I wrote a more detailed version of this post about child labor in the early 1900’s in the following atricle: http://www.candidslice.com/lost-childhoods-mill-labor-in-the-early-1900s/ for Candid Slice, in honor of my grandmother, Nina Alexander, my mother’s mother.
My grandmother, Nina Alexander, was born in 1901, 36 years after the Civil War. Nina spent her earliest years on her family farm in Georgia. She lost four of her ten siblings, during her youth. (Death at an early age was not uncommon during those times.)
When her diabetic father died from complications from a hunting wound, her mother had to find a way to support a large family. Since she could not care for her young children and earn enough to support them with the erratic income from farm produce, she sold the farm and moved her family to a new home in Athens, Georgia where she bought a house.
Hope for a Better Tomorrow
In the early 1900’s many farmers and their families lived on about $.75/day, Many farmers could not support their families on the sales of agricultural products. When mill recruiters advertised $2/day many of the farmers moved to the industrial towns, which quadrupled their population in a matter of thirty years.
Grandmother was one of many family farm kids who had helped with increasingly difficult chores as they grew older. So after moving to work in the mills, with so little pay, parents had little money and a lot of younger kids to feed and care for.
Some parents had to stay with the younger children and babies. So the older children (6-9 years old) were taken out of school to work to support the family.
Since sometimes children were paid adult wages in the early 1900’s through the Depression, (equal pay for equal work) this probably seemed a reasonable path to save a family from starvation.
So Nina, at the age of 9, like many other kids in those circumstances had to quit school to work in a mill. She joined her two older sisters there to support her family.
Nina, like most of the youngest mill workers, started out sweeping the floors to control the cotton dust and the fibers that flew from the cotton bales, and hundreds of combing, spinning and weaving machines.
The air was always so full of cotton particles that it saturated the air, and got in the workers’ hair and clothes. These conditions not only gummed up the vital machinery but sometimes gave the workers “brown lung.” In addition to that the mills had no air conditioning; even with wall sized fans, the heat from the machines could be stifling.
I can’t help but wonder how Nina, felt as she left the open fields and hard, outdoors work of the farm with the familiar sounds of farm animals around them; to enter a mill with rooms probably bigger than she had ever seen; with the clacking, humming, whirring sounds of hundreds of machine parts and with hundreds of strangers working and talking.
She worked in this potentially dangerous milieu like the other kids her age, likely up to 66 hours a week.
Life Near the Mill
Her mother bought a house with the sale of the farm. Being very clever she rented at least one room to people which helped the family finances. But Nina and her two older sisters still had to work in the mill to help.
Mill work was often dangerous for young children due to the ease with which they could be distracted. Fortunately I know of no injuries to Nina as she worked.
Life must have been hard. Yet somehow Nina came through it all as a grown woman with a sunny attitude and a cackling laugh that told of her love of life.
Later her two older sisters married and moved out to their own homes. A large part of the financial responsibilities fell on Nina’s shoulders. But with two more rooms to rent and two less mouths to feed her mother was able to provide at least a somewhat better life for her young children.
Her Adult Life Begins
In her teens she first met the man she was to later marry. He and his wife visited her mother and family one evening. William Henry Youngblood was the choir director of their church. Later his wife died in childbirth and the baby boy, Edward was raised by his mother’s sister and aunt at his mother’s dying request.
Nina continued to work in the mill until at 19 she married “Bill” Youngblood, her widowed church choir director. In 1933 they moved to Greenville, SC. For twelve years Nina stayed home to raise my uncle and my mother. She was very active in her church as well.
After the children married
Bill was laid off and later suffered a concussion from an auto accident. His health declined from there and he sank into deep depression.
Nina went to work in a shirt sewing factory while he worked when he was able. Several years later Grandpapa Youngblood had a stroke that left him with frequent bouts of confusion.
Nina became the only breadwinner, since my mother and uncle had already married and had families.
It was very difficult for her to leave her husband not knowing if she would come home and find him dead or wandering around their tightly knit mill neighborhood. She carried a heavy load on her shoulders those days. He died in 1948 when she was 47 years old.
Widowhood And a New Life
During the next twelve years of working in the mill she was able to buy nice things for heself and her home.
She was a great friend of Miss Kate, the wife of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The two women loved their flowers, yards and white picket fences around their front yards.
Nina had peach trees and pecan trees growing practically in her back yard. She relished cooking country meals for her children’s families.
She finally got to travel with my family and with some friends at various times. Her life though full of hard work had many rewards for her labors.
Thanks to Stories of the American South, for the facts and photos about this period of our country.