Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Joseph Michaels

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Joseph Michaels
Born1868
Burke County, North Carolina
DiedUnknown
OccupationCotton Mill Worker, Farmer
SpouseUnknown

Overview[edit | edit source]

Joseph Michaels was a white, cotton mill farmer born in Burke County, North Carolina in 1868. He worked in various cotton mills on-and-off for fifty years and farmed. Michaels was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project by John H. Abner on November 15, 1938.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Joseph Michaels was born in Burke County, North Carolina in 1868.[1] Michaels had to begin working at the young age of nine to support his family. He worked to crush rocks with his hands in search of gold. When Michaels was eighteen, he went to South Carolina with his father to help build a cotton mill. There, he got a job at the mill he helped build but left shortly after in search of higher wages back in North Carolina.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

In 1895, Michaels married his wife and moved back to South Carolina to a new cotton mill. Michaels worked at a mill in a company town which are known for getting workers into debt and using them for cheap labor. Michaels worked hard as he was determined to stay out of debt to the cotton mills so he could support his wife and twelve children (two passed away). He mixed his work on the cotton mill with farming in order to provide enough for his family. Michaels’ sons George and Dewey begin to work in the mills at the ages of twelve and ten respectively. His children only got paid twenty-five cents a day, and the family as a whole had a weekly income of roughly nine dollars.  He continued to move back and forth between North and South Carolina based on the pay of the different cotton mills. After the death of his daughter Della in 1915, Michaels and his family moved to a farm. During World War I, they moved back to the mills as wages were raised from the war. When the Great Depression hit, the textile industry suffered and Michaels and his sons worked whatever jobs they could find. Michaels’ wife died in 1932 in Belmont, North Carolina. He moved to Burlington in 1933 where he worked until the age of sixty-eight until he was forced to stop working due to his age.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Mill Working Conditions[edit | edit source]

The Maginnis Cotton Mills in 1895 in New Orleans. This image shows the layout of cotton mills in the 1890s.[2]


During the late 1800s and early 1900s, life for the cotton mill employees was very demanding. Working in the mills during this time period before the New Deal was miserable and many employees worked there only because there was nowhere else to work. The working conditions were abysmal and the pay was next to nothing. Factory work had serious health hazards and workers were “Constantly breathing in cotton dust contributed to lung problems such as byssinosis, or as it was more commonly known, "brown lung.” [3] Another common health problem from working in the cotton mills was mule-spinners’ cancer. [4] The loud noises throughout the mills caused by machines also commonly lead to hearing damage to many mill workers. [5] Working conditions were not only difficult, they were often unfair for employees. Despite extremely low pay, workers often worked twelve-hour shifts, six days of the week. [6] Additionally, the mills working conditions were unfair due to wage discrimination. Even by doing identical work, white male workers were paid the best, while white women and African American males were paid less. Combining the wage discrimination with already low wages, African Americans in the mills struggled to make a living for their families.

Child Labor[edit | edit source]

A young spinner working in the mills in South Carolina.[7]


Children who worked in the mills were paid the worst out of all groups in the mills. [8]  Child labor was extremely common in factories and most prominent in cotton mills. [9] It was reported in 1906, “there are several hundred thousand children of the South reported in the census as being engaged in “gainful occupations””. [10] More specifically, the average for children under sixteen employed in Southern mills, as given by the census of 1900, was 25 per cent”. [11] Child labor was justified by many poor families as they needed the extra income to stay afloat. [12] Mill owners attempted to rationalize child labor with similar reasoning, implying that they were working to support their families. Most children did receive schooling by the mills but it was incomplete as at roughly age twelve, they were required to begin work in the cotton mills. [13] As children aged they would transition into mill work full-time.

Company Towns[edit | edit source]

One of the major issues with cotton mills was they used company towns to control their workers. Company towns forced the workers to live in houses owned by the mills and to shop at stores owned by the mills. Using this tactic, the mills were essentially getting free labor as the money they gave out in wages was being paid back to them through housing, grocery stores, and other shops. Workers struggled to leave as they got sucked into debt to the mills, thus binding them to the mill until they could pay off the debt. Paying off a little debt may not seem like a major issue; however, the wages were so low, any amount of debt was nearly impossible to pay off. Workers also stayed in company towns as they establish a distinction against those outside the company town. [14] Company towns also ensured there was a lack of transportation around the town preventing workers from leaving in search of other jobs. [15] In some situations company towns would even build “fenced-in or guarded areas, with the excuse that they were “protecting” laborers from unscrupulous traveling salesmen”. [16]  The usage of company towns in cotton mills were major issues during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Company towns would eventually decline in the 1920s and 1930s due to increased transportation methods and the New Deal policies.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Michaels, "Three Bibles" 1938
  2. Maginnis Cotton Millls building via New Orleans, the Crescent City, as it Appears in the Year 1895 By Young Men's Business League (New Orleans, La.), page 45, online copy at "Canal+Bank"+Poydras+Camp&source=bl&ots=zha6WJ4q7r&sig=ACfU3U0017YZAtxzWcUq1QI9eUo_qFx8jQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwimo97EuIjjAhVEV80KHTz8BvsQ6AEwB3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=Whitney%20Bank&f=false
  3. Walbert and Leloudis "Work in a Textile Mill", 2018
  4. Greenlees "Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, C.1880s–1940s*.” 2016, 461
  5. Greenlees "Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, C.1880s–1940s*.” 2016, 463
  6. Walbert and Leloudis "Work in a Textile Mill", 2018
  7. Lewis W. Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, Dec. 3, 08. Witness Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina
  8. Walbert and Leloudis "Work in a Textile Mill", 2018
  9. Schuman, “History of Child Labor in the United States-Part 1: Little Children Working: Monthly Labor Review.” 2017
  10. McKelway, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 1906, 262
  11. McKelway, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 1906, 266
  12. Perera, “Science as an Early Driver of Policy: Child Labor Reform in the Early Progressive Era, 1870-1900.” 2014
  13. Schuman, “History of Child Labor in the United States-Part 1: Little Children Working: Monthly Labor Review.” 2017
  14. Moonesirust, “Company towns and the governmentality of desired identities” 2019, 4
  15. PBS, “Company Towns.” 2020
  16. PBS, “Company Towns.” 2020

References[edit | edit source]

Greenlees, Janet. “Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, C.1880s–1940s*.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, December 5, 2016: pp. 459-485. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-review-of-social-history/article/workplace-health-and-gender-among-cotton-workers-in-america-and-britain-c1880s1940s/83203AFE8FF2C75E13491D2DD6887434/core-reader.

McKelway, A.J. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 27, Child Labor. March 1906, pp. 1-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1010783?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Michaels, Joseph A., “Three Bibles.” Interview by Abner, John, December 2, 1938, Folder 281 Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Moonesirust, Elham and Brown, Andrew. “Company towns and the governmentality of desired identities” SAGE. Human Relation 00(0) (2019): 1-25. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://journals-sagepub-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0018726719887220

PBS. “Company Towns.” Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/company-towns/.

Perera, Frederica. “Science as an Early Driver of Policy: Child Labor Reform in the Early Progressive Era, 1870-1900.” US National Library of Medicine. American Public Health Association, October 2014; 104(10). Accessed October 12, 2020 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4167103/.

Walbert, Kathryn, and Leloudis, James. “Work in a Textile Mill.” NCpedia. ANCHOR. 2018. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/work-textile-mill

Schuman, Michael. “History of Child Labor in the United States-Part 1: Little Children Working: Monthly Labor Review.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 1, 2017. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/history-of-child-labor-in-the-united-states-part-1.htm.