The Story: Reform

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Nobody'd want their children to go to work in the mill, I don't always want better for your children than you had yourself. It was hard. It was a hard life. A good life in some ways, but hard work.

- Eva Hopkins, former mill worker - Charlotte, NC

Child Labor in the Carolinas - National Child Labor Committee, 1909
Child Labor in the Carolinas, National Child Labor
Committee, 1909

Mill owners and even mill workers themselves didn’t always welcome the efforts of reformers. Many felt that working at a young age taught children discipline, the value of money, and a sense of accomplishment. Other parents preferred that their children were working in the mill under the watchful eye of the mill supervisor rather than spending time with friends without adult supervision. They felt that working in the mills kept children out of trouble. Some families claimed that they couldn’t survive without the financial contributions from their working children.

During the early 1900’s, the movement for social reform was gaining momentum in many areas of society. Social reformers wanted to change conditions they felt were unjust, and abolishing child labor was one of their goals. These reformers formed the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904, a group whose purpose was to bring to light the horrors of child labor across America.

One of the founding members was Alexander J. McKelway, a pastor from North Carolina who was especially concerned about child labor in the industrial South. Along with social reform photographer Lewis Hine, McKelway investigated conditions in cotton mills throughout the South. The NCLC published their findings in a 20 page pamphlet called Child Labor in the Carolinas: account of the Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina, by Rev.A.E. Seddon, A.H. Ulm and Lewis Hine in 1909. This pamphlet was distributed to middle-class Americans concerned with the effects of child labor in order to raise support for its abolition. Hine also exhibited his haunting photographs of child workers and gave talks about what their lives were like to audiences throughout the country.

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