North Carolina: Gastonia

Child Labor in the American South: North Carolina: Gastonia

Thomas Marino


              Gastonia, North Carolina was founded in 1877. Situated in Gaston County, the town's population grew from an initial number of 200 people as a result of the crossing of the Chester and Lenoir Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Atlanta & Charlotte Railroad.  The railroad crossings lead to the creation of textile mills due to reduced shipping costs.   The number of mills in Gaston County expanded from five in 1880 to 102 in 1930, with Loray Mill being the largest in the country.  The crossing of the railroads also expanded the boundaries of the city from less than one square mile to 48.6 square miles.  The initial population was comprised largely of English, German, Scotch Highlander, and Scotch-Irish citizens.  Gastonia, voted the county seat in 1911, was a typical textile mill town.  Most of the families worked in the mills and lived in houses owned by the mills.  Entire families were employed at the mill, children working alongside their parents. (City of Gastonia, 6)

            Children were compelled to work in the mills to supplement the insufficient wages that adults earned.  Often children grew up in homes regulated by mill schedules, where meals were allotted during allowed breaks.  Most children were working full time by the age of twelve, forced to drop out of school or fluctuate back and forth between work and school.  In North Carolina, children under the age of sixteen constituted 25 percent of the workforce in the textile mills. (Pennell, Livesey, Hindman, 1)  From 1904 through 1905, seventy percent of spinners were under the age of fourteen and only 30 percent of the entire workforce was over the age of twenty one (Hindman, 152).  The three chief jobs that children held were doffers, sweepers, and spinners.  A doffer's responsibility was to take the full bobbins off the machine and replace them with empty bobbins able to collect more yarn.  Spinners tied the threads back together that snapped on the bobbins so that the bobbin could continue to collect the yarn in one strand.  Sweepers cleaned the floors to keep them clear so that workers could move freely and machines could be transported as required.  The sweeper used brooms as well as vacuums and was one of the more strenuous jobs in the mill.  A doffer earned an average of two dollars and forty cents per week, while spinners collected three dollars each week and sweepers were paid three dollars and sixty cents per week.  Sweepers were mostly boys while the majority of doffers and spinners were girls.  The weaving room was dominated by women.

            A series of child labor laws did exist in North Carolina at the time and are summarized in the list that follows:

These laws were frequently broken by employers because they were not actively enforced by the government.  There could be children as young as five found working in the mills.  This is evidenced by the photographs taken by Lewis Hine documenting children approximately twelve years old. These children report that they had been working in the mill for a number of years.  Employers were not aware that Lewis Hine was clandestinely photographing children working, as this would have been incriminating evidence of child labor law violations.  Hine had to photograph the children simply standing outside the mill with adults or secretly take photos of the children working.  Many times children would come to see Hine but once he took his camera out they would run away.  The employer had warned the children to make sure never to be photographed.

           The three boys in the forefront of Boys at Trenton Mill are aged thirteen, fifteen, and sixteen.  The young boys said they had been working in the mill for three, four, and five years, respectively.  If this is true, then their starting ages would have been ten or eleven, which is not of legal age to be working or apprenticing in the mill under North Carolina law. More important are the two extremely young children in the background of the photograph.  The younger of the two is just a toddler while the older is likely no more than 10 years of age.  The caption does specify if these children work at the mill, but the picture seems to suggest an unsafe involvement of young children in the operations of the mill.  All of the children are dressed in raggy clothing and the boy in the middle is sporting holes in his pants, indicating that wages are poor and inadequate for meeting basic necessities.  None of the children are smiling in the picture which seems to suggest that they were unhappy with the conditions at the mill and also apprehensive about being photographed.  The latter related to threats by employers not to be documented as working in the mill.  If we look at the poses of the boys we notice that the older two are surer of themselves.  This may be an indication that they have attained higher rank at the mill than the youngest boy.

             Boys often have the job of sweeper which is one of the more strenuous jobs in the mills.  The picture of the Boy with Coat in Hands depicts an eleven year old that has been working in the mill for nine months. He is the smallest of all the boys, and his starting salary of fifty cents per day was increased to sixty cents per day.  He said that if he sweeps double he will make ninety cents per day but it would be strenuous work.  It is also noted in the caption that two "infants" appeared at the door but left upon seeing Hine.  These two young children may have been extremely underage workers, further indicating illegal employment practices at the mill.

           Another interesting photograph is John Moore. The smallest boy, John, is thirteen, but had been working in the mill for six years, thus staring his employment at seven years old.  He worked as a doffer, sweeper, and spinner.  We do not know the exact ages of the other two boys, but they appear to be of a similar age.  John's diminutive stature may be a result of starting physically demanding work in the mill at such an early age.  He may also have been affected by the actual type of job that he performed at his initial hiring.

           Likewise, young girls played a major role in textile mills as they worked in the weaving room as spinners.  The picture Lacy and Savannah is of two girls, one twelve years old and the other eleven.  They have both worked as spinners for two years which would put their starting ages under the legal limit.  Boys at the mill note that the younger girl is a very good spinner and that she is not satisfied unless she is in the mill.  They say that the older girl is not as quick as the younger girl which makes her not as efficient at spinning.  In the picture the younger girl has a more intense look on her face than the older girl.  The picture also notes that the older girl looks more like a "real girl."  We can interpret this to mean that as the girls' age they become worse at their job and begin to act like women and care less about working.  The younger girls take their jobs more seriously and try to be the best spinners.  If we look at the girls' postures, we can see that neither is standing straight, probably a result of poor working conditions in the mill.   

           Families praised their children on the amount of work they could accomplish in the mill.  The picture of Pearlie Turner shows sisters who work as spinners.  The youngest works six and seven sides while the oldest only works four sides.  The family praised the youngest daughter for being able to work more sides.  This is further evidence that older girls focus less on their jobs and younger girls become more deeply involved in their work and the mills.  The differential praise from parents creates rivalry among siblings and can lead to fights within the family.  This illustrates that the main concern of many parents was to make money, and elevated over the welfare of their children.  Hine found other occurrences where the youngest child was doing more work than the oldest, a trend that could be found in many textile mills.  These children also do not look happy, which indicates that they are disheartened by poor conditions or that their employer has threatened them not to be in any photographs. 

           There are several constants in all of Lewis Hine's pictures of child laborers. The children are always dressed in poor clothing that are tattered and have holes in them. They are completely dirty from head to toe, many looking gaunt and malnourished.  These children worked in poor conditions and for long hours causing their bodies to be affected by malnutrition and inadequate hygiene. 

           The Loray Mill was the site of a major strike that occurred in 1929. Some of the same children depicted in Hine's photographs were likely the strikers that caused this uprising.  The strike contested the low wages, long hours, poor working conditions and company houses.  Furthermore, the superintendent instituted a "stretch out" policy in response to paternalistic control.  The strike was led by Communists who used it as a political battleground, yet the workers themselves were only striking for improved conditions and not for political reasons.  The opportunistic Communist political power play misrepresented the true complaints of the mill's working population.  Because of that misrepresentation, the National Guard was called to put down the strike. The ensuing clash between workers and National Guardsmen lead to brutal violence resulting in a multitude of injuries. (Salmond, 7)

           The Hine's photographs gave the government the evidence to put legislation in affect that would prohibit child labor.  Child labor in the South subsided once these photographs were shown to the proper authorities.  The Hine's photographs now serve as a reminder of how southern textile mills were run at the turn of the century to the detriment of children and working class families.