Portrait of cotton mill workers in Georgia, 1909
Families usually began mill work together, since employers paid adults poor wages and offered jobs to children to help make ends meet. “In this way, mills attracted a core of mature workers at low cost along with younger, even cheaper, laborers who could perform simple tasks and move in and out of the mills in response to market fluctuations.” Critics opposed child labor and mill owners were often of a divided mind on the subject, but children remained an integral part of the labor force. Between 1880 and 1910, about one-fourth of all cotton mill workers in the South were below the age of sixteen.
Children grew up in homes regulated by the mills’ schedule. Mothers brought nursing infants to work or adjusted feeding schedules around breaks in the factory day. Older children came and went in the mills as they pleased, bringing meals to parents and learning to do factory labor as they played with friends in the factory. Sometimes young children assisted parents or older brothers and sisters with their work, increasing the wage earner’s paycheck while also learning skills that they would use as employees in their own right years later. Most children entered full-time work in the mill by age twelve, dropping out of school or moving between school and work as necessity dictated.