Georgia: Walker County Hosiery Mills


The industrialization of the South brought about many changes in the lives of its people, it also caused many serious problems.  Chief among these was the issue of child labor.  While it was not only a problem in the south, it became more prevalent there as a result of capturing the cotton goods market.  Advancement in technology made it possible for Southern employers to hire a less skilled and much more inexpensive labor force.  At the same time, Southern agriculture was facing severe problems causing families to search for work elsewhere.  What they found were factory owners who would hire a whole family, the owners would then pay the older members of the family less than a living wage so that the kids had to work in order for the family to survive.  This forced children out of schools and into the workforce.  Founded in 1904 and chartered by congress in 1907, the National Child Labor Committee set out to promote awareness, education and action leading to the regulation of child labor.  They hired the up-and-coming photographer Lewis Hine to take pictures for a new campaign they had planned that "poignantly revealed the youthfulness of southern workers."(Hall 59)  He began traveling around the country taking strikingly vivid images of kids--some as young as eight and nine years old--working in mills, factories, canneries, working as newsboys and various other trades, images that would come to "awaken the consciousness of the nation, and change the reality of life for millions of impoverished, undereducated children." (National Child Labor Committee 2007)   One of the main targets for investigation by the NCLC was the Georgia cotton industry.  This brought Hine to the state and more specifically to the Cherokee and Walker County Hosiery mills where he took the following photographs in 1912 and 1913.  The mills were manufactured socks, stockings, etc. and utilized children to perform many of the steps in finishing the garments, including looping (sewing the toes), turning (turning the finished product right side out), and topping (sewing on the elastic band at the top).   (Hall 51-52, 58-59; National Child Labor Committee 2007)


The Cherokee Hosiery mill in Rome, GA was one of the many mills that disregarded child labor laws. While visiting the mill, Hine saw several children who were as young as eight and nine.  In the picture below he shows one of these underage workers.  According to him, many of the turners and loopers in the mill were very young.  Pictured here, is a turner.  Once a sock was completely finished it was sent to.  When being knitted and sewn the sock must be inside out so the seams are on the inside when it is turned the right way.  The turners are the people who turn them right side out.  The finished socks would then be put into bins and paired.  This was a job that required little skill and could be done by a young labor force with ease. Being a looper on the other hand required a bit more skill and usually the children were taught by schools in the factory or learned from older workers.  Often, parents had no one to watch their kids while they were at work.  So they would take the children with them; the child would learn by watching the parent do it every day.  A looper was given a finished sock without the toe portion.  They then stuck it into a machine that would attach the toe using several needles and thread and it would come out looking as if the whole thing was one piece. (Hall 58-60; West 2007)


At Walker County Hosiery Mill in Lafayette, GA they seemed to be more sympathetic to child labor laws, having mostly "older" children work in their mill. Hine reported only seeing two that he thought were under twelve  (One of the Smallest Workers).  This is also evident in this picture of many of the younger work force of the mill.  In the picture most of the kids do seem to be at least twelve except the boy in the front.    In other mills however, this was not the case. By 1913 many states including North and South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia had laws on the books regulating the hours children could work and banning the employment of kids under twelve.  Unfortunately, a lack of enforcement and loopholes in the law made the state regulations almost useless.  This was especially true in Georgia where manufacturers held a strong political influence and argued that poor mill families needed to have their children work in order to support the family. One of the loopholes the mill owners exploited was letting underage kids "help."  They weren't actually employed by the mill but would come and help out, usually an older sibling or a parent.  Owners liked this because they didn't have to pay the child, they weren't technically breaking the law, and the with the child's assistance the person they were helping could increase their output.  A federal investigator in Georgia related a story about a woman who "reported that her little daughter ten years old worked every day helping her sisters.  The child quit for a while, but the overseer said to the mother, ‘bring her in; the two girls cannot tend those machines without her.' The mother asked that the child be given work by herself, but the overseer replied that the law would not permit it"  (Hall 59) After compulsory education laws were passed, owners created night shifts where mostly children would work later hours so they could still attend schools.  As a result of children being indoctrinated to mill labor at such young ages, the owners began to have a self-contained labor force that could reproduce it self.  (Flamming 91-93; Hall 58-60, 129, 162)

In the last pictures, Hine shows a young topper at her machine, and a group of toppers outside the mill A topper's job was to sew the elastic band around the top of the socks.  Hence the name "topper."  In the background of the second picture, you can see one of the small mill houses.  In many towns, the mill would own the houses and rent them to the workers.  A common practice was to require that the family send one worker for every room of the house, in return the house would be rented at a lower rate.  This gave the family few options.  Either they accept a smaller house, leave the town, or send one of their children to work in the mill as well.  It also led to very cramped conditions in the southern mill towns.  It was not unusual for a family of seven in the south to have a four room house while a family in New England of the same size, may have a six room home.  Also, all of the rooms in a southern house would be used for sleeping except for the kitchen.  In New England it was not uncommon for families to have several rooms that were not to be slept in.  Mills would also run schools in the mill towns.  Typically, they "operated more as extensions of the factories than as independent institutions." (Hall 127)   In  1907 and 1908 Federal Observers saw that children from twelve to sixteen were often interrupted at school and removed to do work in the mill.  Often, overseers would send for children to come and fill in.   This practiced worked well for the owners because if they could hook the kids at a young age it ensured that they would always have workers and there was less of a chance that they would grow up and search for employment elsewhere.  When they actually were in class, the children were encouraged to follow in their parent's footsteps and work in the mills.  More often than not the needs of the family and sometimes the children's desire to assume more adult responsibilities overrode the need for the child's education and influenced them to leave school for work in the mills.  Once working in the mills, parents would often keep all or most of their children's paychecks.  Even when they got older, their wages were usually still given up to their parents.  As a result, many children harbored feelings of resentment and unfair treatment.  (Hall 127-129, 162)

Georgia would eventually see a decline in the use of child labor as a result of a "growing surplus of older textile workers in the mill villages of the south." (Flamming 170)  These older workers had already been trained in their jobs and were more efficient to hire than having to train new employees, so they no longer really needed children.  Then as the 1920s progressed fear that there would be a strong anti child labor law or even constitutional amendment passed began spreading amongst Georgia's industrialists.  Since they no longer needed the young workforce and wanted to escape criticism and federal action, the Georgia Manufacturers' Association began supporting state legislation in the mid 1920s.  Georgia finally passes child labor laws in 1925 that banned employment of children under fourteen and a half, and required a system of certificates to prove the ages of young people looking for employment.  As is evident, child labor was of major concern to the people of the nation in the early part of the twentieth century and it took several years to get it under control.   (Flamming 91, 170)