Virginia: Cigarette Rollers

Virginia:  Cigarette Rollers

Matthew Vreatt

Throughout history it can be seen that the most prominent source of labor is free, or very inexpensive, which can maximize the potential for profit in large industries.  This situation was no different in the South; Lincoln had exhausted the potential for slave labor after the emancipation proclamation in 1863, therefore child and women's labor was thoroughly abused. Throughout most of the 19th century children were employed in all aspects of the workforce including textiles, ironwork and cigarette rolling. During the industrial revolution, mainly between 1880 and 1900, employers were abusing child labor in full force. In a 1904 investigation of the tenements in New York it was noted that children as young as three and a half years old were engaged in work sorting nuts, making brushes and manufacturing doll clothing.  A substantial increase in child labor can be observed during this period, between the years 1880 and 1900 the percentage of boys between the ages of 10-15 increased from 24.4% to 26.1% and the percentage of girls increased from 9% to 10.2% entering the workforce. Another major boost for the child labor epidemic was the break out of World War One, occurring because many of the men in the nation had to go to war, therefore women and children were left to fill their spots in the factories work force. No matter what state you surveyed the working conditions for the woman and children were always of the poorest fashion, involving long working hours and very dangerous working conditions were injuries were a normal occurrence. According to A. J. McKelway, the Secretary for Southern States, National Child Labor Committee, cigar and tobacco factors were common in North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, all of which are large employers of children. Florida alone employed as many as two thousand children in their cigarette and cigar rolling factories, a huge increase from just a few two years before. In the photos that I have examined many instances have proven this point, for example in all of these photographs children between the age's of 9-14, which are illegal are employed by the Danville cigarette rolling factory in Virginia as well as the American Tobacco Company in Petersburg.

 This selection of photos depicts children at two different factories, one in Danville and one in Petersburg Virginia, the Petersburg plant is owned and operated by the American Tobacco Company. The American Tobacco Company still exists today and is still and major part of the cigarette industry, seeing as R. J. Reynolds Company is still around after American was broken up by the antitrust law in 1907. Such brands as Camel, Kool, Lucky Strikes and Palm Mall have evolved out of this early tobacco conglomerate. In the city of Danville there were four main tobacco warehouses all of which were prominently used for cigarette production throughout the late 19th century. Only two of these warehouses were used for cigarette production into the 20th century, so through my research I have been made to believe that the photographs taken by Mr. Hine in 1911 were of either the Weldon E. Williamson factory erected in 1876 or of the Covington Tobacco Factory erected in 1884. Eventually all four of the factories found in Danville were converted into storage or textile mills in the early to mid 20th century, were child labor was also probably employed. In every photograph taken by Mr. Hine that I am using there is never a picture of the children actually engaged in work; more or less these are pictures of the kids either on break or just arriving or leaving the workplace. The children in photographs do however seem to be in good physical health, none that are visible could be thought of as crippled, even though I am sure incidents by which children were injured, maybe even killed, could have occurred in the factory. One thing that does however disturb me is that fact that some of the boys do not have shoes, this would appear to be a rather large safety hazard, do to sharp objects throughout the factory. To my surprise half of the pictures that I have to look at are little girls working in the factories, many of which look as they could be no older than ten years of age. In the caption of the first photo Hine states that the Danville factory is a branch of the American Tobacco Company, although I have found no connection between these two it seems very probable. In all of the photographs Hine always indicates that the children state that they are at least the age of 11, seemingly in a jest to not get the companies in trouble, also stated by Hine was that the smallest of the children declined to be in the photographs. These images portray these children almost none of legal working age at the time, working as early as six thirty in the morning, which means they would not be attending school and probably end up being a slave to the working class lifestyle. In such states as Massachusetts mandatory school attendance was put into place as early as 1850, laws of this nature do nothing but good for the community, state and nation as a whole. When laws such as this are put into place, it enables the children to blossom to their full potential which could allow them prosper instead of just being a factory worker for their whole life.

The children in these photographs would be subjected to very long hours, maybe even all day and night shifts, with very poor lighting and ventilation. Such illnesses as arthritis, asthma and poor vision could possibly develop from working in these cigarette factories for extended period of times. It must be noted that one of the two Danville factories had the newest and most protective fire alarm and sprinkler system available during the late 19th century. The kids in these factories were often called "bunch breakers", a term for amateur cigarette and cigar makers during this time period. Presumably the children had to watch the newly introduced mechanized cigarette-rolling machine, which had been having problems operating smoothly since its release in 1881. The demand for cheap cigars was extremely high during this period, so pretty much anyone was accepted to make the cigars, including children under the age of twelve. The main selling tobacco product of this time is thought to be the five-cent cigar, which may have been produced in such factories as the Danville or Petersburg factories. Having children under the age of fourteen was a state violation of the Virginia Child Labor Laws, established March 1, 1910. It would seem to me that these laws were very lackadaisically enforced since Mr. Hine easily acquired such photographs and had to lead a revolution of some sorts to eventually regulate these child labor atrocities. 

Due to Lewis Hines close work with the National Child Labor Committee child labor problems were brought to the minds of many Americans that were oblivious to what these children were enduring. With these problems brought to the forefront of the political spectrum some talks of child labor regulations were brought about on a national scale in the 1920's. Hine traveled over 12,000 miles in one year photographing examples of children under the age of fourteen engaging in rigorous physical labor, which resulted in some states creating their own child labor laws. For example, North Carolina child labor legislation was not put into effect until 1922 according to Wiley H. Swift; he saw drastically good changes in the ten years between 1912 and 1922 in regards to the regulation of child exploitation. It became the "duty" of the state to regulate the working conditions of children between the ages of twelve to sixteen; also the age for children to work the night shift, mainly in the mines, was raised to sixteen. Such legislations were soon to be seen in most of the southern states, even though a national child labor protection act was not seen until 1938 because earlier notions to limit the child labor were immediately dismissed. Even in today's world child labor is still prevalent in countries such as India as well as many developing African countries although many world organizations have shown strong opposition to such tactics to stimulate a nation.








  1. Swift, Wylie H. Child Labor in North Carolina. Journal of Social Forces University of North Carolina Press. © 1923 Accessed 3/5/07
  2. Virginia Historical Society. Child Labor in Virginia. Accessed 3/4/07
  3. Seixas, Peter. "Lewis Hine: From "Social" to "Interpretive" Photographer". American Quarterly © 1987. Accessed 3/2/07
  4. City of Danville, Downtown Historic District Tour. Copyright © 2006 City of Danville, VA Accessed 3/6/07
  5. Harris, W. Gibson. "Proposed Revision of the Virginia Child Labor Law". Virginia Law Review Vol. 34, No. 2 (Feb., 1948). Accessed 2/22/07
  6. McKelway, A. J. "Child Labor In The South". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 35 © 1911