Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/Joseph A. Michaels

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Joseph A. Michaels
Burke County, North Carolina
Burlington, North Carolina
OccupationCotton Mill Worker, Gold Miner, Tenant Farmer
SpouseLaura J. Michaels

Overview[edit | edit source]

Joseph A. Michaels grew up as a child laborer in the gold mines of North Carolina. For most of his life he worked in cotton mills and he occasionally farmed as a tenant farmer for short periods of time. He had twelve children total, ten of them surviving into adulthood. His children often worked with their father in the mills or on the farm as child laborers as well.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Joseph A. Michaels was born in Burke County, North Carolina, in 1868. At the young age of nine, Michaels began working in the gold mines close to home until he was eighteen. In 1887, Michaels quit at the gold mines and moved with his father to Glendale, South Carolina. There, he helped build a cotton mill (Abner 1938).

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

After the mill was built in Glendale, Michaels moved to Clifton, South Carolina where he helped build another mill. After the completion of this mill, Michaels was offered a job there where he learned to weave. He worked two weeks for free, then he was paid only twenty-five cents a day until he got a set of looms. Still, he made only forty-five cents a day and eventually quit (Abner 1938). He moved back to Burke county, North Carolina and worked on the gold mines again. Michaels got married in 1895 and moved to Converse, South Carolina to work in the cotton mills again. There, he had his first child George in 1896. Michaels earned seldom more than seventy cents a day and often less. He also had to work twelve hours a day. The prices for groceries were also high at the company stores where the mill hands had to shop. Michaels witnessed many mill workers go into debt and then get taken advantage of by the mill. Michaels only had a wife and baby to support at the time so he promised himself he would not fall into debt. To help pay his debt to the mill, Michaels varied his work with farming. In 1898 he moved to Spartanburg County, South Carolina to raise cotton. He had his son Dewey there. Michaels continued to move around, working mostly at cotton mills and occasionally farming for a season (Abner 1938). In 1908, Michaels moved to Belmont, North Carolina. His ten-year-old Dewey and his twelve-year-old George had to work in the mill with Michaels to support their family of 8. Michaels made one dollar a day while his boys made twenty-five cents a day. Michaels moved around multiple more times all over South Carolina, he built mills, worked in mills and farmed. His children helped when they became old enough. His daughter Della died of an internal hemorrhage in Converse, South Carolina. The war started soon after and led to rising wages. That was only temporary, later the wages were cut in half. Michaels tried farming here and there but the price per pound of cotton was falling fast in the 1920’s so he continued working in mills. During the depression, Michaels and his boys worked wherever they could find a job. In 1930, Michaels moved to Belmont, North Carolina. Two years later he lost his wife. In 1933, he moved to Burlington, North Carolina. After the passing of the Social Security Act, Michaels could no longer find a job (Abner 1938). He was forced to live off of his sons’ wages because Social Security didn’t pay enough. Michaels died in Burlington in 1952.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Child Labor[edit | edit source]

Child labor in the United States was an extremely common practice. The 1870 census found that 1 out of every 8 children were employed and by 1900 that number had increased to 1 in 5 (Schuman 2017). “Between 1890 and 1910, no less than 18 percent of all children ages 10‒15 worked” (Schuman 2017). One reason for the high prevalence of child labor is the arrival of a newborn to a rural family was seen as a future beneficial laborer and an insurance policy for the parents (Schuman 2017). Parents at the time were simply not paid enough to afford raising a child without some offset of the costs from the labor of the child (Schuman 2017). Do not be mistaken, however, “families were not forced to send their children to work; they chose to do so only when the benefits of working (wages received) outweighed the costs of working (forgone schooling, household, and leisure opportunities)” (Holleran 1997). If a family did decide to send their child to work then the determining factor was not their age, but their physical size. They needed to be big enough to successfully accomplish their jobs. Children of wealthy upper-class parents did not work as much as children of lower income families (Schuman 2017).

Child Labor in Cotton Mills[edit | edit source]

Girls at Weaving Machines, Evansville, IN October 1908 National Archives and Records Administration Records of the Department of Commerce and Labor, Children's Bureau Record Group 102

In 1900, there was nearly 100,000 textile workers in the south, 25,000 of which were children under the age of 16. Overall employment of children increased to 50,000 in 1904. 20,000 of the children were under the age of 12 (Schuman 2017). Statistics from the 1900 census indicate that North Carolina mills employed more children between the ages of 10 and 15 than any other mills in the United States (Reimer and Willard 2006). The statistics of North Carolina followed the trends, by 1899, children under the age of sixteen made up one fourth of all cotton mill workers (Holleran 1997). A North Carolina statute passed in 1903 and sanctioned by mill owners stated no child under 12 could work in a mill, and no one under 18 could work more than 66 hours a week, however, no provision for enforcing the law was made (Reimer and Willard 2006). The North Carolina Child Labor Committee , founded in 1906, helped to raise awareness for young textile and factory workers. They ultimately succeeded in getting rid of child labor in 1938 with the passage of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (Reimer and Willard 2006).

Life in Mills and their Towns[edit | edit source]

Large-scale expansion of textile mills began in the 1880’s because people were losing their land in the mountains and on farms because they could not pay taxes and were in debt (Judkins and Lodge 1986). Steady wages, the company store, and mill houses were strong attractions for moving to mill towns (Judkins and Lodge 1986). Taking a job at a cotton mill was no easy task, it meant long hours and poor conditions. A typical day lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with one hour off for lunch (Working in the Factory 2015). The wages were steady, but low. This meant that mill workers often left to do seasonal jobs such as farming of some kind (Working in the Factory 2015). To avoid raising wages, mill managers provided company housing, assuming that workers who lived in buildings owned by the factory could be more easily controlled (Working in the Factory 2015). The mill owner provided shelter, jobs, medical care, and schooling, and maintained authority over the private lives of his employees (Judkins and Lodge 1986). Mill owners required that at least two, sometimes three, members of a family work in the mill before the company would rent a mill house to that family. This was a cause for lots of child labor in the mills (Judkins and Lodge 1986). From the 1880s well into the twentieth century children as young as eight and nine years of age would work at least part-time in the factories. Full-time work began around the start of the teenage years (Judkins and Lodge 1986). All of the shopping in a mill town was done at the company store. Part of your pay as a mill worker was a coupon book that could be used at the store. This helped the mill owner ensure that money was being spent only at his store (Judkins and Lodge 1986). Mills helped to bring people out of poverty, but mill towns also had their ways of controlling their workers.

References[edit | edit source]