South Carolina cotton mills sprang up in the mid-to-late 1800s and were a leading industry in South Carolina well into the depression era when the price of cotton plummeted and many mills went under. The lives of the mill workers during this era remain a point of curiosity, almost as much as the lives of our ancestors who lived through the Great Depression.
These 23 rare photos document mill workers, particularly the children, and give an unprecedented insight into the lifestyle as well as the livelihoods and the family life of cotton mill workers in South Carolina.
1. Archie Love, a worker at Springstein Mill in Chester, South Carolina, 1908.
There's a lot to see in the eyes of this young man. The location of this photo was not documented, but it was likely taken at the Springstein Mill Village, also in Chester. When the photographer inquired about this boy's age, the boy hesitated and answered, "fourteen." At the time of this photo he'd been working in the mill for five years; his first six months he worked nights.
2. Young doffers at Mollahan Mill in Newberry, South Carolina, 1908.
Young boys were often assigned the job of "doffer" at the mill. A "doffer" is someone who removes bobbins, spindles and pirns holding spun fiber (thread-like) from the spinning frame and then replaces them with empty ones.
3. Emmett Capps stops to pose for a photograph in Spartanburg, South Carolina, May 1912.
This young boy worked in the spinning room at Beaumont Mill in Spartanburg. He's walking about town with no shoes and seems to have an injury on his left ankle.
4. In this vintage photo from a South Carolina mill, a young boy is tending carding equipment in a spinning room.
A man by the name of Lewis Wickes Hine was a social photographer and was employed to document illegal child labor practices in the mills in the Carolinas. At the time, it was illegal to employ anyone under the age of 12 in a spinning room. This young boy is covered in lint. Carding machines took raw cotton and smashed it into flat sheets (cards). Workers in this stage of the process often inhaled a lot of lint and were often diagnosed with a condition known as "brown lung."
5. According to the photographer, everyone in this family photo works at the mill.
The mill he refered to was in South Caroliina. Due to child labor laws it's unlikely the youngest child (far right) was legally employed at the mill.
6. Three unnamed "sweepers" from Clifton Mill in Clifton, South Carolina.
Mill "villages" were often constructed at the site of the mills throughout South Carolina. After reaching a certain age, children would attend school and then be sent to the mill to work after. Many simply dropped out of school when they reached the age of 12.
7. A young girl tends a warping machine at a mill in South Carolina.
In a reader comment on this photo on Flickr, someone identifies the girl in this photo as their Grandmother, Sara "Sadie" Agnes Lenore Barton (Howard). That's amazing!
8. In this 1912 photo taken at Beaumont Mill in Spartanburg, young "spinners" pose outside the mill.
Note the absence of shoes on two of the young girls and the injury the one girl has sustained to her toe. In spite of the situation the girls seem to be almost giggling.
9. A young work crew is rounded up for a photo at Saxon Mill in Spartanburg, May 1912.
This group of young men looks less than enthusiastic to be in the spotlight. Since the photographer was working in an investigative capacity documenting possible child labor law violations, it's possible there had been hushed warnings about speaking with him.
10. Very few historic photos of adults in the mill exist.
This rare photo was taken in a Newberry, South Carolina mill. The name of the mill is omitted from the record. The photo was taken in December, 1908.
11. Spinners and doffers at Lancaster Cotton Mill, Lancaster, S.C.
Even though this photo was taken in December of 1908, note the young boy second from right has no shoes on.
12. A young boy sweeps in an unidentified South Carolina mill while others look at the camera.
Many of the young children who worked at the mill are photographed without shoes. It's possible this child is working with bare feet.
13. John Ghent had worked as a "spinner" for one year by the time this photo was taken in November 1908.
The young boy worked at Lancaster Cotton Mill in Lancaster, South Carolina. The photo appears to have been taken in the mill "village."
14. Monroe James is photographed in Belton, SC in May of 1912.
The photographer notes he doubts this young man is twelve. At the time of the photo he worked in the mill in Belton, South Carolina.
15. A proud Will Morrill is photographed in front of Wylie Mill in Chester, South Carolina, November 1908.
The photographer noted young Will had been working in this mill for five years. It was common for children to work at the mill to help the family make ends meet.
16. This photo taken in May 1912 shows a young boy walking ahead of some adult workers.
The boy's name is Eddie Norton. The photo was taken at Saxon Mill near Spartanburg, South Carolina.
17. A photo taken in the spinning room at Lancaster Cotton Mill in Lancaster, South Carolina shows a young woman and some older women tending spinners in the spinning room.
The young girl's first name was Mamie and the photo was taken in December 1908.
18. A spooling room at a South Carolina cotton mill.
The giant spools seen atop the rows of machinery combined the threads from the smaller spools below.
19. 6:15 p.m. - Quitting time at Arkwright Mill in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
A shift of workers is heading home after a hard day's work. Workers often went to work very early and worked ten or twelve hour shifts. The photo was taken in May 1912.
20. The Wilson twins head to work at the mill in Belton, South Carolina, May 1912.
You have to love the matching outfits including the bonnets! One source claims that between 1880 and 1910 about one-fourth of all mill workers in South Carolina was under the age of 16.
21. A spinner at Mollohan Mill in Newberry, South Carolina, March 1908.
Spinning machines took a cotton thread, or yarn, and compacted it even more, making it stronger. It was dangerous work. Many mill workers would end up with life changing injuries sustained when clothing or fingers became ensnarled in the heavy equipment.
22. A row of houses of the cotton mill people. Lydia Mills, Clinton, South Carolina, December 1908.
During this era, it was common for the mill to control most aspects of life for the mill workers. They'd live in mill housing, go to a mill school, and shop at a mill store. It was common for children to come and go as they pleased in the factory, eventually lending a hand to an older family member and then getting hired when they were of legal age.
23. Mill worker Johns Lewis stands tall and proud for a photo taken in November 1908.
Lewis worked at Springstein Mill in Chester, South Carolina. He was twelve at the time of this photo and had worked in the mill for a year. His starting wage was 40-cents/hour. A year later he'd advanced to the position of "weaver" where he oversaw four looms and was raised to 60-cents/hour. This was a major contribution to the family finances. It's no wonder he seems so proud.
This rare glimpse into the life of cotton mill workers in the first two decades of the 1900s provides some insight into the lifestyle and hardships endured in this era. South Carolina was built on the backs of these laborers, who literally put the clothing on the backs of their fellow South Carolinians and others around the country.