South Carolina: Rock Hill


Child Labor in the American South:  South Carolina: Rock Hill

Charlotte Porter 

It is clear from just looking at Lewis Hine's photographs that life for children within southern mills was not a pleasant experience. Having visual aids to link the historical information too helps create a totally new perspective of life in the south, personalizing each experience.

The American Civil War saw many towns benefit from an event that had created turmoil in many other areas of the country. Small towns within southern America were able to develop, including Rock Hill in South Carolina which became known as a ‘boom town'. Between 1800 and 1900 five mills were built in Rock Hill, with land bought there by W.J Roddey whose businesses managed a ‘sizable cotton trade', (Carlton, Pg 24) other mills were opened under the business leadership of James M Ivey. (Ernest M. Lander,Jr. 1954) The mills were financed by local capital and were clearly very influential on the town's life, as they are still working today providing the town's main source of income. There are two strikingly opposite views on Rock Hill, with it being praised for its drive; "We have struck no other town with as much push and energy as progressive Rock Hill"; showing how the Rock hill was able to develop from nothing into a very productive town. This positive view is however challenged with critiques of the town's cultural standing. Wilkes in ‘Southern Christian Advocate, (1904) states how the town ‘has no pleasure grounds' and seemed to be hurriedly built for business purposes. (Carlton Pg 28). The town had no sewage system, few sidewalks and inadequate street lighting. (Pettus, Rock Hill in 1906)[2] despite its negative factors Rock Hill did develop into the third most developed industrial town in the state, after Charleston and Columbia. This development of industry within the town was aided by the immediate aftermath of the war which had created a high demand for goods. The mill development is paralleled by the growth in the town's population, with 12,000 people living there by 1906 (Pettus, Rock Hill in 1906). This growth in population was necessary to maintain the mills, and saw the majority of new families to the area working for these mills. The town took a varied approach to developing industrially, and did not just promote the mill industry, but saw many small industries being built, with the belief that "it is not best for a community to carry all its eggs in one basket". Rock Hill's developing source of industrial improvement was the ‘buggy factory'. Today this remains as a main area of tourism within the town.

The ability of Rock Hill to develop is highlighted by Carlton as he illustrates that people had the opportunity to rise in status; those not blessed with the right family ties could still succeed by creating links with the right families.  He continues to say that the town was not only concerned with money making, but the town developed a strong American notion of the self made man and the ability to develop the American dream. From looking at Hines photographs it is clear that these statements are not entirely accurate.



This image was taken in May 1912 and shows two boys, Charlie Brassell and Floyd Brom in the forefront of the photograph, behind them is small house and a field.  It is clear from the photo, alongside the boy's statements, that mill life restricted children's lives. Charlie's claims that "The mill has kept us from growing" highlighting a fact that can be seen through the photo; both boys are physically small, yet have incredibly old faces.

Floyd Brom who is 14 years old says he has "been sweeping and doffin' unto our years sure as I kin' remember" showing how young children were when they began their work. Doffing within the mills is where workers replace full bobbins by empty ones on the throstle or ring frames. The caption also mentions the ‘spinning room' where a spinner's job was to "move quickly up and down a row of machines, repairing breaks and snags." (p. 49 Dowd) this job was primarily given to women. Doffing and sweeping were simple assessable jobs for children to carryout, leading to the desire of mill owners to hire children over men. They could be easily manipulated, overworked and underpaid. During the industrial revolution in the south approximately 80% of workers in the mills were women and children.



This image shows Arthur Newell standing in front of a factory. The caption of this image shows how different members of the family all worked at the mill for different wages. The act of earning wages was for many children a clear step towards independence, people now owned their own labor, and was able to demand a certain price for it. For the majority of children however, their earnings automatically became the family's resource, it was not individual to them, the family adds all the money together to get a total income of $30.  The caption also highlights mill children's desire for an education, "I had rather go to school, but the mill wanted me". Education was something cherished by many individuals during the 1900, however very the role of employment in children's lives restricted their education. Children who worked in mills and other industrial jobs were more likely to work full time jobs, not seasonal work like many children who work in areas of agriculture.



In this photograph we see Johnnie's whole family, this highlights how mill work for many southern families was indeed a family affair; every member of the family working to increase their overall income. The caption states that Johnnies began working in the mill when he was 10; however it is clear that there is confusion over the dates. His birth record within the family bible says he is 10, Johnnie himself claims to be 12; his father says that the bible record is wrong. This confusion can highlight two points. That many southern families lost track of dates and when people were born as there was no one keeping an official record, and as most mill workers could not read or write it was impossible to keep an accurate record. It also shows that families felt bad at putting their children to work at such a young age, so tried to cover this fact by changing their children's official age and lying to employers. There were children within the south who wanted to go to the mills and help their families out feeling obliged and committed to their families. There were many children who resented having to go into the mills. Edna Hargett says how "A mill child had to go in the mill and the others didn't. We knew that was the way of life" (Dowd, pg 160) Child labor was seen by many as the best was of ‘keeping the wolf from the door' and allowing the family to develop a ‘nest egg', and in time develop a higher social status. (pg 204, Carlton) All families and mills differed, some mill owners did not want to hire children as they did not believe them to be dependable, and were worried about the controversy they created. However, the majority of mill owners were only concerned with developing their own industry and creating a major profit, for them cheap young labor was not an issue.



This image shows Carrie Armstrong standing in front of some steps, with a smaller girl in the background. The caption states that Carrie was a weaver in Highland Park Mill. Weavers began the production of cloth, with each individual ‘warp' thread being placed through individual eyes. This job called from small and delicate hands; small female hands being perfect for this.

Many of the hardships that mill life created for individuals were a lot harder on women than men. Women and children had developed into the most employable of the family, with specific jobs developing within the mills that were aimed specifically at them. This led to many mill families having to change their dynamics, with young girls finding themselves working long hours in the factory, approximately 66 hours a week, and then having to take on the role as the ‘mother' of their family, as their real mother was still at the mill working longer hours to increase the families overall income. Children in mill families ‘didn't get to play like children do today"(Dowd, Pg 160) as their small elements of childhood freedom were punctuated with adult responsibilities.

 For many women widowed by the war, the mills stood as an opportunity to keep their families together. Females were given a strong sense of independence when working in the mills, and were able to survive without relying on a male bread winner. The industry had many draw backs; women were unable to rise from the lower paying jobs and develop desirable skills.



This images really creates a realistic idea of how young the children working with in Rock Hill mill really were, and how many children worked there. The caption states that ‘several smaller did not get into the photo" reinforcing this idea yet again. It appears that many families and mill owners were trying to cover up how young these children were when they began their work. The youngest children are kept out of the photos, and many of those photographed lie about their ages to reduce the reaction against their working in these mills. The details on these children's faces show

Restricting which children get into the photo encourages the viewer to ask what else was not shown to happen with in these mills. All of the children with in Hines' Rock Hill photographs are white, however it was reported that in 1900 a wave of violence occurred with in Rock Hill, with white workers attacking black workers. Rock Hill has also been described as "a hot bed of Klan activity" (Ernest M. Lander,Jr. 1954) These are areas that are not highlighted by Hine through his photography; there is no recording within his photographs that African Americans had a presence with in Rock Hill.


Many people question why the industrial revolution within the south did not create a richer society, like in the north. Hine's photographs provide a small conclusion to this question. People were unable to develop; they went into these mill jobs at the age of 10, and from then on had the same responsibilities as an adult. The hopes for prosperity that they had tied into their mill lives were never achieved. Education was not provided across Rock Hill so no children learnt that there were opportunities outside the life they knew. The mill owners continually took advantage of their young work force, underpaying them and over working them. By 1976 in Rock Hill nearly three quarters of the local labor force still earned less than $5000 a year.