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


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, is the son of John Marshall Michaels and Ellen Mariah Pope. As a child, Michaels first began his life of work in the gold mines of Burke County. He and his father worked in these mines for nine years. They moved to Glendale, South Carolina when he was 18 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 he decided that the wages were too low and the work was too hard. He 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. 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. In his working experiences, Michaels had to endure multiple situations that would hinder his economic stability, including low wages in addition to long working hours as well as the erratic locations of successful cotton mills. Furthermore, tough working conditions in the cotton mills and on the fields of North Carolina and South Carolina endangered the long-term health of him and his family. In old age, Michaels was unemployed from the year of implementation of the Social Security Law (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.

Social Issues[edit]

Wages & Working Hours[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 wages and incomes were 1/3 less than in other sections of the country. In 1910, male cotton workers were paid at a rate of 10 cents/hour. Employers were able to pay their workers low amount due to the inefficiencies in the production of cotton. Inefficiencies arose because a worker had to do 4 time consuming tasks by hand: “1) pick drums 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”. Mechanical harvesting, i.e., a spindle, was not even produced for mass distribution until 1948. Even after implementation of cotton picker machinery, mill managers were still able to pay cotton employees cheaply because the work was still 65% hand labor. There are two main consequences of low pay. The first is that many families had to send their children to work to be able to maintain a lifestyle. In 1909, North Carolina featured 18.9% of their cotton mill workforce at or under the age of 16. Children under the age of 16 had a combined earning that totaled 32.5% of the total family income. While families were required to implement their children into the work force, earnings were still not enough to total expenses. As a result, textile workers in the early 1900s had to work 55+ hours a week.

Cotton Working Conditions[edit]