Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Nora I. Oates

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Nora I. Oates was interviewed on June 23, 1939 by Mary Pearl Brown as a part of the Federal Writers Project. In her interview, no information is disclosed about when she was born or any details about her family life or childhood besides that she worked on a cotton mill. She recounted her life in the interview, saying she married at the early age of 15. She worked hard her whole life either in factories or later in life, as a tourist house manager, selling corsets to tourists who roomed in her home.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Nora I. Oates was a white woman born in North Carolina on Cotton Mill Hill. She began working as a doffer on the mill at the age of 10 and after about 4 years she worked in a weave room. During these years of working from 6am to 6:30pm, her starting pay was 25 cents a day and her end pay was 60 cents. Workers were often exploited in this way, working long days with little pay, especially children. At the age of 15, she married a young man named Clyde Montgomery. As she found out later, her husband had poor health and often couldn't work because of it. This was unusual during the late 19th and early 20th century because, "Women’s God-given role, it stated, was as wife and mother, keeper of the household.." [1]. Women employment did spike during The Great Depression (1929-1939) and the First Wave of Feminism (1850-1940) but the concept of women in the workforce was still new. She continued to work 12 hour days on Cotton Mill Hill, since her husband couldn't work, even after having a baby. Her baby passed away at 18 months old due to lack of care since she was always at work and they didn't have much money. Later, her and her husband moved to Riverton, North Carolina because her husband became a motorman. It was here she began selling corsets for Webweave Corsets as well as being a tourist house manager. Her husband eventually fell really ill, had to quit his job, and just a few months later passed away. Nora I. Oates remained a widow the rest of her life, only ever adopting another young girl. She worked hard her whole life and overcame many difficulties women faced in her society, especially during The Great Depression. Nora I. Oates concluded her interview by saying, "Anybody not in debt ain't worth nothing," [2] which embodies her strong persona.

Social Contexts[edit | edit source]

Life On a Cotton Mill[edit | edit source]

Cotton Mill Workers- Child Labor. The girl on the left is 10. The girl on the right is 12.

Child labor was very common during the 1930s because of the Great Depression. Families needed the extra income to support themselves so they'd send their children off to work in the mills at a very young age. According to Historian David Cecelski, “the state’s only child labor legislation was a 1903 statute that forbade children under twelve from working in mills," [3].Right after this, Cecelski says that this statute was rarely enforced because the state did not have the authority to inspect the mills and there were no consequences if this law was broken [4]. The photo on the right depicts three young girls who work on a cotton mill. The girl on the left is only ten years old and said she had worked on the cotton mill for over a year

More specifically about life on a Cotton Mill, many of the workers lived on the mill in “mill villages.” These villages not only included workers' homes but homes of supervisors, churches, schools, and the company store. The homes weren’t anything special, typically one story and lit by kerosene lamps [5]. Workers got their water from wells and heat from fireplaces so they didn’t have many utilities either. In fact, these mill villages were so close to the factories that the supervisors took advantage of this by keeping close tabs on the workers and invading their privacy [6]. Also, the schools at the mill weren’t great either because attendance wasn’t enforced and supervisors would often take kids out of class if they needed extra help at the mill [7]. This means that many children at this age weren’t very intelligent, many were often illiterate, and this is why so many families continued in poverty because they had to take small jobs in mills or on farms. A photographer named Lewis Hine captured many photos of children as young as seven working in cotton mills for twelve hours at a time [8]. These children barely knew how to read or write but were working adult shifts in mills which led to many chronic illnesses in so many young kids.

Child Labor- Night Shift. Children work from 6pm to 6am. Five of the girls work to support their "lazy" father who says he can't work.

Poverty in the south wasn't rare and Historian David Cecelski stated, “many families depended on young children’s mill wages,” [9]. These young children became the heads of their family because of the extra income. This statement highlights how impoverished families were due to the Great Depression that was happening during this time. The working class always struggled with poverty but The Great Depression made financial strains even worse leading children and women to begin working to provide income. For women, being "allowed" into the work force was a triumph but for children, working conditions were not only rough but actually illegal according to the child labor legislation from 1903 [10].

Effects of The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Poverty and debt was such a major part of Americans' lives during The Great Depression. Professor and author Anita Price Davis says, "No one lived through the 1930s without being affected by the Great Depression… Jobs decreased, and workloads increased even as salaries dropped. Droughts and floods ravaged the land. Disease and malnutrition escalated..." [11]. Everyone felt the effects of The Great Depression, men, women, and children from all social groups; some groups were more oppressed or struggled more during this time. Children were introduced more into the workforce under harsh conditions. Women were also introduced more into the workforce but this was seen as a victory because they had been advocating for it for some time. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 but the effects were felt long after and even shaped America today [12]. The depression began after the stock market crashed which caused a major panic. Over the next few years, the economy continued to decline as consumer spending dropped and employees were laid off. By 1933, 15 million employees were unemployed and the percentage of unemployment and homelessness had an exponential growth [13].

The Great Depression and Women[edit | edit source]

Despite the overall unemployment rate and poverty caused by the Great Depression, women actually experienced a great deal of triumph during this time. According to History, “There was one group of Americans who actually gained jobs during the Great Depression: Women. From 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in the United States rose 24 percent from 10.5 million to 13 million Though they’d been steadily entering the workforce for decades, the financial pressures of the Great Depression drove women to seek employment in ever greater numbers as male breadwinners lost their jobs. The 22 percent decline in marriage rates between 1929 and 1939 also created an increase in single women in search of employment,” [14]. Ambition and desire for more was felt by a lot of women during this time period. Women still faced a lot of opposition in the workforce despite the increase in employment. Many women succumbed to domestic jobs like sewing or nursing that paid less than jobs men worked [15]. Nonetheless, the Great Depression allowed for positive change, a victory for women which is one good effect that came from The Great Depression.

The Great Depression and Working Class[edit | edit source]

The working class has also included "average" people that have to endure hard labor for little wages. They often got exploited by the wealthy and succumbed to rough conditions. When The Great Depression hit, all of this became more severe. The working class was exploited even more so than before and despite this, workers quit their jobs 1/3 as often than in 1929 [16]. Workers feared that if they quit their job they'd remain in unemployment and not find another job. The upper class took advantage of the working classes' poverty by making them work long days but only getting paid minimum wage- that actually became standard wage in America during this time [17]. This money was enough to pay for food and other basic necessities, nothing more. All of the strain from the Great Depression led to two significant effects on the working class. First, the working class had the highest rate of "delinquency and adult crime" which in turn made it more difficult for these people to find jobs [18]. Second, more working class families were falling apart during the depression under the financial strain it caused. Divorce rates went up and children actually ran away from home due to the chaos of their households [19]. If not this extreme, many families came out of the depression with hard feelings against their parents, children, or siblings. The social hierarchy in America during the Great Depression allowed the upper class to become wealthier and the lower class to become poorer.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Hartman , Dorothy W. “Lives of Women.” Conner Prairie, 2019. https://www.connerprairie.org/educate/indiana-history/lives-of-women/.
  2. Brown , Mary Pearl. “Folder 301: Brown, Mary Pearl (Interviewer): Anybody Not in Debt Ain't Worth Nothing.” Federal Writers Project Papers. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library , June 23, 1939. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/740/rec/1.
  3. “Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."
  4. “Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."
  5. “Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. “Southern Cotton Mills.” Old West Durham. Accessed October 7, 2020. https://www.oldwestdurham.org/history/southern-cotton-mills.html.”
  6. “Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. “Southern Cotton Mills.” Old West Durham. Accessed October 7, 2020. https://www.oldwestdurham.org/history/southern-cotton-mills.html.”
  7. “Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. “Southern Cotton Mills.” Old West Durham. Accessed October 7, 2020. https://www.oldwestdurham.org/history/southern-cotton-mills.html.”
  8. “Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."
  9. “Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."
  10. “Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."
  11. Davis, Anita Price. North Carolina During the Great Depression: A Documentary Portrait of a Decade. McFarland & Company, 2003
  12. “History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.”
  13. “History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.”
  14. “History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.”
  15. “Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.”
  16. “Working Class.” The Great Depression. Weebly . Accessed October 20, 2020. https://greatdepressionrights.weebly.com/working-class.html.
  17. “Working Class.” The Great Depression. Weebly . Accessed October 20, 2020. https://greatdepressionrights.weebly.com/working-class.html.
  18. “Working Class.” The Great Depression. Weebly . Accessed October 20, 2020. https://greatdepressionrights.weebly.com/working-class.html.
  19. “Working Class.” The Great Depression. Weebly . Accessed October 20, 2020. https://greatdepressionrights.weebly.com/working-class.html.

References[edit | edit source]

"Brown , Mary Pearl. “Folder 301: Brown, Mary Pearl (Interviewer): Anybody Not in Debt Ain't Worth Nothing.” Federal Writers Project Papers. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library , June 23, 1939. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/740/rec/1."

“Cecelski, / David. “On Cotton Mill Hill.” David Cecelski, May 14, 2019. https://davidcecelski.com/2019/05/14/on-cotton-mill-hill/."

“Davis, Anita Price. North Carolina During the Great Depression: A Documentary Portrait of a Decade. McFarland & Company, 2003.”

"Hartman , Dorothy W. “Lives of Women.” Conner Prairie, 2019. https://www.connerprairie.org/educate/indiana-history/lives-of-women/."

“History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.”

“Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. “Southern Cotton Mills.” Old West Durham. Accessed October 7, 2020. https://www.oldwestdurham.org/history/southern-cotton-mills.html.”

“Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.”

“Working Class.” The Great Depression. Weebly . Accessed October 20, 2020. https://greatdepressionrights.weebly.com/working-class.html.