South Carolina: Wylie Mill

Child Labor in the American South:  South Carolina, Wylie Mill

Donald Scott

Lewis Hine (1870-1940), photographer and sociologist, is best known for his insightful portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island and his unflinching views of housing and labor conditions in the United States. In 1907 he was invited to participate in the Pittsburgh Survey, which was designed to investigate the living and working conditions of that heavily industrialized city. Following this he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and traveled across much of the southern and eastern states documenting the working conditions of factories, fields, mines, mills and canneries which made use of child labor. The results of Hine's photographic pursuits eventually led to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers. I have researched five of these child labor photographs to gain more insight into what is going on in the pictures. All five of the photos are from Wylie Mill. Wylie Mill was a cotton textile mill in Chester, South Carolina. These photographs are dated November, 1908.

Wylie Mill: Boy with Calf is Pamento Benson


The first photo is of a group of six children. It appears to be three boys, a younger girl, and an even younger child that is too young to determine the sex. There is another boy at the edge of the picture, but he is cut off. These six children are lined up in front of one of the houses in the mill village. Being that two of the children are Benson’s I am presuming that they are standing in front of their families house. The boy foremost to the left with the calf is Pamento Benson. He is raising it for beef and has worked in the mill for two years. The shorter boy next to him is Ray Benson, his little brother, who is a helper in the mill. The third child is Clarence Root, who also works in the mill. This picture is significant for various reasons.

The first reason this picture is significant is because of the caption at the bottom. When Mr. Benson was questioned about the boys he stated that “Just as soon as the boys get old enough to handle the plow we go straight back to the farm. Factory is no place for boys” (Hine picture caption). Therefore, the boys were too young to handle a plow, yet Mr. Benson believed that they were old enough to work in dangerous mill conditions. Pamento Benson (obviously the oldest child) looks to be no older than thirteen years of age, while his brother looks to be around ten. Yet this was the trend of the times. From 1880 through the Great Depression, thousands of farmers traded fields for factories, or moved between the two. A vast majority of the families went back and forth from mill to field, or from mill to mill. By 1907, the annual labor turnover rate in the southern textile industry had reached 176%, and various mill owners estimated that anywhere from twenty to forty percent of their employees belonged to this “floating population” (Hall, pg. 107). Mr. Benson was one of these, hoping to get back to the fields as soon as his boys were old enough to handle a plow.

Daisy Estis: Mill Worker


The second photograph is of three girls, apparently relaxing on the front porch of a house. The girl farthest to the right is Daisy Estis, a mill worker who was unable to spell her own name. Daisy had been working in the mill for two years when this picture was taken in 1908. She appears to be around fifteen years of age, which would make her thirteen when she first started working. The other two girls look to be ten or eleven years of age and are not working in the mill. One thing that all three girls have in common is that they were chewing tobacco.

This image gives us further insight into mill life during this time period. All three girls look disinterested and apathetic. This could be attributed to the working conditions that Daisy had been exposed to the prior two years. Cotton textile mills consistently had poor working conditions, long hours, and low pay. Because of this they earned the title of “Herod among industries.” Children filled the lowest-paid, least skilled jobs in the mills. About two-thirds of the mill girls were spinners; the rest normally worked as spoolers (preparing spun yarn for weaving) (Holleran, pg. 302). The hours of work Daisy was subjected to was probably highly intense. South Carolina, in 1907, mandated a sixty-hour work week; this being lower than that which most children were subjected to before this time. Despite this mandate mills continued to set their own schedules. In a Bureau of Labor study conducted in 1907-8, results found that an astounding ninety-two percent of mills in South Carolina ignored child labor regulations (Hall, pgs. 59, 70). Wylie Mill was no exception. With these facts in mind, it is easy to surmise that Daisy was more than likely working sixty-five to seventy hour weeks. Even though it appears as though she was having a relaxing, winter day at home, it is more than likely that she was too exhausted to play and too tired to even show emotion in the photograph.

Another insight that can be drawn from this photograph is from the caption. Daisy Estis was not able to spell her name and there was no school within reach for the children to attend. Therefore, every child living in this mill village was unable to receive an education. The two girls in the picture with Daisy are just as uneducated. And with no educational prospects they are simply waiting to be old enough to start working in the mill. Along with this bleak future, they more than likely were already shouldering much of the household work. Most children, like their mothers, worked not only in the mill but also in the house. Children would come home and have cows to stake out, hogs to feed, and gardens to work. Therefore, it is more than likely that along with sixty-five hour mill workweeks, Daisy was also burdened with numerous household chores (Hall, pg. 160).

Wylie Mill: Group of Boys

The third image is a photograph of a group of boys spending their Saturday behind the barn. The boys look to range from age six to sixteen. The overseer came up before Hine could get their names and ages. The one common thread between this picture and the others is the demeanor of the children. These boys look much older than their actual ages. Out of nine children only one seems to have an expression on his face that could be called energetic and enthusiastic. This boy, the second from the left, could also simply be squinting. It is hard to tell. The rest of the children all stand erect, staring at the camera with a detached look upon their faces, as if they could care less about what is going on around them.

More than likely, these boys were doffers. Half of the male, child mill workers in South Carolina worked at this job. It consisted of replacing full bobbins of yarn on the spindles with empty ones. If any of these boys were not doffers, they probably worked as spinners, scrubbers, or sweepers (sweeping floors and cutting waste yarn off bobbins) (Holleran, pg. 302). Despite the boys lounging behind the barn on a Saturday it is highly unlikely that they were actually off of work. The more probable explanation is that they were simply given a break. For most children the work was sporadic rather than continuous. Doffers normally averaged about five hours of rest or play during their daily eleven hours at the mill. The size of the mill normally determined how long the rest periods were. The smaller the mill the longer these breaks in work were. No matter how long they were, during these periods of inactivity doffers normally sat about or went outside and played (Holleran, pg. 303). So the probable situation is that Hine caught these children during one of their intermittent breaks.

Two Male Wylie Mill Workers

The fourth image is a photograph of two children who work in Wylie Mill. The two boys, Willie and Fred Crocker, are thirteen and eleven, respectively. Willie started working in the mill when he was six years old and Fred started at age ten. The most depressing thing about this picture is that Willie has already lost part of one of his fingers in the gear of the machinery by the time this picture was taken. After seven years of working in the mill, from age six to thirteen, he has already lost part of his anatomy to the mill. The mill can be seen in the distance behind the children. Willie has no shoes on and both boys look filthy. Therefore it can be determined that the boys are probably on a break during their work day. The dirty look can be attributed to the mill working conditions. As a result of the vast amounts of cotton being processed, cotton lint was everywhere in Wylie Mill. This is more than likely part of the reason these two boys look to be covered in filth. And this profusion of cotton lint in the mills did more than make the children look unclean. The cotton would get into people’s lungs, shredding up the organ and causing a disease called brown lung. Once again, as in all of the other pictures, these two boys look much older than their actual age. Their faces have the look of people who have seen and worked much more than they should have at this tender age. Neither worker has any expression on his face. They look at the camera as if Lewis Hine is intruding upon them and as if they are conserving their energy for the work they must soon get back to doing.

Wylie Mills and Settlement of Houses

The fifth image is a photograph of Wylie Mills and the settlement of houses that were built up around the mill. The first thing that catches the eye when looking at this picture is the cookie-cutter houses. The mill is in the background with the houses spaced evenly in front of the mill moving into the foreground. All of the homes look to be the same size, the same color, and with the same amount of land around it. They seem to be strictly utilitarian, built to give the workers shelter and nothing else.

Another thing that pops out of this picture is the absence of a schoolhouse. Wylie Mill had no school available for the children to attend. This absence of a school had to be very detrimental to the children of the mill town. The effects have already been seen in an earlier picture. Daisy Estis, a girl who looks to be age fifteen, cannot even spell her own name. This was more than likely the rule, not the exception. In the mill town of 1908 children were valued more for their working capacity than for their intellect. The southern textile industries growth was based to a large extent on the labor of children. Between 1880 and 1910 manufacturers reported that about a quarter of their work force was under the age of sixteen and many more went unreported (Hall, pg. 56). With children being used as the foundation of the industry, it is not surprising that education was not a prominent aspect of mill towns, Wylie Mill included.

All of these pictures, when looked at as a whole, give further insight into child labor and mill towns during this time period. Children worked up to seventy hour weeks for low pay in poor working conditions. Even when making money the children were not guaranteed to keep their earnings. Parents considered their children’s earnings a family resource, not individual income. Even into their late teens most mill children gave up their wages. A federal report estimated that in 1907-8 girls above age fifteen surrendered eighty-nine percent of their earnings to family, and boys the same age gave up seventy-three percent (Hall, pg. 162). This must have been an even bigger disappointment for these child laborers. After risking life and limb working strenuous hours they more than likely rarely saw their earnings. Also, the poor working conditions had to be a continuous stressor. The threat to a worker’s health could be as sudden and violent as the snapping of a bone or as unrelenting as the clouding of a lung with lint. All in all, these pictures do a wonderful job of depicting the terrible conditions child mill workers in South Carolina encountered on a daily basis during the first decade of the twentieth century.