Smithsonian

Hard Times Cotton Mills Girls, Excerpt 2

The [textile] industry's growth was based on a vastly expanding number of women and children in the mills. In the four textile states in 1890, men formed only 35 percent of the work force, women made up 40 percent, and children between the ages of ten and fifteen made up 25 percent. A seventy-hour workweek earned about $2.50 in 1885 and slightly less in 1895. At the same time profits were phenomenal. According to historian Broadus Mitchell, "It was not unusual . . . in these years to make 30 to 70 percent profit.” . . .

Lower wages and longer hours accounted for cheaper cotton manufacturing in the South. Southern states permitted night work for women, and the eleven-hour workday six days a week and twelve-hour worknight five nights a week were common.

In the South, children of fourteen could, by law, work the same hours as adults, but at the Amazon mill, children started to work at a much younger age. . . .

These children, who might have worked a sixty-four hour workweek, were allowed to keep maybe twenty-five cents of their wages, if any, after household expenses were taken care of. Many children looked forward to becoming of age to work in the mill as a way of getting out of the hot and back-breaking work of farming, while others preferred to remain on the farm. The choice, however, was not theirs to make. If it had been, all the women I talked to would have chosen to be in school.

Victoria Byerly, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls. Personal Histories of Womanhood and Poverty in the South (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1986), pp. 43–45.

Educational Resource Materials, Levine Museum of the New South, 2003. www. museumofthenewsouth. org