Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Joseph Michaels

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Joseph Asbury Michaels
Born Joseph A. Michaels
February 18, 1868
Burke County, NC
Died 1952
Alamance County, NC
Nationality American
Occupation Cotton Mill Worker/Farmer

Overview[edit]

Joseph A. Michaels was a worker in the cotton mill industry, a gold miner, and a farmer in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.

Early Life[edit]

Joseph Asbury Michaels, born in Burke, NC on February 18, 1868, was the son of John Marshall Michaels and Ellen Mariah Pope.[1] As a child, Michaels first began work in the gold mines of Burke County.[2] He and his father worked in these mines for nine years. When he was 18 they moved to Glendale, South Carolina to help build a cotton mill. In 1887, Michaels worked at his first cotton mill. Once he and his father finished their jobs in Glendale, they moved to Clifton, South Carolina and worked there until Michaels decided that the wages were too low and the work was too hard. He then moved to North Carolina and started mining gold for a couple of years.


Work and Adult Life[edit]

At the age of 27, Michaels married Laura Quitman Warlick.[3] In 1896, the two had the first of 12 children. While raising his children, Michaels moved back and forth from North Carolina to South Carolina a total of four times.[4] In his working experiences, Michaels had to endure multiple situations that would hinder his economic stability, including low wages, long working hours, and the erratic locations of successful cotton mills. Furthermore, difficult working conditions on the fields and in the mills of North and South Carolina endangered the long-term health of him and his family. Michaels struggled to find work due to the implementation of the Social Security Law in 1936 up until his death in 1952. Michaels died in Alamance County, NC due to an unknown cause of gastrointestinal hemorrhage accompanied by acute pyelitis.[5]

Social Issues[edit]

Wages[edit]

Throughout the late 19th century and up until after WWII, the average textile worker in the cotton industry was unable to provide for his family. Southern textile wages and incomes “precluded the erection of decent standards of living upon them.”[6] In 1910, male cotton workers were paid at a rate of 12 cents/hour.[7] This is the equivalent of $3.02 in September of 2017.[8] Wage disparity was not present between the tetile and farming industries because the end product was similar in value. These industries were two of the three largest in the south in the early 1900s.[9] Employers paid their workers low amounts because products like cotton required labor that was “cheap,” “standardized”, and featured “low skill commodities, which added relatively little value” to the raw material produced.[10] The main consequence of low pay in the farming and textile fields was that many families were forced to send their children to work at young ages.[11] In 1909, North Carolina featured 18.9% of their cotton mill workforce at or under the age of 16.[12] Children under the age of 16 had a combined earning that totaled 32.5% of the total family income.[13] While families were required to implement their children into the work force, earnings were still not enough to equal total expenses. This required families to work overtime hours.


Working Hours & Conditions[edit]

Working conditions throughout cotton fields and cotton mills in the late 1800s into the early 1900s were poor due to the working hours, the unsafe machinery, and pollution inhalation and its health effects. Harvesting cotton required much human labor and was inefficient. Inefficiencies arose because a worker had to do four consuming tasks by hand: “1) pick bolls free of dirt, 2) moisten spindles as lightly as possible, 3) pick during the most favorable weather conditions, and 4) plant his crop with mechanical harvesting in mind.”[14]

As a result, farmers would be in the fields for 10-12 hours a day.[15] Cotton fields were only workable during the growing and harvesting seasons, which spanned from mid-April to late November.[16] To avoid debt, laborers were required to find work elsewhere in the winter.[17] This work was available in cotton mills during the months of December-April due to the cotton growing season.[18] Machinery made cotton mills more efficient than the farm. Hours worked per week decreased from around 70 on the farm to 60 in the factory.[19] In addition, the rate of work in mills increased. On a farm in North Carolina, harvesters were able to take breaks during the day dependent on weather and because work done by hand is slow.[20] In a mill, owners implemented efficiency systems that nearly doubled the number of machines manned by one employee, forbidding time for breaks.[21] The most common machine found in a cotton mill is known as a spinning frame and is an open mechanism that moves rapidly. While working this device, “fingers, limbs, or clothing became entangled in the rapidly moving machinery.”[22] Recovery from injuries suffered was not aided by mill owners because there was no insurance or worker’s compensation.[23] In addition to injuries from unsafe machinery, mill workers were also overexposed to cotton dust, the main pollutant found in cotton factories.[24] Acute exposure to cotton dust is known to cause bronchitis and acute byssinosis.[25] Chronic exposure is known to cause lung airway obstruction and has led to disability and premature death.[26] Concentrations of this pollutant were high due to the poor ventilation system used by factories throughout the south during the early to mid 1900s.[27]


Notes[edit]

  1. United States. Bureau of Census. 1870 United States Federal Census for Joseph A Michaels. Burke, NC: 1870. Oct. 11, 2017. https://www.ancestryinstitution.com/interactive/7163/4277202_00171/34292644?backurl=https://www.ancestryinstitution.com/family-tree/person/tree/24863665/person/26426043338/facts/citation/122798616276/edit/record
  2. Interview, John H. Abner to Joseph A. Michaels, November 15, 1938, box 1, folder 281, Coll. 03709, Federal Writer’s Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.
  3. United States. Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1901-1976 for Joseph A. Michaels. Alamance, NC: 1952. Oct. 11, 2017. https://www.ancestryinstitution.com/interactive/1121/S123_374-0822/726682?backurl=https://www.ancestryinstitution.com/family-tree/person/tree/24863665/person/26426043338/facts/citation/122764606547/edit/record
  4. Interview, John H. Abner to Joseph A. Michaels, November 15, 1938, box 1, folder 281, Coll. 03709, Federal Writer’s Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.
  5. United States. Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1901-1976 for Joseph A. Michaels. Alamance, NC: 1952. Oct. 11, 2017
  6. Douty, H. M. "Wage Rates and Hours of Labor in North Carolina Industry." Southern Economic Journal 3, no. 2 (1936): 175-88. doi:10.2307/1052988.
  7. Douty, H. M. "Wage Rates and Hours of Labor in North Carolina Industry." Southern Economic Journal 3, no. 2 (1936): 175-88. doi:10.2307/1052988
  8. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=0.10&year1=191301&year2=201709
  9. 1. Wright, Gavin. "The Economic Revolution in the American South." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 1, no. 1 (1987): 161-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1942954.
  10. 1. Wright, Gavin. "The Economic Revolution in the American South." The Journal of Economic Perspectives 1, no. 1 (1987): 161-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1942954.
  11. Holleran, Philip M. "Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills." Social Science History 21, no. 3 (1997): 297-320. doi:10.2307/1171617
  12. Holleran, Philip M. "Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills." Social Science History 21, no. 3 (1997): 297-320. doi:10.2307/1171617
  13. Holleran, Philip M. "Family Income and Child Labor in Carolina Cotton Mills." Social Science History 21, no. 3 (1997): 297-320. doi:10.2307/1171617
  14. "Picking by Machine Cheaper than Hand Labor." The Science News-Letter 59, no. 1 (1951): 14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3928839.
  15. Leloudis, James, and Walbert, Kathryn. "3.1 Work in a Textile Mill." Work in a textile mill - North Carolina Digital History. Accessed October 12, 2017. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newsouth/5493#note1
  16. United States. Department of Agriculture. Usual planting and harvesting dates for U.S. field crops. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1997. 8.
  17. Interview, John H. Abner to Joseph A. Michaels, November 15, 1938, box 1, folder 281, Coll. 03709, Federal Writer’s Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina
  18. United States. Department of Agriculture. Usual Planting and Harvesting Dates for U.S. Field Crops. 1997. 8.
  19. Douty, H. M. "Wage Rates and Hours of Labor in North Carolina Industry." Southern Economic Journal 3, no. 2 (1936): 175-88. doi:10.2307/1052988. 2. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=0.10&year1=191301&year2=201709
  20. Leloudis, James, and Walbert, Kathryn. "3.1 Work in a Textile Mill." Work in a textile mill - North Carolina Digital History. Accessed October 12, 2017. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newsouth/5493#note1
  21. Larkin, Margaret. "Tragedy in North Carolina." The North American Review 228, no. 6 (1929): 686-90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25110898.
  22. Leloudis, James., Walbert, Kathryn. "3.1 Work in a Textile Mill." Work in a Textile Mill - North Carolina Digital History. Accessed October 12, 2017
  23. Leloudis, James., Walbert, Kathryn. "3.1 Work in a Textile Mill." Work in a Textile Mill - North Carolina Digital History. Accessed October 12, 2017
  24. Rylander, R., RSF. Schilling, GB. Rooke, and R. R. Jacobs. "Editorial: Effects after Acute and Chronic Exposure to Cotton Dust: The Manchester Criteria." British Journal of Industrial Medicine 44, no. 9 (1987): 577-79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27726450
  25. United States, Center for Disease Control Occupational Health and Safety Guideline for Cotton Dust. 1988. 2.
  26. United States, Center for Disease Control Occupational Health and Safety Guideline for Cotton Dust. 1988. 2.
  27. Interview, John H. Abner to Joseph A. Michaels, November 15, 1938, box 1, folder 281, Coll. 03709, Federal Writer’s Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.