Sunday, October 19, 2008
These photos show doffer boys, the first three were taken at the Daniel mill in Lincolnton, N.C. and the fourth at the Globe Mill, Augusta, Ga. They were taken to show the need for child labor laws in the early 20th c. In the photo that shows four boys, the one on the left in knee pants told the investigato that 'he had worked in mills for 7 years and some nights. At nights they work 12 hours, without any hour off for lunch. Eat when they can. Some of the[m] "eat a-workin'."'
My grandfather on my mother's side was one of these boys. He arrived at Ellis Island as a baby, the family having emigrated from Snek in Friesland. They came after his father had gone bankrupt running a store and had so little money that they were forced to pawn jewelry to pay for passage. The father made a start as a landscape gardener in Passaic, NJ, but died during a blizzard when my grandfather was only five. His mother heroically supported him and his six siblings by cleaning houses.
Against the wishes of his three older sisters, my grandfather left school at about age nine to help support the family. He worked first tending cows and then got jobs in the local mills. By the time he got his job as a doffer he would have been about ten or eleven.
A few years later his older brother Harry taught him the carpenter trade. Somewhat in the Horatio Alger tradition, he went on to become a prosperous house builder, borrowing money to buy land and building homes on spec. In 1929, when banks failed, he insisted on paying off his debts. Though he had to revert to carpentry to earn a living, he was still able to support his wife and six children, and saw that his three sons all received college educations. Two of the three daughters got through nursing school. The youngest, my mom, was both proud and regretful that her education ended with a high school diploma. Proud because she had done well in high school and learned much; regretful because she knew she would have done well in college too.
This photo, also from LC, was taken after my grandfather had left the mills. As you can see, it shows strikers leaving a mill in Passaic. The history of child labor legislation in the US is not a proud one. At bottom, I've put some links on the struggles of reformers to achieve lasting protection against this abuse of children.
LC: photo taken between 1910 and 1915
- The Story of My Cotton Dress
- Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor
- Child Labor: A Historical Perspective (2007)
- Child Labor in U.S. History
- Child labor laws in the United States
- National Child Labor Committee
- Timeline of young people's rights in the United States
Commenter Joe Manning provided a link to his excellent site on child laborers and the photos of Lewis Hine. It's MORNINGS ON MAPLE STREET and it has an about page explaining his work. Last year Charlene Scott did an NPR piece on him and his work. A blog by Todd Wemmer gives a photo of the man and there's another in an article published in the Springfield Republican. Joe says: "For the past two years, I have been conducting a nationally known research project to track down the descendants of the child laborers that Hine photographed. So far, I have been successful for over 100 photos, interviewed the descendants, and answered, many times over, the question: What ever happened to that kid?"