Georgia: Rome Hosiery Mill

 Child Labor in the American South: Rome Hosiery Mill

 Katherine Dufresne

 In the later of half of the eighteenth century, the Southern half of the United States was busy rebuilding itself in the aftermath of the Civil War. Despite the fact that Reconstruction officially ended in the 1870's much of the south was still suffering. Many businessmen in the south knew that one of the quickest ways to build of the South economically was through industrialization. Many local business owners started to invest in mills and the factories, in the hopes that the South would eventually compete with the North, which had industrialized some years before. These mills and factories not only needed the materials to build the factories but also the labor force as well, and children provided a plentiful as well as an inexpensive source of labor for many of these mills.

            Child Labor in America was nothing new at the time. Many children worked the farms alongside their parents and Children of all ages could be found working in the factories in the North.  Therefore, in some respects it was only natural for children in the South to end up doing the same. Georgia in particular was eager to get its hand in building up a factory and mill industry of its own. Georgia especially had a thriving textile industry, which included cotton milling and Hosiery mills, like the one in Rome.

            The Rome Hosiery mill was built sometime in the late 1800s (New Georgia) and was a typical example of the textile mill in Georgia. In fact, Georgia was one of the largest textile producers of the time (Bronell, 58) and as late as the 1870's they had twice a many textile operatives in Georgia as in other states.  (Ayers 110).  The particular textile that the Rome Mill specialized in was hosiery, such as socks and stockings. The Rome Mill like many other mill in Georgia employed a wide variety of workers including children The pictures by Lewis Hine, a photographer who worked for the national child labor committee taking pictures of child laborers across America, show how young some of the workers are.

            The first image is of a young boy named Neil Power who turns stockings in the Hosiery Mill. This ten year old's fingers not doubt were well equipped for handling the turning machines. A turner was a someone who kept socks from being caught in the machines as they moved through them.

            Another similar image has a group of three young boys who work as turners in the mill. The youngest in this picture is nine years old. The other images of the Hosiery Mill are very similar content to the other two. Groups of children and teenagers are shown outside the mill either going to work or poising for the picture.  The ages of these workers ranges from nine to fifteen years old.

            These children probably have not been to school very long and probably only earn a few dollars per week for their efforts.  In the Rome Mill, a nine-year-old child could earn about three dollars per week.  While a fifteen-year-old could earn anywhere from five to six dollars, perhaps more if they were quick workers.  These wages were typical of most textile mills in Georgia. Children earned far less then male adults, even though many of them worked as long and sometimes as hard as adult males.

            Georgia businessmen had no problem with hiring young children. In fact these businessmen preferred to hire woman and children over men. The reason for this was that they could get a great deal of labor out of the women and children then they could adult males. For them it was more economical to hire a cheaper workforce, even though this workforce did not necessarily have the physical stamina and endurance that an adult male has.

            Many of the children who worked in textile mills such as the Rome Mill, worked long hours not only during the day but some of the children had to work a night shift as well. The work was often very repetitive and child labor opponents often argued that the constant lack of mental stimulation was hurting the children's mental development and would cause even further harm to them as adults. The mill managers, however, argued that the mill work was good for the children and that it actually aided children's development. They said that it provided children with responsibility that would add them when they grew to adults.  Some who argued in favor of child labor in the mills said that "white women and children who could find no other work equally well adapted to their strength and producing as large a return (Ayers 113). While some children did like working in the mills, others simply hated it and wanted to get out of the mills as soon as possible.         Another problem faced by the children, as well as the adults in the mills was the threat that working in the mills posed to their health.

            Textile mills such as the Rome Hosiery Mill had some of the worst working conditions especially considering where health is concerned. Mills were often hot and noisy. The windows in most textile mills were often kept close, even in the worst heat. (Danzer, 243)  The reason for this is that mill owners were afraid that the cotton threads would snap, and so they kept the working rooms in the mills as moist as possible. The cotton itself also posed a problem for these people as well.  Lint form the cotton often blanketed the air in the mills.  The lint would get in the lungs of the children and adults working in the mills. The lint can then cause a condition known as "brown lung". Brown lung is a condition caused by inhaling cotton lint where it then gets caught up in a person's throat and can cause a number of health problems for children and adults. (hall 81)Many of the mill children who contracted Brown Lung would sometimes develop respiratory diseases as a result of breathing in the cotton lint,

            The machinery itself was incredibly hazardous to child workers. Most of the machinery was built to be handled by adult workers. Regardless of this many mills still hired the child workers to handle these machines. Some of the mill owners preferred having children working the machines since there smaller hands could do tasks such as reaching in to retrieve an empty bobbin of cotton better than most of the adult workers. One major health hazard of this practice was that many of the children could be hurt or even killed. According to the pamphlets of the National Child Labor committee one member who on investigating the working conditions within a textile mill had this remark on the slippery floor within the mill, "It seems that it would be easy for anyone to slip and fall against those rapidly moving spindles, wheels, cogs and belts and be injured- perhaps killed." (NCLC pamphlets)

            In fact, injury it was not unusual for many children to be injured on the job.  Many of the injuries were caused by the lack of training. When a child entered the mill they were generally given about six weeks to learn their jobs, while earning a trifle pay. (Hall 64) If they were really lucky a child might have an older adult train them in their job. Despite this, injuries still happened at the mill. One sixteen year old boy, had an arm crushed in a machine while trying to do his job, and had to have the arm amputated. (NCLC pamphlets). Another thirteen-year-old boy had to have his foot amputated at the ankle when a hot bar fell off a roller and burned his foot. Girls removing spindles could get their finger caught, and their long hair could be caught in the machines as well. Some of these injuries were even bad enough to cause death.

            Cases such as these forced many people to try to reform child labor. In the state of Georgia, child labor reform did not come until 1907.  (NCLC pamphlets) Up until then Georgia had mad every effort to avoid having to reform the laws. Georgia was in fact one of the last states to enact a child labor law. After 1907 mill managers began to lose interest in fighting, the child labor laws as the machinery become more complex and needed adults to handle them.

            Up until that point mill managers had tried everything to keep children in the mills. A man named Thomas Dawley who was a former investigator for the US Bureau of Labor who had been hired to discredit the Child labor reformers by the manufacturers remarked that child labor was good for children. He said that it improved their development. The mills according to him provided children with the chance to industrious and at the same time allowed them to enjoy the countryside and to seek and education. (Sallee,13)

            This however was not always the case. Mill children did go to school when they could, but more often then not, they never had the chance. While mill villages did provide schools, it was not very often that children got to make use of them. Some children who did go to school would often go in the early mornings only to end up working a night shift.   Even thought some states did have compulsory education laws, most mills refused to abide by them.

            The living conditions that many children of the Rome Hosiery Mill lived under were not much better than their working conditions.  The configuration of the mill villages could be described as "more reminiscent of the slave quarters then of the dispersed shacks of sharecroppers." (Cobb, 71)  The average house at the mill consisted of a rundown house that was often put together very crudely.  The boards would often overlap each other and some of them would even look like they were falling off of the houses. There was also very little privacy since the houses were so close together.

            Child labor in Georgia was a huge social issue in the late eighteenth century and into the early twentieth century. For Georgia it changed in 1907 when it finally passed a child labor reform bill. (NCLC pamphlets) The laws at first were ignored by mill owners but gradually child labor began to faze out as technology began to change. However, the fact still remains that many children had their health ruined and were deprived of education in these mills. Perhaps the worst thing of all is that many of them lost their childhoods.

All Are Workers In The Rome Hosiery Mill

The Ages in This Mill Run From 9 &10 Upward

All Workers in the Rome (GA) Hosiery Mill

Neil Power Turns Stocking in the Hosiery Mill

 Workers in Rome Hosiery Mill