III. WELFARE CAPITALISM IN THE
UNITED STATES: POLICIES, PRACTICES,
The Mind of the Mill Owner:
Welfare Capitalism and Child Labor
in Southern Cotton Textiles
Hugh D. Hindman
Appalachian State University
From the 1880s through the 1920s,
the mill villages of the southern textile industry manifested a unique
blend of paternalism and welfare capitalism. They also employed thousands
of young children in the mills. This paper explores the intersection of
three key institutions--the mill village, the family wage system, and
the child labor system--in order to gain a better understanding of the
mind of the mill owner on the question of child labor.
The most dramatic period of growth in
southern cotton textiles was from the 1880s through the early 1920s. Creation
of mill villages was part and parcel of this growth. Juxtaposed to the
mill village, and part and parcel of the larger system, were institutionalized
and pervasive family wage systems, which in turn required such pervasive
use of child labor that it had become an institution unto itself in the
industry. This paper attempts a critical examination of the mill village,
the family wage system, and the child labor system, from the perspective
of the mill owners and their apologists.
Southern Mill Villages
During early years of the southern textile
boom, mill owners were seen as benevolent civic boosters and stewards
of an indigenous economic revival--in short, heroes who brought both economic
and cultural sustenance to a heretofore impoverished South. Mills not
only brought industrial vigor to the South, but they also provided employment
to "poor girls who might otherwise be wretched" (Freeze 1991). If mills
generated wealth and profit, these were seen to benefit the entire surrounding
commercial economy as much as the owner and other subscribers. To gather
a workforce, mills were required to build houses and often supplemented
these with provisions for churches, stores, and schools. Nearly all mills
provided houses for the majority of their workers. Most mills provided
at least churches, stores, and schools, though the extent to which the
mill actually operated the stores and schools has often been exaggerated
(Herring 1929). The owner, as the most prominent member of the local community,
set the moral tone.
As the mill boom progressed, a second
generation of mill owners adopted a more pecuniary interest in their mill
villages. To be sure, their interests were often expressed in paternalistic
terms, but the mill villages accounted for roughly one-third of the capital
of the mill operation and were, of themselves, nonproductive investments.
Owners building or expanding were advised to give close attention to the
construction of their villages and at least some forethought to how the
village would be managed. The village had to provide a return on its investment.
It could do so in three principal ways--directly, by supplying a workforce,
and indirectly, by reducing turnover and creating an obedient and appropriately
"trained" workforce. To assure adequate labor supply, Daniel Augustus
Tompkins, the most important of the industrial engineers who designed
and developed mills and mill villages, recommended a ratio of one worker
for each room (Winston 1920). Other arrangements varied--a minimum of
three workers per house was common. To reduce turnover, mills competed
with each other on the quality of their housing and the array of other
amenities provided in the mill villages. Better mills could attract and
retain a more desirable workforce. Those deemed less desirable gravitated
to less desirable villages. Finally, the mill village system, through
numerous formal and informal methods, assured a future labor supply that
was not only technically well trained in the operation of the mill, but
also socially well entrained in the moral and cultural norms of the local
As the value of the village in managing
"the labor problem" came to be recognized, welfare activities were expanded.
In addition to housing, churches, stores, and schools, most mills provided
fuel at little or no cost, gardens, and recreational activities (bands
and baseball teams were especially popular). Many mills, especially the
larger ones, provided welfare workers, public health services, savings
and insurance plans, and a panoply of services that stretched from cradle
to grave. In addition, unincorporated villages provided most of the services
expected of a local government, including streets, drainage and sewerage,
and law enforcement. At the same time they were expanding their welfare
activities, however, the mill village system began to come under criticism.
In contrast to the benevolent paternalism of the industry pioneers who
were motivated by philanthropy and altruism first and profit second, the
new breed of mill owners were seen as providing corporate welfare because
it paid an economic, social, and political return. Mill villages bred
dependence and a learned helplessness among the villagers. They were "stall-fed"
and became docile, developing into the "cheap and contented labor" for
which the South was famous. What had been an instrument of benevolent
paternalism had become an instrument of deliberate control (Mitchell 1921).
The village had to pay for itself in labor
supply. It did so both by reducing wages and other labor costs and by
reducing uncertainties in managing the labor supply. First and foremost,
each household was expected to provide multiple workers to the mill. A
typical arrangement was that of the so-called Pelzer Contract, named after
the "show mills" owned and operated by Captain Ellison Smyth of South
Carolina. All children under 12 were required to be in school; all children
12 and over were required to be in the mill. The essence of the deal was
that all able-bodied villagers were expected to report for duty in the
mill; exceptions for age (old or young), infirmity, or other special circumstances
required written authorization from the mill superintendent (McHugh 1988).
Families that could provide more workers over a longer projected future
were more highly valued. With all able-bodied family members now and into
the future a part of the bargain, this was a relatively pure family wage
The family wage system reduced turnover.
From an employer perspective, a quit meant the loss of multiple workers.
"The Superintendent told me that he always makes a special effort to get
workers in families because then he has a greater hold on them as they
can't move about from place to place too readily" (Hine 1910:1). From
a labor perspective, it was difficult for individual workers to quit unless
the whole family quit, and such a dramatic quit invariably meant moving
from the mill village, a move made only by those who could get a better
deal elsewhere or those forced out. Grover Hardin, who entered the mill
at age 10 recalled, "They're glad to get them big families. Then they
can scatter them out, over the mill, and most of that time the children
would have to stay, you know, till they got up big enough to set out on
their own. Whether they liked the mill or not, why they'd have to stay"
The family wage system reinforced an industrial
discipline advantageous to mill owners. The value of an employee was not
limited to the value of that employee's own work but was reflected in
the present and expected future value of the employee's entire family.
The presence of parents in the workplace affected the behavior of the
children. Parents had clear interests in bringing their children up right--that
is, to bring them up to the mill--so that they would at least not be an
embarrassment and at best would show promise of a successful and productive
career in textiles. Further, the family wage system assured that, by the
time children were ready for regular work, they would already be well
trained both in performing specific valuable tasks and in conforming to
the general expectations of the mill. Likewise, the presence of children
in the workplace affected the parents. Directly, it made parents less
likely to risk overt resistance to management. Indirectly, competition
with children reduced adult wages by almost the same amount as the wages
children contributed to family income (Parsons and Goldin 1989).
Theory of Child Labor
The cost of the mill village created the
family wage system, which, in turn, implied child labor. The mill must
have its quota of workers, if not from each and every household, at least
on average. From the 1880 boom, children were a relatively constant 20-25
percent of the textile workforce until child labor largely disappeared
during the industry depression of the early 1920s (though some child labor
remained and industry resistance to regulatory intervention persisted
well into the 1930s). Through the 1880s, in the Piedmont textile region,
widows headed from one-third to one-half of all households and were a
far larger proportion in many villages (Hall et. al. 1987:33; Freeze 1991).
Relatively few adult males were employed, but through the 1890s, the proportion
of adult males began to grow, first relative to women and later relative
to children (Mitchell 1921:180).
There were two broad patterns of migration
to the mill villages. First came the widows and orphans and other desperately
poor families. Then, child labor was seen as natural, "if not absolutely
necessary, [it] was practically so, and never excited the least question.
. . . The use of children was not avarice then, but philanthropy; not
exploitation, but generosity" (Mitchell 1921:95-96). Second came the families
from the cotton tenant farming regions and the subsistence farmers of
the southern Appalachians. "What was hardship to the farmer was a boon
to the manufacturer, and the number of mills erected varied inversely
with the price of raw material" (Davidson 1939:5). The mill villages became
a new kind of asylum as "penniless families trooped from the land to the
mills with all their worldly goods in one wagon, 'full of children and
nothing else'" (Mitchell and Mitchell 1930:104). The children, who were
accustomed to hard work on the family farm, followed their elders into
By the turn of the century, when child
labor laws were common in other regions, the South was called upon to
justify its continued insistence on maintaining a child labor system.
Many continued to defend child labor in moralistic tones. Some continued
to stress asylum and how child wages were essential to the household's
meager subsistence, but this argument was losing force with the declining
proportion of widow-headed households. Others stressed the timeworn caution
against the sins of idleness. For example, Daniel Augustus Tompkins warned,
"It's as easy to teach a boy to love work with the result of capability
as it is to let him drift into habits of idleness with the result of incapability."
In a speech to the National Civic Federation, he stated, "As long as there
are tenderhearted women, there will be sentiments that are liable to injure
children, as the tender mother so often spoils the child. I believe there
are just about as many children spoiled by indulgence as there are by
overwork" (Winston 1920:142, '6-77).
A "widders and orphans" defense of the
child labor system may have served for the late-nineteenth century, but
the industry needed a new defense for the twentieth century. The industry
eventually coalesced around a theory of child labor that was tailored
to features unique to the southern industry and fit with the basic demographic
facts. More importantly, the theory suggested that the child labor problem
was naturally self-correcting, and so there was no need for meddlesome
intervention. Any number of mill owners or their representatives might
be cited here, but Lewis W. Parker, a leading South Carolina mill owner,
may have articulated the theory most clearly and succinctly when he addressed
the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor in 1914:
The unfortunate families back in the backwoods drifted to the cotton
mills. When they drifted to the cotton mills what was to be done? It is
not possible for a man who has been working on a farm, who is an adult--after
the age of 21 years, for instance--to become a skilled employee in a cotton
mill. His fingers are knotted and gnarled; he is slow in action, whereas
activity is required in working in the cotton mills. Therefore, as a matter
of necessity, the adult of the family had to come to the cotton mill as
an unskilled employee, and it was the children of the family who became
the skilled employees in the cotton mills. For that reason it was the
children who had to support the families for the time being. I have seen
instances in which a child of 12 years of age, working in the cotton mills,
is earning one and one-half times as much as his father of 40 or 50 years
of age. . . . [F]or this reason, the child-labor question is solving itself
by reason of the fact that we are now getting into the second generation
and as we get into the second generation of employees we get the skilled
employees. (U.S. House of Representatives 1914)
The Mind of the Mill Owner
The mill owners' theory is a variation
on the "nimble fingers" argument that is one of the more historically
durable defenses of child labor. The theory was further buttressed by
the alleged benefits of life in the mill villages. Industry apologists
pointed to the amenities offered and argued that families were far better
off in the mill villages, where living conditions were at least decent,
wages were regular, and children might have some opportunity for education
in the mill school, than they were on the rural farms with no sanitation,
few schools, back-breaking work, and abject poverty. Although this defense
greatly aided the industry in the arena of public sentiment, it failed
to explain why children had to work to enjoy the benefits of mill village
But this was a particularly pernicious
variant of the "nimble fingers" argument, because at the same time that
it proclaimed the superior productive efficiency of children it announced
the incompetence of the adult, male, presumptive heads of the households.
Each and every one of the former farmers came to the mill village under
the stigma of failure. If they could have made it on the land, they would
have stayed there. Once in the mill villages, insult was added to injury
and the former farmers were made dependents. The few former farmers who
were employed in the mill were often placed in menial, low-wage positions.
Some found work elsewhere in the surrounding community. Some were disabled
and could not work. A few loafed and became dependent on the wages of
their "dependents." Where early mills had offered asylum to widows and
orphans, the mills now offered a new kind of asylum to women and children
whose husbands and fathers could no longer provide for them. The patriarchy
of the rural countryside was replaced with the paternalism of the mill
village (Freeze 1994).
Why were adult male farmers deemed unsuited
for southern textile labor? Why was it "not possible" for a farmer "to
become a skilled employee in a cotton mill?" What role did knotted and
gnarled fingers and slowness of action play? How was patriarchy lost so
that "the adult of the family had to come to the cotton mill as an unskilled
employee, and it was the children of the family who became the skilled
employees in the cotton mills?" The family wage system in southern textiles
is the only one in America in which the adult male, presumptive head of
the household, was the marginalized member of the system (Hindman 2002).
In other family wage systems where the patriarch failed to participate,
it was because he earned substantially better wages outside the system.
In southern textiles, that was generally not the case. But if employers
"confronted a workforce whose skill counted for little and whose cost
and reliability counted for much" (Carlton 1994:25), it is likely that
adult, male former farmers were deemed unsuitable by virtue of cost and
reliability estimates more than perceived skill deficits.
The extent to which child labor was a
self-correcting problem was overstated, but there was a kernel of truth
to the theory. As children who grew up in the discipline of the mill village
came to adulthood, this second generation of operatives could, indeed,
provide a suitably reliable workforce. Adult men began assuming their
proportionate share of the workforce and were taking the better-paid and
more prestigious weaver, loom-fixer, and overseer positions. As economic
patriarchy was restored, the mills lost the central justification for
their paternalism. But child labor remained a persistent problem as long
as the industry continued to grow. It was not until the postwar retrenchment
of the early 1920s that mill owners began to relinquish the child labor
system. When economic patriarchy was restored, the moral justification
for mill village paternalism was undermined. When child labor was finally
abolished, the economic rationale for the mill village was eliminated.
The mill village no longer provided a sufficient quota of workers to justify
its cost. So, beginning around 1934, mills began selling off their mill
villages and the age of paternalism passed (Herring 1949).
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