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Dearmon column: Children labored in early mills

KANNAPOLIS ó In the early years of Cannon Manufacturing Co., child labor was used, as it had been for many years in the textile industry from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The industry was labor-intensive, and in many cases the population was not large enough to furnish the necessary labor. The Civil War or, as some refer to it, the War of Aggression, had decimated the male population.
Lack of labor was not the only reason.
The textile industry, as we know of it today, began in Great Britain. Profit was the leading reason for hiring children. Wages were low, and children would work in unskilled jobs for lower wages than adults. Their small hands were better suited for handling small parts and tools. They often worked alongside their parents. Going to school was a missed opportunity to prepare themselves for a better future.
Many children soon began to develop serious health problems. Bending over for long periods of time would cause curvature of the spine. Stunted growth was another danger associated with the work. The work environment caused diseases such as tuberculosis, black lung and bronchitis, as well as mental fatigue because of long hours. Many were underweight. There were some reports of working children as long as 19 hours a day, but it was not the common practice. Ten and 12 hours was the standard.
Eventually the textile industry moved from Great Britain to the northern states of the United States. Cheap labor was the prime reason. As unions were organized, wages increased. Because of complaints about child labor, the industry moved South.
Wages were cheaper and the cotton was grown in the South, eliminating much of the cost of transportation. The industry has now moved overseas to Asia, Central and South America and other offshore countries. Cheap labor is again the reason.
Cannon sent agents out on the farms from North Carolina to Georgia and other southern states to locate workers. Tenant farmers were prime targets. They had large families and were destitute. Anything was better than their meager existence. Many jumped at the chance for a better life and a train ticket going to textile mills further north. Since the children had worked so hard on the farms, the families thought nothing of having them work in the mills. It was a chance for added income ó even if it did condemn them to a future of illiteracy, poverty and continuing misery.
Over the years, I heard many tales from older workers bragging about their work in the mill as youths. Some were paid, others were not. Others were helping their parents at their work. There were no fences, so access to the mill was easy. Some of the tales were of how the young workers would slip out and disappear for periods of time just for the fun of it ó children’s mischievousness. Most of the time, they would get by with it and not get caught.
Eventually, Cannon Mills constructed fences to protect its property and keep other people out of the mill.
Child labor was not used after it became unlawful. No one under the age of 16 was hired. In 1939 when I became 16, I thought I had to go to work in the mill. I was hired to work on the second shift in the weave room of Cabarrus Mill Plant 4 for 25 cents per hour, for a total of $19.80 every two weeks. Twenty cents was taken out for Social Security. I did that for 14 months while in high school. When I quit, I was making 32-1/2 cents per hour. I actually made more money delivering papers for the Salisbury Post prior to mill work. I then decided I did not want to do that kind of work any more and never did.
In the files of the History Room at Cannon Memorial Library, Kannapolis Branch, are several pictures of child labor being used. The mill was Cannon Manufacturing Co. of Concord. The pictures show young boys who are barefooted and appear to be as young as 6 or 7, usually seated on the front row. The girls are more difficult to find, but can be spotted by their height. There are no names of those in the pictures.
In 1904, a group of progressive reformers founded the National Child Labor Committee. Their goal was to abolish child labor, and they received a charter from Congress in 1907. The organization hired teams of investigators to gather evidence and statistics of children working in harsh conditions to establish organized exhibitions with photographs to dramatize the plight of these children. As a result, in 1912 the Children’s Bureau was established, and in 1913, it was transferred to the Department of Labor.
By 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act, which established child labor standards. Those standards were: a minimum age of 14 for workers in manufacturing and 16 for workers in mining; a maximum workday of eight hours; prohibition of night work for workers under the age of 16; and a documentary proof of age. Unfortunately, this law was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that congressional power to regulate interstate commerce did not extend to the conditions of labor. Effective action against child labor had to await the New Deal. State action was then pushed for the same purpose. In 1938, the passage of the Fair Labor Standards act set federal standards for child labor, which ended child labor in manufacturing.
Recently I saw a story on TV of some children at ages of 9, 10 and 11 who were working in fields picking blueberries in California. Upon learning of it, some companies stopped buying products from the company. It just goes to show what some will try to get by with when it comes to cheap labor and profit.
– – –
Norris Dearmon is a local historian in Kannapolis.

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