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Cotton Mills Seen Through Differing Perspectives: Critical Analysis of Primary Documents

In this lesson, students will read two primary source documents from Documenting the American South, a digital library collection sponsored by the University Library at UNC. One document is Child Labor in the Carolinas, a pamphlet published in 1909 by the National Child Labor Committee exposing the use of child labor in the cotton mills of North Carolina. The other document is Mill News, a weekly newsletter about the Southern cotton industry which was paid for and published by the mill companies themselves. Students will also listen to oral history excerpts from mill workers to gain a third perspective. In a critical analysis, students will identify the audiences for both documents and the motivations and intent of its authors, as well as examine the historical importance of each document.

Grade 11 (English III) - English Language Arts

Classroom Time Required: 3 50-minute class periods, or 2 90-minute class periods

Learning Outcomes
Curriculum Alignment
Materials and Resources
Additional Websites

Learning Outcomes

Students will critically analyze historical documents, including oral histories, and identify the audience and intent behind these documents using clues from the text.

Students will compare multiple perspectives from a historical time period.

Students will learn the historical context for these documents by researching the cotton industry during the early 20 th century.

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Curriculum Alignment

North Carolina Standard Course of Study - Grade 11 English Language Arts (English III)

Goal 4 : The learner will critically analyze text to gain meaning, develop thematic connections, and synthesize ideas.

  • Objective 4.03 - Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents by:
    • identifying the intent and message of the author or artist.
    • recognizing how the author addresses opposing viewpoints.
    • articulating a personal response to the message and method of the author or artist.
    • evaluating the historical significance of the work.

North Carolina Standard Course of Study - grade 8 Social Studies

Goal 5 - The learner will evaluate the impact of political, economic, social, and technological changes on life in North Carolina from 1870 to 1930.

  • Objective 5.01 - Identify the role played by the agriculture, textile, tobacco, and furniture industries in North Carolina, and analyze their importance in the economic development of the state.

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Materials and Resources


Technology Resources

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Pre-activities -

Teachers should familiarize themselves with the background of cotton mills in the South, through reviewing this site or through other sources.

Teachers should listen to the oral history excerpts and review discussion questions.

Activity 1 - Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909)

This activity will need to take place in a computer lab or other area allowing all students access to a computer and the Internet.

Briefly review the rise of the Industrial Revolution with students, mentioning the increase in factories and mills.

Introduce students to the issue of child labor during the Industrial Revolution, especially children working in the cotton mills of the South. (For more information, see Additional Websites.)

Read this introduction to the first primary document, Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909):

  • "During the early 20th century, social reformers from the National Child Labor Committee campaigned to outlaw child labor, especially in dangerous working environments like mills and factories. They sent investigators to these workplaces to find out the working conditions of child laborers, and published their findings in documents like this one. Lewis Hine was a photographer who worked for the NCLC and often had to sneak into mills to take photos of and speak with child workers. His photographs appear in this document to illustrate the plight of child workers in the cotton mills. As you read, think about who would have read this document and what the authors hoped to accomplish with it, if anything."

Explain that students will be critically analyzing this document, and encourage them to take notes about the text. Some possible prompts include: what are the authors' motivations? How do you think they feel about the cotton industry? What is the central argument of the document? How do the authors support this argument?

Allow students time to read this document.

Activity 2 - Mill News (1920)

This activity will also need to take place in a computer lab or other area allowing all students access to a computer and the Internet.

Read this introduction to the second primary document, Mill News (1920):

  • “This document is an issue of a weekly newsletter called Mill News, distributed to cotton industry employees and managers and their families. It contains descriptions of various cotton mills around the Southeast U.S. This issue was published in 1920, 11 years after the first document we read. As you read, try to figure out who paid for the publication and distribution of this newsletter, and who wrote the articles.”

Explain to students that they should skim this document for the most important points, because it's a fairly long document, including illustrations. Teachers may want to focus students on the "Peace and Prosperity" section on page 3 of the document, as well as the reports of various mills on pages 11-75. Encourage students again to take notes on audience, authors' motivations and opinions of the cotton industry, and any central arguments or messages they can find in the document.

Allow students time to skim and review this document.

Activity 3 - Listening to the Oral Histories

Introduce the concept of an oral history, and discuss their value as we study important events. Mention that oral histories provide a chance for the "regular person" to record his or her experiences, not just the well-known or famous people often recorded in written history. Ask students to come up with more reasons we should value oral histories - such as allowing minority groups to record and publicize their experiences, being able to more vividly picture the past, making connections between generations, passing on the art of storytelling, etc.

Hand out the oral history transcripts to students.

Play the first oral history - Nanny Pharis (1 min 44 sec)

Play the second oral history - Alice Evitt (2 min 17 sec)

Play the third oral history - Ila Dodson (2 min 5 sec)

Possible Discussion Questions:

  • How do Pharis, Evitt, and Dodson each seem to feel about their time in the mill? How are their experiences different or similar?
  • What factors may have influenced the interviewees as they told their oral histories? (Students may mention memory, perspective created by the passing of time, desire to represent their experiences in the mills accurately, consciousness of interviewer and wider audience, potential awkwardness of being interviewed on tape, etc.)
  • Are any of the experiences in the oral histories reflected in the two primary documents we've just read? (Students may mention children starting work at a young age, child workers missing out on an education to go to work, dangerous conditions in the mills, and other common threads between the texts.)

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Critical Analysis: Thoughtfully and carefully analyzing what you read is an important skill, particularly when reading historical documents. Write a critical analysis of the two documents we’ve reviewed in class: Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909) and Mill News (1920). For each text, identify the audience, the authors’ motivation and intent, and at least two central arguments or messages for each document. Compare and contrast the two documents, and discuss how their authors’ arguments and motivations may have differed. Consider the socials and historical context of the documents and discuss how that may have influenced the authors.

Students should be assessed by the level of critical analysis they perform for each document. Students should identify the audience, motivations and argument for each of the two documents, as well as identify how the social and historical context of the time period influenced the authors.

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Additional Websites

Child Labor in the Carolinas (1909) - First primary document, located in Documenting the American South digital collection

Mill News (1920) - Second primary document, locted in Documenting the American South digital collection

Nannie Pharis complete oral history

Alice P. Evitt complete oral history

Ila Hartsell Dodson complete oral history