Child labor

Cheap to employ, easily controlled, and with small, nimble fingers, children were well suited to perform the repetitive, minor tasks that the textile industry demanded.

The transformation of the United States into an industrialized nation brought changes that adversely affected workers. Most new jobs required more machines and fewer skills, which enabled managers to replace expensive skilled labor with those who would be relatively unskilled and paid considerably less. In South Carolina children, some as young as five years of age, were hired in great numbers by the state’s burgeoning textile industry, some of whom were used to replace emancipated slaves. The practice by textile mills of hiring entire families helped ensure the availability of child labor.

Cheap to employ, easily controlled, and with small, nimble fingers, children were well suited to perform the repetitive, minor tasks that the textile industry demanded. A typical child’s job was that of spinner. This worker would watch rotating bobbins for breaks in the cotton. When the cotton broke, the child would quickly mend it and then brush the lint from the machine frame. She might tend six or seven rows of bobbins and work ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. The labor of such children came at a high price. Mill children had a characteristic pallor from working from dawn until dusk, and some had lost fingers, hands, or arms from reaching into the machinery. Others had chronic bronchitis and other lung diseases from working long hours in a humid, lint-filled environment. Additionally, hours spent in the factory were hours that were not spent in school. Labor practices such as these trapped children in a cycle of poverty by interfering with their education and physical development.

At the same time, as more children entered the workforce, new ideas about child development also emerged. Americans began to see childhood as a series of stages, each with specific physical and psychological demands that had to be satisfied for the child to develop into a healthy adult able to fulfill his or her potential. Pressure for child labor laws increased. The first child labor bill introduced in South Carolina came in 1884, when Michael F. Kennedy of Charleston proposed an age limit of ten years. The bill died in the S.C. Senate. Subsequent legislation introduced in 1887 and 1889 likewise failed to be enacted. Governor Miles B. McSweeney declared such reform efforts as dangerous intrusions into what he and others considered a family matter, and he warned that children would be forced out of the mills and into idleness. To supporters of child labor, work kept youngsters out of trouble, gave them early self-reliance, and provided extra money for their families. Many South Carolinians feared that since the state had lured industry through the promise of cheap labor, an end to child labor would check industrial progress by crippling existing mills and preventing others from opening.

By the start of the twentieth century, South Carolina lacked both child labor laws and compulsory education laws. Children made up more than one-fourth of the textile workforce in the state in 1900. The illiteracy rate of mill children under fourteen years of age topped fifty percent, more than three times the statewide average. Reformers displayed photographs of Carolina mill children to illustrate the horrors of child labor. Under such pressure, beginning in 1903 South Carolina instituted reforms designed to influence the supply of child labor, such as minimum ages for employment and compulsory education. The laws were weakly enforced, however, and easy to evade. A Chester factory overseer reported in 1909 that the names of underage workers did not appear in the company books because their pay went to an older brother or sister. In 1915 the state required a signed statement by a parent or guardian that a child was of the legal employment age. By requiring only a signed statement of age instead of a verifiable document, the state permitted abuses by parents desperate for the wages of children. Additionally, any child over the age of twelve with a widowed mother or crippled father was excused from the age limit. Orphans could be employed at any age, and one child is reported to have begun work at the age of five. Domestic and agricultural workers were exempt from the regulations.

Child labor gradually disappeared during the 1920s and 1930s because of changes within the textile industry. Jobs came to require more skills because increased production standards mandated more expert handling. Improved machines involved a greater capital investment, but careless hands could spoil raw material and not get full use of the machinery. During the 1930s more women entered the workforce, and the real income of the working class began to rise. All of these factors combined to lessen the demand for unskilled workers and to reduce the need for families to send children to work.

Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Davidson, Elizabeth H. Child Labor Legislation in the Southern Textile States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

McKelway, Alexander J. Child Labor in the Carolinas. New York, 1909.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Child labor
  • Author
  • Keywords textile mills, cycle of poverty, childhood, compulsory education laws, illiteracy, unskilled workers
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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