It's pitiful for the child working at twelve years old. Wake up every morning at five o'clock, go to work at 6:20. Get up and eat a good breakfast and get waked up, then it's time to go to work. And you worked eleven hours a day.
"LINCOLNTON, N. C.
Six years old. Stays all day in the mill
where his mother and sister work. Is beginning to "help" a
little and will probably soon be regularly at work, though his
name may not appear on the payroll."
- Child Labor in the Carolinas, 1909
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the few laws prohibiting child labor were moderate and rarely enforced. In North Carolina, the age limit was 13 for employment in factories such as mills, and children under 18 were allowed to work up to a shocking 66 hours per week! Mill owners had to “knowingly and willfully” break these laws before they could be convicted. Even more lenient laws were in place in South Carolina, where the age limit for factory workers was 12 years old. However, orphans and children with “dependent” parents (those too sick to work) could work at any age and any amount of hours. These laws were rarely, if ever, enforced. Former child workers remember scrambling to hide in closets on the few occasions when factory inspectors would visit to check on working conditions in the mill.
The system of “helpers” was another way mill owners got around child labor laws. Very small children as young as 6 or 7 years old would visit the mill to bring meals to their parents or older siblings during the work day or simply to play amidst the machinery. These young “helpers” would begin to learn the jobs that older workers performed and try their hand at various tasks. The presence of tiny children in the mill could be explained to inspectors by saying the children were only “helping” and not on the payroll. As they got older, they spent more and more time helping until they began working full-time in the mills, usually between ages 10 to 14.