texas: lumber

Child Labor in the American South:  Texas - Lumber

 Gareth Sparks

Due to the demanding nature of the work, it was not often that the Progressive-era lumber empires resorted to the use of child labor, but it is evident that children were employed to perform auxiliary tasks in several southern lumber mills, an especially common occurrence during times of labor shortage or unrest. Before many mill operations were mechanized, the principle asset of the lumber worker was strength, but children as young as twelve were employed to move cut planks or to help in comparatively light duties with timber transport. While the industry was not a focus of the National Child Labor Committee or other organizations which focused upon relieving the plight of child workers, photographer Lewis Hine documented numerous children at work in the lumber mills of East Texas and other locations, revealing the degree to which child labor had extended itself as an institution as late as 1913.


            To say that the jobs held by child workers in the timber industry were light is not to misrepresent the extreme danger and difficulty they faced. Accident rates among adults were exceedingly high, and despite the expense and shortage of labor employers took few precautions against death and dismemberment in the workplace. Though children were not capable of work that required what adults would consider heavy lifting, they frequently operated wood chutes which expelled great quantities of heavy, rough-cut timber, and were often responsible for moving these planks from one work area to the next (Hine, 3665, 3668, 3673). On occasion, children as young as twelve were even permitted to work circular saws easily capable of fatal harm. (3673)


            Lewis Hine’s photographs identify child workers present in mills surrounding Beaumont and Orange, Texas, approximately one hundred miles east of Houston. Texas was the site of some of the most active timbering and milling in the nation, yet due to regular competition with planters, the lumber companies found themselves frequently short on workers, especially during planting and harvesting seasons. Lumber work was notoriously strenuous, and while many employers (and indeed laborers) praised the amenities, including reputedly large meals, the pay was not considered comparable to that offered in the cotton fields, especially given the danger and difficulty involved in the operation of a lumber mill. For this reason it is unsurprising that less scrupulous employers sought to supplement their workforce by hiring underage laborers to handle “general utility” duties, as well as some of the other lighter work deemed suitable for twelve to fourteen year-old frames.


            Hine notes that only one Beaumont mill, Miller & Vidor Lumber, seemed to employ children, a fact he attributed to its distance from the actual town. This is perhaps significant because it indicates that some sort of monitoring was actually present in the town of Beaumont, which in 1913 was a town of somewhat more than ten thousand. It may have simply been a matter of local cultural attitude, however; most of Beaumont’s 1913 population had arrived no sooner than 1900, when there was an influx in response to the discovery of oil southeast of the town. The cultural distinction between those outside the town, more socially conservative and less likely to object to limited child labor, and those in the town, recent émigrés from the North and the West, was probably a significant factor in determining whether the employment of children and young teens would have been permissible without open conflict. Similarly, Orange is somewhat east of Beaumont and its distance from the oil source at Spindletop probably precluded the sort of population boom experienced by its neighbor. As such, it is unlikely that this sort of social contrast between town and country would have been present at the Lutcher & Moore mill, where Hine also documented the use of child labor.


            General utility boys, as they were called, may have served one or more of many functions, depending upon their perceived skills and the demands of their lumber mill. Most of Hine’s interviews indicate that their primary responsibility laid in the loading and unloading of cut lumber, which was often small enough to be carried by hand, though still very heavy for a child. Some others were said to run errands and likely served as messengers within the mill, though they were not exempt from heavier duties when the demand was present. Hine also documents one “river boy”, who was responsible for helping to load logs into the mill from the river. This involved his pushing the logs along the water with a pole while standing dangerously near the edge of the dock. Despite this added risk, he was paid the same as the average fourteen year-old general utility boy. (Hine, 3676) Other tasks may have been more peripheral to the mill, such as rail switch operation. A 1918 lawsuit from East Texas exemplifies the danger of such duty. In this case a child of uncertain age (though under fifteen, by jury decision) was seriously injured during the operation of the switches that run trams carrying workers and goods to and from the mill. (Waterman Lumber Co. v. Beatty, 1918)

For a fourteen year-old worker, ten cents per hour seems to have been an average wage in these mills circa 1913. One twelve year-old interviewed only made five. The standard work day at this time was no less than ten hours, meaning they would have earned one dollar, and fifty cents, respectively. It is notable that younger children, having a perceived lower utility to the employer, were paid considerably less, despite the fact that the inherent risk of the work would have been much more serious for a smaller child. With these children working at the behest of their parents, it is indicative of the extreme poverty a family must endure to send a twelve year-old to perform the uncommon task of an older child for such petty wage.

            While the labor shortage that occurred during the renewed lumber boom between 1900 and 1910 is one explanation, if not a vindication, of the employment of children during this period, there are more damning alternatives. For reference, this period saw a great deal of unionization among lumber workers, one likely facilitated by the “seller’s market” for labor that existed for this short period. Conditions were poor, injury rates were high, and even during labor scarcity there existed the extensive poor treatment of workers.(Fickle, 61, 62) In evident response to labor unionization, employers turned to favor less cohesive work forces. In interviews, mill operators responsible for employment indicated a strong preference for Negro workers (Hickman, 262), and while they cited greater deference and the popular notion of greater physical strength, it is surely true that the strategic concern was there as well. Labor organization in rural Texas was not generally inclusive of the black population.

            Similarly, while children could not run all the operations of the mill, their labor was cheap, and children were naturally even further removed from unionization than local blacks. From a strictly economic standpoint, any job that can be done by a child should be done by a child, rather than by an adult at five times the cost, if not more in a time where many workers are organizing for greater pay and benefits.


While it is important to note that child labor was in all probability quite limited in the lumber industry as compared to many others, it is also significant that this mostly just meant the children were somewhat older. A nine or ten year-old child was more likely to be an obstruction to most mill operations than a boon, but one of fourteen or fifteen was nearly as useful as a full-grown man. Still, the pay demanded by a teenager was significantly less than that paid to an adult, a fact perhaps reinforced by the increasing notion that children of this age should not be employed in this line of work, as they were not in the town limits of Beaumont. This would have served to drive down the demand for underage labor and thus would have resulted in even further deflated wages.

During the period of Hine’s work, restrictions on child labor, when present, were not so harsh or so evenly-applied as to serve as an effective deterrent to employers, as was evidenced by the reality of child laborers in these Texas lumber mills. The natural economic benefit derived from low-cost labor was, however contrary to Progressive (and indeed modern) ideals, very much in line with the scruples of the late nineteenth-century captain of industry. Meanwhile, the economic demands of working families in this rural or near-rural region of Texas were sufficient to require many children to commit themselves to wage labor for the sake of the household income. Not only, then, were child labor activists forced to fight for a change in social attitudes toward child labor, as the National Child Labor Committee did with their publications, but they were also faced with the difficulties produced by an economic reality, both that of the abusive employer and the family of the employed children. That there was an economic incentive sufficient to drive a family to send their children to work under such conditions says a great deal not only about child labor as an independent entity, but about the dramatic impoverishment of the South during the first decades of the twentieth century.