children may be searching for eggs laid on the plants by moths, or perhaps harvesting the crop, though the lack of equipment for this later purpose cast doubt on the possibility.     

            Regardless of the exact activities of the children, the basics are certain: these two children worked under the hot August sun tending their father's crops.  Tobacco farming was and is a laborious process.  Topping and worming each take days.  Topping, the practice of physically removing the bud of the flowering element of the tobacco,[8] requires the removal by hand of all the buds on a plant.  This process allowed more nutrients to reach the leaves and stalk, the economically valuable parts, of the plant, rather than being dedicated to the flower. 

Worming was a less subtle, yet equally necessary element of tobacco cultivation.  Worming entails the hand removal of worms from the plant, a practice that persists to the modern day.  The practice culminates in the destruction of the worms themselves by any means necessary, providing a thoroughly disgusting end to the decontamination of each plant. 


In this second photograph featuring members of the Fugate family of Hedges Station, Kentucky, 10 year old Ora Fugate is depicted worming tobacco on the farm her father rents. 

            Worming is a less than enjoyable part of the cultivation of the tobacco plant.  There are three varieties of worm that are responsible for damaging a tobacco crop: the cut worm, bud worm and horn worm.[9]  Of these three, the horn worm is the most destructive.  It begins to devour the plant during May or June, eventually descending to the soil, where it forms a chrysalis.  The hook worm returns to the surface in August or September as a nocturnal moth, proceeding to lay eggs upon the younger plants in a crop.[10]

            The elimination of the hook worm is easiest to achieve during the larval "worm" phase of its life cycle.  The insect generally dwells near the holes it eats in the plants and is reactive to temperature, feeding during the morning in hot weather, and during the afternoon on cooler days.[11] 

Unfortunately for child laborers such as Ora, the worms' reaction to temperature generally meant working long hours from sunrise to midday and then again into the late evening, targeting times when viewing and removing the worm was more likely.  Thus young Ora was forced to endure the harsh conditions that effected child Tobacco laborers across the United Stats during the early twentieth century.[12]


Nicholas County, Kentucky lies in the northeastern part of the state.   Hine visited the area in August, 1916, and photographed 10 year old Myrtle, 12 year old Zelina and 13 year old Florence worming tobacco.  These girls were the three youngest of the five of John Richard's children who worked the farm he rented.

The children are depicted performing the grueling chore of removing worms from their father's tobacco plants; a brother, 14, and their older sister, 16, are not shown.  Worming was a necessary reality of tobacco cultivation in the south.  Left unchecked, worms of multiple varieties could destroy significant portions of a crop by eating holes through the leaves and/or stalk.[13]

The employment of children on tobacco farms was not a phenomenon limited to the United States.  By 1865, tobacco cultivation had become the largest employer of children in northern Europe, where the crop was grown with great success in Scandinavia and several of the Baltic States.[14]  Even in Europe where regulation against child labor was more swiftly enacted than in the United States, children were still used as a source of cheap and replaceable labor for tobacco cultivation for more than a century.

 Kentucky Tobacco 1

Topping Tobacco.  Roland Lowe, 13 years old.

John Aldridge, 14 years old. 

W.L. Fulgate rents a farm.  Willie, 12 years old...

Ora Fulgate, 10 years old, worming tobacco.

Girls worming Tobacco.  Myrtle, 10 years... 


[2] Leon F. Litwack.  Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York, Vintage Books, 1998) 4.

[3] Ibid. 3-7.


[5] Ronald B. Taylor.  Sweatshops in the Sun: Child Labor on the Farm (Boston, Massachusetts, United States, Beacon Press, 1973) 6.

[6] Ibid. 7.

[7] Ibid. 7-13.





[12] Gertrude Folks Zimand.  "Children who work on the Nation's Crops" from American Farmers and The Rise of Agribusiness: Seeds of Struggle (New York, Arno Press, 1975) edited by Dan C. McCurry and Richard E. Rubenstein 5-14.


[14] Marjatta Rahikainen.  Centuries of Child Labor: European Experiences from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century (Burlington, Vermont, United States, Ashgate, 2004) 141.