Alabama: Images & Machinery



            By the turn of the 20th century, the modernization and industrialization of the South was a clear indication of the death of farming, bringing to an end the traditional southern economy prior to the end of the Civil War.  Put simply, “as the textile industry boomed, the South’s economic core shifted from the Plantation Belt to the emerging urban centers of upcountry.”[1] This transformation of the South, from a predominately a rural and agricultural world into an industrializing region effected the South both socially and economically. Socially, the new breed of mill owners were predominately merchants and financers inexperienced at large scale production while the new mill workers were predominately lower class southern men, women, and children. Economically, the new mill hands earned a steady wage in addition to living quarters and later additional benefits under corporate paternalism. Therefore, “within this setting, a small group of industrialists and a large population of mill hands gradually, sometimes painfully, worked out the terms of the industrial order in the New South.”[2] More specifically, in Alabama, at the turn of the 20th century, images of mill hands, of all ages and mill positions, in Alabama mills offered a glimpse into the rapidly industrialization of the new South. 

            By the turn of the 20th century, the attraction of lower class poor whites to textile mill work was far from glamorous. There were no pretty advertisements no luring incentives; rather the only incentive for lower class poor whites to seek employment in a mill was to receive a steady wage. The unreliability and death of the traditional southern occupation, farming, forced many of these families to reconsider their options. After all, a family needed to eat and be able to have a rood over their heads. Therefore, even due to a lack of freedom many chose to work in mills to ensure their economic survival. However, seldom was it just the parents that worked in the mills. Since the wages paid were low, many times the entire family worked in the mills in a variety of positions while the children forwent an education to help support the family. The following two pictures are a clear representation of this reality and in what capacity many of the mill workers served.

In photograph no.1-Overseer and two of the Doffer Boys, Ascension No. 1813, taken in 1910, it depicts child labor in textile mills in Birmingham, Alabama. The job description of a doffer was

  1. to push the button to stop the threading machine while operating machine pedal to lower the position of the machine’s ring bar, an action which allows the yarn to wind around the base of its spindle
  2. to remove full spindles of yarn and then replace them with fresh ones
  3. to release the machine pedal to raise the ring bar in order to restart machine
  4. to tie up any break in the yarn
  5. to record information following company policy  as to the date spun, doff time, and operators initials
  6. to apply necessary oil or grease to machine rings to keep the machine functioning while keeping waste away from the machines.    

Different variations of this position ranged from slubber doffers, spinning doffers, and twister doffers, all of which in textile mills typically were young boys since the size of their hands granted them the ability to grease the machines in spaces of limited size.  On the other hand, the job description of an overseer was to supervise, monitor, and direct the labor workers assigned to the overseer, which was typically a position filled by a man.

            In photograph no.2-Waiting for the Whistle to Blow, Ascension No. 1814, taken in 1910 in the Avondale Mill in Birmingham, Alabama, it depicts the men and young boys that the mills attracted as laborers. Poor southern whites were the primary labor source for the mills in Alabama. Furthermore, not only was mill work attractive to men and young boys but to families in general. Since the traditional occupation of the South, farming, was an unreliable source of income after the end of the Civil War, many families reverted to mill work due to its regular work schedule, steady pay, and guarantee of housing. In addition, the Avondale Mill was a cotton mill set in a prime location due to the close availability of cotton from neighboring cotton plantations and an excellent source of cheap labor, the poor southern white population. In cotton mills, the mills took the cotton and by use of heavy machinery spun it on spindles for yarn and thread for mass production, which was used as yarn or thread or sent for further manufacturing into other textile products.

            While the previous two pictures depicted only men and young boys working in the mill that was not the case. Not only were there women mill workers but also their young daughters. Many times children eight or younger could be found working in textile mills alongside their parents in order to help support their families. Young girls, like in depicted in photograph no.3-Young Girl Working in Anniston Yarn Mills, Ascension No. 1791, taken in 1910, could be seen working in a capacity similar to that of a doffer. While doffers primarily were boys, since heavy lifting to transport the full spindles of yarn was a requirement that the doffers had to have a higher degree of upper body strength, many young girls performed the light tasks. However, since young girls had small hands, many performed simplified doffer tasks such as putting new spindles on the machines once the others were full and the responsibility to tie any broken strands of thread or yarn during the spindle threading. Furthermore, their ability to reach their hands into small crevices within or between the machines reinforced their use within the labor force of primarily textile mills.

            In addition, it was mandatory for girls in mills to have short hair or consistently tie their hair back while performing their duties at the textile mills. Working in close proximity to these machines was very dangerous, clearly indicated by the number of injuries and fatalities of young children in mill factories. It was not uncommon for a girl’s long hair to become easily entangled or caught in the machine spinners and once caught the hair would be promptly ripped from her scalp.  Once started the machines were not turned off for any reason; therefore, young girls needed to take many safety precautions of their own. Furthermore, long skirts by young girls with a typical petticoat of that time period were also prohibited since many times young girls had to climb on the machines to retrieve a broken thread, change a spindle, or remove a clump of lint in order to continue their work. Just like hair, clothing and petty coats were very susceptible to catch on the machinery. Overall, it was a dangerous working environment for young girls and in return they received ridiculously low wages due to their age.

            One essential task in the mills, depicted in photograph no.4-Young Sweeper in Anniston Yarn Mills, Ascension No. 1792, taken in 1910 was the task of a young sweeper in a yarn mill. Usually assigned to a young boy or girl who lacked proficiency at machine operation or too young to efficiently operate the machinery, his or her job description was to sweep not only around the machines on the floor of the factory but also sweep down the machines as well. A child was perfect for this task due to their small size allowing them better access to sweep in between the machines. In the mills, a tremendous amount of dust and lint floated in the air in a textile factory, causing machines to malfunction or jam; therefore, the use of a sweeper ensured that the excess lint would not prevent the machines and the mill workers from operating at a good efficiency rate. Sweepers were especially common in yarn mills where the amount of lint in the air and on the machines was almost overbearing.

            As clearly seen in the photograph the amount of lint present in the factory was astounding. Throughout the entire day workers were constantly breathing in the lint, causing many health problems for them such as asthma and other lung problems for them in the present and the future. In the beginning, this caused many breathing problems for the workers, which of course if they failed to report for work they would not be paid; therefore, many continued to report for work despite illness. In the end, this only proved more detrimental to the worker’s health. Later under corporate paternalism, mills in order to keep their labor force instituted health care policies, other privileges, and even education for mill worker children after the child labor law was passed. However, despite these new policies many original mill workers still suffered the effects of early mill work.

            Finally, in a hosiery mill, in photograph no.5-Young Boy Working in Talladega Hosiery Mill, Ascension No. 1798, taken in 1910, depicts a young boy operating machinery. Hosiery mills, while still in the same categorization of textile mills, specifically dealt with the knitting or the knitting of socks and or hosiery. These too had workers working in similar capacitates as those in yarn mills and had a large child labor force. Due to the intricate work and small working spaces many workers employed at the mills were children since they had small hands and fingers to reach into crevices. While machines at hosiery mills were not any safer than those of yarn mills, families still flock to seek employment here in order to ensure their economic survival.

            However, despite the tradition of entire families working in the mills, in 1915 the Child Labor Law was passed prohibiting children, in specified ages for different occupations, from working under certain conditions in order to maintain their health, safety, and welfare. More specifically, the number of hours children could work was restricted; regulations and conditions for children’s work, or at times certain permits or certificates were required for children to work. A mill was a dangerous place for children to work. Many were injured and some injuries proved fatal in the constant struggle of man against machinery. Fingers were lost, even limbs but nothing and no one prevented children from working in the mills in such deplorable conditions until the Child Labor Law was passed. In order to keep mill workers, many mills adopted the ideas of corporate paternalism where children, too young to legally work in the mills, would be provided with an education by mill supported schools. This was probably conducted in hopes that these children would become future generations of mill workers. However, this industrialization of the South and its social and economic repercussions reshaped the path that the South had taken, bringing it into the new 20th century.


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            States Labor Struggles, 1835-1960. Albany, NY: State University of New York

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 Flamming, Douglas. Creating the Modern South: Millhands & Managers in Dalton,

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 Otey, Elizabeth. The Beginnings of Child Labor Legislation in Certain States: A

Comparative Study. New York: Arno Press, 1974.


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[1] Douglas Flamming. Creating the Modern South: Millhands & Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984. (North Carolina: 1992), pg. xxi.

[2] Douglas Flamming. Creating the Modern South: Millhands & Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984. (North Carolina: 1992), pg. xxii.