North Carolina: High Point

Child Labor in the American South: High Point, North Carolina

Melissa Montgomery

        Child labor at the turn of the century was arguably one of the most significant and divisive social issues in the United States.  In particular, budding industry in the Southern states was a hot bed for large amounts of child labor.  In this essay, I will examine the social contexts surrounding child labor in High Point, North Carolina through several of Lewis Hines' photographs of children in textile and hosiery mills.  Each of the Hine photographs reveals numerous themes surrounding the issue of child labor in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, including the low wages of child laborers, type of work performed by the children, the concept of a family economy, lack of educational opportunities, and specific events and issues surrounding the High Point's hosiery and textile mills.   

        First, a brief background on High Point, North Carolina and the rise of industry in High Point within the town before discussing the child labor issues that persisted within the town.  High Point, North Carolina grew mostly out of the creation of the North Carolina railroad in 1859, and subsequently became the highest attitude stop of the railroad that spread from western Piedmont area to the coastal plains of eastern North Carolina. (High Point Chamber of Commerce)  Following the Civil War, High Point became a part of a larger network of rail lines, and industrial investment also quickly rose.  As Tullos describes, "The modern sense of the Carolina Piedmont began with the coming of the Air-Line Railway in the 1870s." (Tullos, 138)  High Point may today be most famously known for its furniture production, but at the turn of the twentieth century High Point Furniture was only one of several of the major industries.  The Lewis Hine photographs featured in this essay instead examine the hosiery and textile industries in High Point.  Many of the men who worked in the furniture industry had wives and children, who most often found work within the textile industries, including hosiery. (Brownell, 108)  In fact, the hosiery industry in High Point actually employed more workers than the furniture industry by 1930.  (Selby, 46) At the turn of the century, High Point was one of the most successful centers of industry in North Carolina, which "stemmed largely from efficient- and exploitative- use of the resources of the area," including "access to railroads, large stands of timber, hydroelectric power from the many swiftly running streams and rivers, and, significantly, a seemingly infinite labor supply drawn from the ranks of impoverished tenant farmers." (Selby, 46-47)  In sum, High Point was a classic example of the boom of an industrial town, growing from virtually no people in 1870 to a major manufacturing town with approximately 4,000 people by 1900.  (Brownell, 108)


Luther Perdue, 9 years old. Caption reads, "Been working six months in High Point Hosiery Mill, North Carolina. Works all day now, making about $3.00 a week. Said he expects to go to school later.  "We live outside the Corporation and school begins late" (A chance for children to evade school attendance and work.)

        Young Luther Perdue epitomizes the average young boy working in the hosiery mills of High Point, North Carolina.  In particular, the caption highlights several of the main aspects of child labor in High Point, including low wages and no formal education for young children.  The High Point Hosiery Company was established in 1905 with rapid growth in subsequent years, especially around the time that this specific picture was taken (1912).   The High Point Hosiery Company was founded by John Hampton Adams and James Henry Millis, both wealthy Southern investors, who consolidated several of the hosiery mills in High Point into the Adams-Millis Corporation in 1927. The Adams-Millis Hosiery Mills later became the scene of one of the most organized North Carolina labor revolts in the 1930's.  By 1930, High Point had over sixteen hosiery plants with the average salary for a hosiery worker at $18.57 a week. (Selby, 47)  Luther's $3.00 a week clearly would have been much lower than the adult's weekly salary even with the twenty year difference. Luther's small weekly wage, though, most likely was a necessary part of his family's income.  Perhaps, Luther's family faced an additional hardship such as the loss of the father or several toddler-aged children in the family, which might have made Luther's contribution essential.  The date in which Lewis Hine took this photograph also provides some insight into child labor in the High Point Hosiery Mill.  In the years preceding 1912, manufacturers reported that approximately a quarter of the entire workforce was under the age of sixteen, and the textile industry in particular tended to rely on the labor of children for unique jobs.  (Hall, et al, page 56) Thus, Luther was probably not an obscurity in the High Point Hosiery Mill, instead many other young boys around the same age probably worked alongside him. 


High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills

Caption reads "Some samples (not all) of the children in the "Kindergarten Factory" run by High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills, High Point, N.C.  Every child in these photos worked.  I saw them at work and I saw them go into work at 6:30 a.m. and noon and out at 6:00 p.m.  One morning I counted 22 of these little ones (18 years and younger) going to work at 6:15 a.m. Some of them told me their ages.

        The second picture in the High Point Collection showcases the underpaid and most exploited classes of mill work- the women and children.  In fact, Hine may have included the adult women in this photograph so that the women in turn would include their younger and subsequently more controversial children.  In this particular caption, Hine discusses the long hours in which the children labored within the factories.  According to Hine, most the children worked for over twelve hours in the factories with their only break at midday for lunch.  One might assume that the long hours that these children spent in the High Point Hosiery Mills left little to no time for them to attend school.  Several studies have proven that the children in the Piedmont region of the South often were forced to stop school in order to support their families economically in the factories.  Thus, one might assume that the youngest children in this particular Hine photograph had, in fact, withdrawn from school and worked full-time in the High Point Hosiery Mill.  Hine's use of term "Kindergarten Factory" in his caption also evokes a sense of the young age of children featured in the photograph.  I would argue that Hine uses the term "Kindergarten Factory" not in the sense that the children were simultaneously receiving an education while working in the factory, but more to demonstrate the young age of the children, who had discontinued their education.  The significance of the family's welfare often took precedence over the education of a child.  Walters and Briggs argue that, "histories of southern families working in the textile industry also highlight the importance of the family economy, showing that the same considerations affected families' strategies regarding school and work decisions for children." (Walters and Briggs, 164)  Thus, one could argue that the level of financial resources available to a family determined whether or not a child would discontinue school and enter the mill.  In addition to family resources, other factors played into the determination of a child's schooling including quality of the local education, availability of certain jobs for youth (textile mills employed the largest numbers of youth in North Carolina), and size of the family. (Walters and Briggs, 174)  The quality of education was another shame that plagued the South in the years following the Civil War. Thus, school reform became one of the most important issues for Southern legislatures at the turn of the century as public funds helped to greatly improve the literacy rates of the South. (Ayers, 418) With a growing population, High Point most likely was attempting improving their quality of education, although many children in the town were also most likely not taking advantage of their educational opportunities and instead working in the mills.


Workers of Pickett Cotton Mill

The caption reads, "Some of the workers in the Pickett Cotton Mill in High Point, N.C., but I could not get the smallest ones into the picture."

        The third photograph of the workers of Pickett Cotton Mill (except the youngest) reveals the combination of textile mills and children in North Carolina.  Textile mills employed the greatest proportion of young children compared to other industries in the South.  Ayers argues that "half of all spinners were under the age of fourteen and nearly nine of ten were under twenty-one." (Ayers, 415).  The demand for child labor grew in the latter part of the nineteenth century because of the increased use of advanced machinery in the new mills that made child labor "attractive to management." (Ayers, 415)  Hall also states that "technology made child labor practical, but not necessary." (Hall, 56)  As discussed before, most of the labor supply for High Point came from the wives and children of the furniture factory men.  In application to Hines' photograph of Pickett Cotton Mill, one might assume that the mill included even smaller children than those featured in the picture because Hine specifically noted in the caption that he was not allowed to place the smallest children in the photograph.  Perhaps, the exclusion of the smallest children can be attributed to the fear of many of the mill owners that they were employing children that were legally too young to work and that the federal regulations force them to cut back their child workforce. (Hall, et al., 59)       



The caption of this photograph reads, "Pearl says she was 10 years old and helps her mother in the weave room of the Pickett Cotton Mill, High Point, N.C.  She said her brother 8 years helps too."

        The fourth in the High Point series of Hine pictures showcases a solitary girl outside of the Pickett Cotton Mill.  Pearl represents a number of young children, who allegedly "helped" their parents in the textile mills.  The "helping" concept of mill work often entailed what Hall describes as a "family affair, a form of apprenticeship by which basic skills and habits were transmitted to each new generation." (Hall, et al., 61) Also, since most mill workers were not paid an hourly wage, but instead for in piecework, the aid of young child could increase the parents' productivity and wages.  Mill workers were quick to exploit the young children, who were often bored with school or eager to start work in the mill like the rest of the family. (Ayers, 416)   Thus, one might infer that Pearl was helping to increase the overall family welfare by helping to increase her mother's production in the weave room.  Pearl also may simply be temporarily working alongside her mother, but in the age of industrialism in the South, Pearl was more likely working full-time next to her mother.  The concept of "helping" also allowed for mill owners to evade any age limitation legislation on child labor because of the distinction in such legislation between "employing" a child and "permitting" an underage child to help a parent.  (Hall, et al., 61)  Often, mills aimed to employ whole families before the children were likely to receive training in another type of industry.  Mill owners would place pressure on families to bring their children into the mill as soon as their parents and the mill owners deemed them old enough.  (Hall et. al, 62) Even if Pearl had not been ready to enter the mill lifestyle at the age of 10, the mill owners were ready to begin her exploitation. 


Every Child in this Photograph Worked

Caption reads "Some samples (not all) of the children in the "Kindergarten Factory" run by High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills, High Point, N.C.  Every child in these photos worked.  I saw them at work and I saw them go into work at 6:30 a.m. and noon and out at 6:00 p.m.  One morning I counted 22 of these little ones (18 years and younger) going to work at 6:15 a.m. Some of them told me their ages:            

        The final photograph is set apart from the others because Hine featured only girls in the picture, thus, bringing into question the role of gender in the mills.  Almost all jobs within the hosiery mills were segregated according to gender among adults with the men performing the more physically demanding jobs. (Selby, 50) The mills did employ approximately an equal number of boys and girls, though, and Walters argues that there were few differences in work opportunities between genders in regards to children.  (Walters, 179) Ironically, the equal work opportunity given to the children of the mills directly contradicts the inequality still apparent in the adult workforce and on widespread social level nationwide.  Whether boy or girl, the children of the mills both worked long hours and for small wages in order to support their families' economic welfare.  These girls, who Hine photographed in 1912, were also probably affected by later child reform throughout the United States and in North Carolina.  Hine and others in the National Child Labor Committee, particularly Alexander McKelway in North Carolina, were an impetus for legislative change concerning youth and work in the mills.  Hall describes the efforts of child labor reformers as a "nonpartisan issue that sought to portray the reform as purely humanitarian gesture to help the politically voiceless." (Hall, et al, 416)  By 1913, North Carolina had enacted legislation that prohibited those under the age of twelve from working and set restricted hours for those under fourteen. (Hall et. al., 58)  The Hine pictures from 1912 prove, though, that the mill owners often found ways to evade the new child labor legislation, including using tactics like "helping." Child labor legislation faced another obstacle, when the Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional.  (Hall, et. al., 60)  The eventually decline of child labor came at the hands of the market as new technology demanded more adult skill and less child labor. Therefore, the girls in the photograph most likely worked as children before the child labor legislation had the opportunity to affect their lives, and thus the girls were probably locked in the mill system for the rest of their lives. 

        In sum, many aspects of mill life for children, including the lack of education, long hours, or low wages, demonstrate the oppression upon children that the mills provided.  High Point in particular became a booming textile and hosiery business mainly because of the mill owners, Adams and Millis.  At the same rate, High Point just as many other mills in the South most likely exploited and overworked the young children featured in Hine's portrayal.  The Adams-Millis Corporation's workers revolted against Adams and Millis in 1932 as the owners cut wages for the hosiery workers.  The High Point hosiery strike ignited the workers across the Piedmont region, and over 150 mills in four Piedmont towns soon followed the High Point Hosiery workers. (Selby, 52)  The High Point walkout demonstrates the growing animosity felt between the working class and the elite-owners class, and the power of the masses that the working class possessed.  Perhaps, many of the workers that revolted in 1932 were child laborers in prior decades.  The years of working under the industrial hand may have augmented their dislike of the owners.