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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

Learning Outcomes
Curriculum Alignment
Materials and Resources
Additional Websites

Learning Outcomes

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.

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Curriculum Alignment

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.

  • Objective 1.01 - Narrate an account such as a news story or historical episode which:
    • creates a coherent organizing structure appropriate to purpose, audience, and context.
    • orients the reader/listener to the scene, the people, and the events.
    • engages the reader/listener by establishing a context and creating a point of view.
    • establishes the significance of events.

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

  • Computer and Internet connection, if streaming oral history excerpts from this site
  • Speakers
  • CD player, if burning a CD of oral history excerpts

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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:

  • Why was Ila so eager to start working in the mill?
  • Why did Ila bring the family Bible with her to City Hall to get the worker's permit?
  • What were Ila's reasons for not attending high school?
  • Would you rather go to high school or work 8 hours a day and 6 days a week making money at the cotton mill, as Ila did? Why would you make that decision?

Play James Pharis oral history excerpt (2 min) and ask the following discussion questions

  • How did James injure his hand?
  • How would you react if you were in James' place: a small boy with a painful injury and no one to help you?
  • How could such injuries be prevented?

Play Alice P. Evitt oral history excerpt (31 sec) and ask the following discussion questions:

  • How would the heat have affected child workers like Alice?
  • Along with the oppressive heat, what other conditions in a mill or factory would child workers have suffered?

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.

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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.

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Additional Websites

Ila Hartsell Dodson complete oral history

James Pharis complete oral history

Alice P. Evitt complete oral history

Lewis Hine photographs - Photographs of child workers in cotton mills, available through UNC's Documenting the American South collection.