Children at Work: Exposing Child Labor in the Cotton Mills
In this lesson, students will learn about the use of child labor in the cotton mills of the Carolinas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They will learn what life was like for a child worker: how much the workers made, how many hours they worked each day, what their homes were like and what they did for fun. Students will then write an investigative news report exposing the practice of child labor in the mills, using quotations from oral histories with former child mill workers and photographs of child laborers taken by social reform photographer Lewis Hine.
Grade 7 - English Language Arts
Grade 8 - Social Studies
Classroom Time Required: 2-3 50-minute class periods, plus time for students to write news report
Students will know details about the lives of child workers in the cotton mills of North Carolina during the early 20th century, and learn about the movement to end child labor.
Students will be able to empathize with former child laborers after listening to their oral histories as they talk about their experiences in the mills.
Students will narrate a news report with appropriate structure, detail, point of view, and use of grammar and spelling, and may use technology to add an image to their news report.
North Carolina Standard Course of Study - Grade 7 English Language Arts
Goal 1: The learner will use language to express individual perspectives in response to personal, social, cultural, and historical issues.
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.
Materials and Resources
Activity 1 - Listening to Oral Histories
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.)
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
Hand out the oral history transcripts to students.
Play Ila Hartsell Dodson oral history excerpt (2 min 5 sec). and ask the following discussion questions:
Play James Pharis oral history excerpt (2 min) and ask the following discussion questions
Play Alice P. Evitt oral history excerpt (31 sec) and ask the following discussion questions:
Activity 2 - Investigating Child Labor
Introduce the concept of "muckrakers" - journalists who investigated and exposed social problems during the Progressive era of social reform, from the 1890s to the 1920s. You may want to touch on muckraking journalists and topics such as Upton Sinclair and the meat packing industry, Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil company trust, Jacob Riis and the conditions in urban slums, etc.
Explain that the students will be writing as muckrakers, exposing the evils of child labor in the cotton mills of the Carolinas during the early 20th century in a news report. They will be using the words of former child workers and pictures of child workers taken by Lewis Hine from the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South collection to make their case against child labor.
Distribute and review the news report assignment.
Give students the URLs for the websites that contain the content (oral histories and photographs) they will be using. These links are included in Additional Websites below.
Students may begin researching information about child labor and accessing websites for their news reports.
News Report Assignment:
As we have learned, many of the social problems of the early 20th century were brought to light by "muckrakers" - journalists who investigated, documented and exposed social ills. Without their work, these problems may never have been reformed. Imagine yourself as an outraged muckraker, learning about the use of child labor in the cotton mills of the Carolinas and ready to share the shocking information you've uncovered with the world. You will write a news story about child labor in the mills, using at least 2 quotes from former child workers such as Alice P. Evitt, Ila Hartsell Dodson and James Pharis, and including 1 or more photographs of child workers taken by reformer Lewis Hine. Make sure to establish the facts of child labor in the mills, organize your paper using a logical structure, and explain why this issue is important for your readers to know. Revise your paper for organization, spelling and grammar before you turn it in.
Students should write a thoughtful, logically organized news story. This story should include details and facts about the use of child workers in the cotton mills, as well as at least 2 quotes from workers and 1 image from the DocSouth collection. Students should also demonstrate empathy for the child workers by accurately documenting their plight. Students may use software to create a news story that resembles the look of a newspaper article if available, but may also simply include the images and text in a word processing document.
Teachers may also assess student understanding of the oral histories by gathering responses to the discussion questions for each of the oral history excerpts.
Lewis Hine photographs - Photographs of child workers in cotton mills, available through UNC's Documenting the American South collection.