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The Plight of the Young Worker: Child Labor in the Carolinas

Documenting the American South commemorates the struggles and achievements of the southern labor reform movement.

In the early twentieth century, reformers focused on eliminating child labor—especially in southern cotton mills. The lives of child mill workers are poignantly depicted by Child Labor in the Carolinas: Account of Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina, a 1909 pamphlet commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Alfred E. Seddon, a minister; A. H. Ulm, a journalist; and Lewis W. Hine, a photographer, investigated seventeen mills in North and South Carolina and found child labor infractions at all of them. In his compilation of their findings, Alexander McKelway, the NCLC's southern secretary, notes the physical appearances of child workers as well as their illiteracy and lack of school attendance. Hine’s haunting photographs of children at work are accompanied by detailed captions describing their duties, their ages, and their pay, and several of these images became icons of the child labor movement.

McKelway wrote a second pamphlet against child labor in 1913, Child Wages in the Cotton Mills: Our Modern Feudalism, also published by the NCLC. This work argues that the use of child labor leads to lower wages for all mill workers and is a threat to democracy.

Child Labor in the Carolinas and Child Wages in the Cotton Mill are part of "The North Carolina Experience, Beginnings to 1940" digital collection, which contains a wide variety of print and manuscript materials that tell the story of the Tar Heel State.

Jennifer L. Larson