Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

North Carolina. Dept. of Labor
Rules and Regulations of the Department of Labor Relative to the Employment of Children under Sixteen Years of Age. Standards of the Department of Labor for Grading Industrial Plants. Effective June 1, 1933.
Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Labor, [1933].


Items summarized here:

North Carolina's first cotton mills were built around 1880, and the industry grew rapidly ("Child Labor: The Mills," p. 1). Child labor was common in mills, and the laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were lenient, permitting children to begin working at age 13, or at any age if they were orphans or had parents who could not work ("Child Labor: The Workers," p. 2). Even these laws were not often enforced, and many children began working in the mills by age 10 and were "helping" years earlier. Factory inspection was not allowed, and employers had to "knowingly and willfully" violate the law before they could be prosecuted ("Child Labor: The Workers," p. 2).

Critics began speaking out against child labor in the mills almost as soon as it became common. Many objected on the grounds that it drove down wages for adult workers ("Child Labor: Reform," p. 1). The National Child Labor Committee was organized in New York City in 1904 "by men and women concerned with the plight of working children" ("About Us"). In 1908 the Committee hired photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, whose photographs of children in mills would help to change public opinion about child labor. The NCLC promoted the passage of laws banning child labor at federal and state levels, and also laws promoting compulsory education ("About Us"). North Carolina clergyman Alexander McKelway, who had been working on behalf of child laborers since the 1890s, became the Committee's southern secretary (Powell). McKelway continued his work until his death in 1918, and the next year, the North Carolina General Assembly created a Child Labor Commission.

"Child Labor in the Carolinas: Account of Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina," was a 1909 pamphlet published by the NCLC. Written by McKelway, it describes a 1908 trip Lewis Hine made to photograph children in cotton mills in the Carolinas, as well as visits to mills by A.E. Seddon, a minister, and A.H. Ulm, a journalist who visited several South Carolina mills and interviewed the workers. Hine visited 19 mill villages and 17 mills and took 230 photographs, mostly of child employees (p. 3). This pamphlet contains 30 of the images, with captions remarking on the height and age of the children and the number of years they claimed to have worked. While the management of two mills forbade Hine from taking photographs of the children, the other 17 allowed it and demonstrated "unconsciousness of anything either wrong or criminal in the employment of children" (p. 3). Hine includes images of many children under 12 years of age working and of "helpers" as young as six. The NCLC distributed the pamphlet to middle-class Americans in order to gather support for the abolition of child labor ("Child Labor: Reform," p. 2). Hine's photographs offered visual proof that many mill operators were lying when they denied employing small children. Hines also exhibited his photographs and spoke about his experiences across the country ("Child Labor: Reform," p. 2).

Another pamphlet McKelway prepared, titled "Child Wages in the Cotton Mills: Our Modern Feudalism," was published in 1913. He discusses two related subjects: the effect of child wages on adult wages, and the power of the mill operator not only as an employer but also as a landlord, social director, and officer of the law. McKelway compiles numbers found by the Federal Bureau of Labor in 1908-09 and argues that children in cotton mills make essentially the same wages as adults. "Why is it that a thousand workers 21 years and over out of 3,700 earn less than $2 a week in the cotton mills?" he asks. "It is because a thousand children under 14 can earn just as much" (p. 5). McKelway calls this situation a temptation to poverty-stricken parents and a scheme on the part of mill owners to keep wages depressed (p. 5). His greatest concern is that these children cannot attend school and "have been condemned for life, with few exceptions, to an unskilled trade, in which there is not hope for advancement" (p. 6). The depression of wages, McKelway argues, allowed employers to become wealthy and independent enough to survive temporary shut-downs of their mills. The ability to remain "in masterly inactivity" frustrated any attempts to organize employees into labor unions (p. 7). That the mills and mill towns were private property of the management allowed management to terminate leases at will and to prevent outside observers from entering the towns. McKelway is particularly concerned with the potential for social revolution if many American voters are former child workers "who have been deprived of all opportunity for an education, who have been held in feudalistic bondage," and "who have been embittered by the robbery of their childhood" (p. 11). He pleads for the abolition of child labor and the incorporation of mill towns so that they can develop local self-government.

In 1933, more than a decade after McKelway's death, the North Carolina Department of Labor issued a set of regulations called "Rules and Regulations of the Department of Labor Relative to the Employment of Children under Sixteen Years of Age / Standards of the Department of Labor for Grading Industrial Plants." The first section applies specifically to children. It limits the work day of any child under 16 years of age to eight hours per day and 48 hours per week, except in the case of a boy over 14 who is the sole support of his widowed mother. For all workers under 16, not only in mills but in most other forms of employment available to children, the regulations require a statement of age from a parent and a certificate from a physician. The document prohibits labor by girls under 14 and limits the labor of boys ages 12 to 14 to hours that the public schools are not in session. It also limits work in "street trades" (for instance selling newspapers or peanuts or working as boot-blacks), restricting boys from working at night, requiring children to wear authorized badges, and entirely prohibiting girls under 16 from working in such positions. (The gender distinctions were later eliminated to comply with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which regulated child labor at the federal level and did not make such distinctions.) Perhaps most significantly, the regulations required Department of Labor officials to be "admitted to every manufacturing or mercantile establishment without question," thus allowing the enforcement of these laws (p. 4). The second half of the document establishes standards for grading industrial plants, including a number of health and safety regulations, and requires the posting of the labor laws in every work place with five or more employees.

Works Consulted: "About Us," National Child Labor Commission (accessed October 14, 2010); "Child Labor: The Mills," Stories of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries (accessed October 13, 2010); "Child Labor: Reform," Stories of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries (accessed October 13, 2010); "Child Labor: The Workers," Stories of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries (accessed October 13, 2010); "Child Labor in Nonagricultural Occupations in North Carolina: Joint Federal and State Requirements," North Carolina Department of Labor (accessed November 29, 2010); "The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, As Amended," U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration, Wage and Hour Division, 2004 (accessed November 29, 2010); Powell, William S., "Alexander Jeffrey McKelway, 1866-1918," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, available from Documenting the American South (accessed October 13, 2010).

Erin Bartels

Document menu