Georgia & Virginia: "Dinner Toters"

Child Labor in the American South: Georgia & Virginia: “Dinner Toters” 

Joshua Gazo

        Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, child labor was one of the most controversial issues in Industrial America.  As awareness of the plight of children in factories grew in fervor, activist groups were formed to advocate legislation that would police—if not end—child labor in factories.  The most notable and famous of these groups was the National Child Labor Committee, officially organized in New York City in 1904 (History of NCLC).  The NCLC immediately jumped to the forefront of the movement against child labor, publishing numerous pamphlets detailing various aspects of the problem of child labor, ranging from the hazardous conditions in the factories to the social dilemmas presented by the labor of children in the factories.

        As more investigation was done, it became apparent that industrial child labor was a formidable problem in the South, especially in Georgia.  It also became apparent that any attempt to change the status quo of child labor would be a daunting task.  Georgia had been the last state in the Union to pass a child labor law in 1906, having long skirted the issue through a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the state and its mill owners and managers, represented by the Georgia Industrial Association.  The industrialists and legislators held that as long as the terms of this agreement were kept, a law regarding child labor was unnecessary.  As can be expected, the terms of the “gentleman’s agreement” were very slack, with no means by which the state could persecute any mill found in violation of the agreement.  The terms adopted by the Georgia Industrial Association under the agreement were that no child was to work more than 66 hours in factories, and that no child under the age of 12 was to work unless deemed necessary, such as in instances of an invalid father or a widow mother.  The law enacted in 1906 echoed the terms of the “gentlemen’s agreement”, with some additional restrictions.  In brief, the state law forbade the employment of any child under 10 years of age, children under 12 unless in instances of dependent parents, and finally requiring that children between 14 and 18 years of age attend school for 12 weeks of the previous year.  Official affidavits granted by County Ordinaries for child employees were required to be given to factory managers by parents of child laborers, in order to confirm the child’s age.  Any violation of the law was punishable by a misdemeanor charge (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 138).  While a step in the right direction for the state of Georgia, the child labor law still left ample room for factory managers to find ways around the law, not to mention its less-than-adequate enforcement.

        In most cases, overt corruption was the preferred method of avoiding the stipulations of the child labor law.  Evidence of crooked or apathetic County Ordinaries abounded, and accordingly the arbitrary issuance of “official” affidavits was quite common.  Often very little proof of actual necessity for underage labor (in instances of a widow mother or an invalid father, in which circumstances the law allowed underage children to work) was needed for an underage child to gain permission from the County Ordinary to work in the local factories (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 185).

Dinner Toters 

        One of the more famous methods of dodging the labor law was known as “Dinner Toting.”  At first, dinner toting seems little more than a way for younger members of mill families to contribute to the well-being of their elders.  However, investigation below the seemingly innocent purpose reveals that dinner toting was merely a piece of the “helper system” (Hindman, 158-159).  

"Willie" McPherson, a 10 Year Old Helper

        The concept of the “helper system” was to keep young children with their parents or older siblings when they went to work in the factory.  The underage children, sometimes as young as six or seven years of age, would act as helpers to their family members in the mill, employees in all but title for substantially less pay than their family members.  The system was also highly beneficial to the mills, as it not only increased production but also served to train children prior to their coming of age for mill labor.  By the time that they could become legitimate employees of the company, the children would be well-versed in the methods and tasks of the mill.  The dinner toter facet of the helper system also served as a way to justify the presence of legally underage children inside the mills should an enforcer of the state law (Hindman, 158-159). 

"Dinner Toters" Waiting for the Gate to Open

        In his travels on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, Staff Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine visited several mills in numerous towns throughout the South.  Reflecting on his visits to mills in Georgia, Hine said: “so far as I have found, there is a larger percentage of very young children in the cotton mills of Georgia than there was in North or South Carolina” (NCLC Pamplets, No. 138).  Hine’s comparison with the Carolinas was a significant statement, in that North and South Carolina had consistently been leading abusers of child labor.

"Dinner Toters" Waiting for the Gate to Open 

        Hine’s trip to Columbus, Georgia left him with similar opinions of mills in Columbus to those of Georgia as a whole, with special emphasis on dinner toters.  “[Dinner toting] is carried on more in Columbus than in any other city I know, and by smaller children,” remarked Hine after a visit to the Eagle & Phenix Mill in Columbus (Caption, 3457 & 3458). 

The city of Columbus, Georgia was planned by the state legislature in the late 1820s due to the site’s location on the fall line of the Chattahoochee River.  Significant industrial expansion didn’t arrive until after the Civil War, at which time Reconstruction-era textile mills would come to dominate the city’s landscape (Columbus).


The circumstances at the Eagle & Phenix Textile Mill were intriguing in that the children who toted dinners were paid for their efforts, seemingly defeating the purpose of their official title as “dinner toter” as opposed to “mill worker”, as either way they were paid by the mill, which in itself was a violation of the child labor law of Georgia (Caption, 3457 & 3458).  Nevertheless, the role of dinner toter in Columbus, Georgia (and across the rest of the industrial South) was universally seen as the path to a harsh life of mill work.

         As mill companies strove to counter the negative imagery associated with child labor, they sought out methods by which their public image would be softened and even viewed in a positive light.  One of the chief concerns of anti-child labor activists was that the children of the factories were being deprived of education: accordingly, mill schools began to appear.  In addition to accommodating the Georgia law clause with regard to required education for children between the ages of 14 and 18, the owners of the mills touted their schools as proof that they truly cared about their employees and their families (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 171).In actuality, the mill schools were poorly attended, especially around noon-time, when classes would be disrupted as children left to tote dinners to their family members in the mill.  While their parents or siblings ate lunch, the underage dinner toters were expected to keep the machines running through the mid-day hours.  The common practice was also that the children stayed the rest of the work day, continuing to “help” with various menial tasks in the mill (Hindman, 159). 

A Couple of Dinner Toters at Riverside Cotton Mill 



        While not as bad as in Georgia, the nature of child labor in Virginia was similar in that the helper system—complete with dinner toters—was employed to work around established anti-child labor laws.  It can be surmised that the fact that the state of child labor in Virginia was better than that of in Georgia can be attributed to a strong state-level branch of the National Child Labor Committee in Virginia (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 136).  At any rate, the shortcomings of the child labor system were well-documented in the State of Virginia.



        The most criticized aspect of mill culture in Virginia was the state of education among child laborers.  In 1912, compared to state-wide 9% illiteracy rate among white children 10-14 years old, a staggering 70% of cotton mill children of the same age were found to lack the ability to read.  This figure was reported to be the worst illiteracy rate among cotton mill families nation-wide.  Whether or not this claim can be justified is open to debate, but the fact still remains: illiteracy among mill children was a chronically rampant problem in Virginia and across the rest of the South.  Sociologists pointed to poor education and illiteracy as factors that contributed to a generational trend towards total dependency on mill work and an inability to escape the poverty often associated with mill families (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 171).


        Lewis Hine’s visit to Danville showed progress with respect to child labor.  Due to the low numbers of underage workers relative to other states, it was apparent that the enforcement of Virginia’s child labor law had proven to be effective.  It was therefore the recommendation of the National Child Labor Committee that complying factories be rewarded for their cooperation in child labor reform (NCLC Pamphlets, No. 171).




        In both Virginia and Georgia, however, enough mill manager corruption remained even as late as 1913 that dinner toters could be photographed by Lewis Hine as shown in the pictures above.  Mill managers and owners were reluctant to relinquish their control over their workforce in the mill villages.  Interested in retention of mill family workers, mill managers were heavily in favor of child labor, so much so that when young child labor became illegal, they sought out numerous ways to still employ young children.  Dinner toters were one of many methods derived within mill culture to keep younger generations working in the mills (Hindman, 158-159).  As Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee argued, only stiff opposition and outside pressure could bring about change in child labor in the South, ultimately returning mill children the right to be children.