North Carolina: Scotland Neck


Child Labor in the American South: Scotland Neck North Carolina  

Joanna Petros 

          In the aftermath of the Civil War more and more southern farms began growing cotton.  In North Carolina the cotton business became a prominent factor in the agriculture of the state.  By 1900 the textile industry was the largest industry in the state.  In addition, by this same year North Carolina along with South Carolina led the country in textiles.  As more farms began growing cotton more cotton gins and textile mills were built to accommodate the abundance of the crop.  Growing cotton took up the majority of the year, in the spring it was planted, come September it was about ready to be picked.  Once the cotton was picked it would be rolled into bundles and sent to a cotton gin in close proximity.  At the gin, first the cotton seeds would need to be removed and then it would be run through a machine to be pressed into bales.  Textile mills would then buy the bales and then its employees would comb, spin, and then weave the cotton into cloth.  Due to the demand more mills were built and thus, more cotton was needed which the farmers were pushed to grow.  However, since more cotton was grown the price declined.  Eventually farmers could not earn a living wage.  Many families moved to mill towns where often the entire family would begin working long hours for steady but little pay.  In 1902, Crescent Hosiery Mill opened in Scotland Neck North Carolina, “since it had no electricity, a steam engine was used to power the knitting machines” (Crescent 1).  In a hosiery mill such as Crescent some of the various jobs included feeding the machinery, knitting, boarding, turners, and loopers.  The job of a turner was most often given to young boys working in hosiery mills.  After the cloth was cut and sewn into socks it was then given to the turners to turn.  Turning was typically done on a machine with a pedal which required some strength which explains why few young girls, if any, worked as turners. Comparatively, it was a safe and easy job.  However, turning required these boys to stand all day while they were working.  

Two of the Youngest Turners at Work

          Conversely, many young girls would be employed sewing, such was the case of young Nannie Coleson who worked as a looper at the same mill, Crescent Hosiery Mill.  A looper would operate a machine in order to sew shut the opening in the toe.  The work is tedious and repetitive.  Loopers where often paid by the number of stockings they completed and not by hours they worked thus, if you were not able to work quickly and efficiently you would not be able to make much especially since the pay was not immense to begin with. Upon its opening in 1902, Crescent Hosiery Mill it paid its eight employees an average of two dollars and twenty two cents for a week’s worth of work (Crescent 1).  Twelve years later in 1914, Nannie Coleson stated that she earned roughly three dollars for a week of looping stockings.  According to the 1910 “US Senate Report on Condition of Women and Child Wage-Earners in the United States” children typically earned anywhere from five to eight cents an hour (Holleran 304).  Also, under age sixteen girls typically earned slightly more than boys. Coleson was allegedly eleven years old in 1914 however was more likely much younger in reality.

Nannie Coleson- looper

           Due to the growing labor demand in the early twentieth century mill owners began implementing a family labor system.  It was in North Carolina and South Carolina that the “child labor and family labor system were the most deeply entrenched” (Holleran 301).  In Fact, from 1899 until 1914 mills in North Carolina and South Carolina employed roughly half of all child laborers (Holleran 301).  While it was desirable to have strong male and experienced workers, age and education were of little importance to the mill owners and so hiring children was a non-issue in their minds (McHugh 222).  In addition, because many farming families moved into the mill towns in order to make enough money survive to them it was not negative either, but rather beneficial that the entire family was able to work.  To the mill families child labor meant being able to keep the family together and earn another salary that was much needed.  To the mill owners it meant a larger labor pool and the ability to pay its employees less overall.  In both North and South Carolina there was a child labor law prohibiting children under twelve from working however it was rarely enforced if ever (Holleran 302).  Often children were told to say that they were older if anyone was to ask.  This was probably the case in most of the Lewis Hind photos.  By and large, the parents chose if their children would work or not.  That decision was made by pure necessity in nearly all cases and as a result, most children did work.  In the picture above, the smallest girl was apparently as young eight or nine years old.  She was so small that in order to work at a knitting machine she had sit on a box.  However, these young small children were still disciplined and steady employees.

Scotland Neck Cotton Mill

“Some of the youngsters in the Scotland Neck Cotton Mill going home to eat dinner. One boy told me (he was) 10 years old, and one 7.”  –Lewis Hind

         Children working in mills were not exempt from the long hours that adults had to work.  Typically, a child in a textile mill would spend roughly eleven hours of work at the mill per day.  Depending on the job they held they would have some periods of idleness still.  Young male doffers were sometimes permitted to go play outside or rest in between tasks.  But, it was more the case that the breaks were too short and not often enough.  Since child labor was a result of necessity how often they worked depended on the total family income.  Statistics show that a family that was earning enough of a wage would allow their child and/or children to work significantly less days per year; this was especially the case with girls (Holleran 310).  On the other hand, there was the popular notion that as boys got older they should work as much as possible regardless of the family’s income. “[T]he lowest paid, least skilled jobs ” would typically be given to the children working in the textile mills (Holleran 302).  Consequently, they could help out in the mills but the job would not require as much training, experience, or knowlage.  Three fourths of young boys working in the North Carolina mills were doffers.  As such, they were responsible for switching the full bobbins of yarn with empty ones on the spindles.  Other common jobs for boys included spinning, scrubing, and sweeping.  Girls were more often spinners than anything else but, they were also frequently employed as spoolers.

Some of the Youngsters in Scotland Neck

Mill owners came to find schools as a way to attract the best workers and also to raise an educated and disciplined workforce.  The rational was parents who were conserned with their children’s education were thought to be better, more desireable employees.  In addition, since the public education system was undesireable and unreliable building and running mill schools ensured a literate and well educated continuing supply of employees hence, it was beneficial to the mill to invest in a good school for the children of the community.  Consequently, it was during this time that mills would start to offer schools and better benefits to its employees.  Still the conditions were terrible and the pay was very poor but there was some sense of an increase in quality of life and community.  Children in Lumberton North Carolina and elsewhere would go to school and then go work at the mill afterwards.  This made for a long and exhasting day with till free time.  However, there was the absence of discontentment with the lifestyle because they had not lived better before and it was getting better not worse.  Afterall, these people moved to the mills because they were not making enough elsewhere thus, many were simply happy to have a steady wage. 

Going to Work at Lumberton Cotton Mill