Past Times

Young children worked in the mills, on the streets

Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, photographed these children in the “Kindergarten Factory” run by the High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills in High Point.
Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, photographed these children in the “Kindergarten Factory” run by the High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills in High Point. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In 1918, Miss Theresa Wolfson, a special investigator of the National Child Labor Committee, conducted a survey of child labor conditions in North Carolina and published her findings in The News & Observer. Here are some of the conditions found in the towns of Durham and Asheville.

Condition of homework such as one commonly expects to find in the congested sections of large northern cities exist also in the mill districts of Durham.

Some time before the enactment of the federal child labor law certain mills in the vicinity installed simple looms in the homes of some of their employes. These looms enable the various members of the family, including the children under 14, to work at home on sacks or bags. They involve no cost to the family, and the amount of electricity required to run them is very small.

The homework consists of “tagging bags” – small tobacco bags of the type containing loose tobacco, “stringing bags” or drawing two strings through the hem to close the opening, and “turning the sacks” or turning them inside out and looping them on the machine.

In a school in the vicinity of the mill section having an enrollment of approximately 300, about 65 children between the ages of 8 and 15 were working from one to eight hours on this sort of homework. Sometimes they would stay away from school in order to work. The school principal said that the little children in the very low grades – 6 and 7 years old – could string tobacco bags as quickly as the older boys and girls. He encouraged this after school work as a means of earning money for thrift stamps and war savings stamps.

In a dirty mill shack, a mother and four children worked at finishing sacks and stringing bags. The father was a mill worker. The mother and Julia, who was six, worked almost all day. John, who was eight, attended school in the forenoon and came home and put tags on bags until bedtime. Frankie, 5 years old, and Letha, 3, strung several hundred tobacco bags a day. The mother said, “it keeps ‘em busy and out o’ mischief – I have no time to watch ‘em.”

Eight-year-old Jamesie tags about 300 bags in five hours and he receives about 15 cents. His standing in school is not good, but he finds the work an easy way to earn money. Evelyn, 14 years old, loops sacks at home from 5 to 7 hours a day “dependin’ on how I feel.”

The work itself is taken into homes which are far from sanitary.…

The manager of the Durham Sun said he employed about 40 boys as newsboys and carriers. There is little transient population, and for that reason the street newsies are not seen in great numbers except about the railroad station. Carriers make about 50 per cent profit on their routes, amounting on the average to $2.50 or $3 a week.…

The newspaper service in Asheville provides the largest number of juvenile delinquents. In the past year more cases of truancy and other delinquency have arisen among newsboys, than among any other group of child workers. Little 12-year-old Edward is out at the county reformatory as a result of larceny and a continuous record of truancy. He sold papers after school, having begun at the age of ten. With the money earned he treated other boys to the movies and spent a great deal on candies and sodas. In order to be the first at the newspaper office he got into the habit of spending the night there, sleeping on piles of papers. He “snapped school” continually and at times did not return home for several nights. One night after he had sold all his papers he stole a bicycle from the square. For this offense he was sent away.

It is not uncommon to see newsboys of 7 or 8 helping some older comrade. To these youngsters, selling papers is an exciting game. The newsboy often becomes delinquent because of street influences. Another less common street worker is the juvenile chauffeur or driver. The folly of permitting children to drive automobiles is often revealed by the accidents that result, and the practice should be promptly prohibited. The N&O Dec. 22, 1918

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Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge