When the railroad workers' strike ended I went down to Cottondale (Alabame) to get a job in the cotton mills. I wanted to see for myself if the gruesome stories of little children working in the mills were true.
I applied for a job but the manager told me he had nothing for me unless I had a family that would work also. I told the manager I was going to move my family to Cottondale but I had come on ahead to see what chances there were for getting work.
"Have you children?"
"Yes, there are six of us."
"Fine," he said. He was so enthusiastic that he went with me to find a house to rent.
"Here's a house that will do plenty," said he. The house he brought me to was a sort of two-story plank, shanty. The windows were broken and the door sagged open. Its latch was broken. It had one room downstairs and an unfinished loft upstairs. Through the cracks in the roof the rain had come in and rotted the flooring. Downstairs there was a big old open fireplace in front of which were holes big enough to drop a brick through.
The manager was delighted with the house.
* * *
I took the house, promising to send for my family by the end of the month when they could get things wound up on the farm. I was given work in the factory, and there I saw the children, little children working, the most heartrending* spectacle in all life. Sometimes it seemed to me I could not look at those silent little figures; that I must go north, to the grim coal fields, to the Rocky Mountain camps, where the labor fight is at least fought by grown men.
Little girls and boys, barefooted, walked up and down between the endless rows of spindles, reaching thin little hands into the machinery to repair snapped threads. They crawled under machinery to oil it. They replaced spindles all day long, all day long; night through, night through. Tiny babies of six years old with faces of sixty did an eight-hour shift for ten cents a day. If they fell asleep, cold water was dashed in their faces, and the voice of the manager yelled above the ceaseless racket and whir of the machines.
* * *
At five-thirty in the morning, long lines of little grey children came out of the early dawn into the factory, into the maddening noise, into the lint filled rooms. Outside the birds sang and the blue sky shone. At the lunch half-hour, the children would fall to sleep over their lunch of cornbread and fat pork. They would lie on the bare floor and sleep. Sleep was their recreation, their release, as play is to the free child....
* * *
Buy they had Sundays, for the mill owners, and the mill folks themselves were pious. To Sunday School went the babies of the mills, there to hear how God had inspired the mill owner to come down and build the mill, so as to give His little ones work that they might develop into industrious, patriotic citizens and earn money to give to the missionaries to convert the poor unfortunate heathen Chinese.
My "six children" not arriving, the manager got suspicious of me so I left Cottondale and went to Tuscaloosa where I got work in a rope factory. This factory was run also by child labor. Here, too, were the children running up and down between spindles. The lint was heavy in the room. The machinery needed constant cleaning. The tiny, slender bodies of the little children crawled in and about under dangerous machinery, oiling and cleaning. Often their hands were crushed. A finger was snapped off.
* * *
In the morning I went off shift with the little children. They stumbled out of the heated atmosphere of the mill, shaking with cold as they came outside. They passed on their way home the long grey line of little children with their dinner pails coming in for the day's shift.
They die of pneumonia, these little ones, of bronchitis and consumption. But the birth rate like the dividends is large and another little hand is ready to tie the snapped threads when a child worker dies.
I went from Tuscaloosa to Selma, Alabama, and got a job in a mill. I boarded with a woman who had a dear little girl of eleven years working in the same mill with me.
On Sunday a group of mill children were going out to the woods. They came for Maggie. She was still sleeping and her mother went to the tiny bedroom to call her.
"Get up, Maggie, the children are here for you to go to the woods."
"Oh, mother," she said, "just let me sleep; that's lots more fun. I'm so tired. I just want to sleep forever."
So her mother let her sleep.
The next day she went as usual to the mill. That evening at four o'clock they brought her home and laid her tiny body on the kitchen table. She was asleep-forever. Her hair had caught in the machinery and torn her scalp off.
At night after the day shift came off work, they came to look at their little companion. A solemn line of little folds with old, old faces, with thin round shoulders,passed before the corpse, crying. They were just little children but death to them was a familiar figure.
"Oh, Maggie," they said, "We wish you'd come back. We're so sorry you got hurter!"
I did not join them in their wish. Maggie was so tired and she just wanted to sleep forever.
I did not stay long in one place. As soon as one showed interest in or sympathy for the children, she was suspected, and laid off. Then, too, the jobs went to grown-ups that could bring children. I left Alabama for South Carolina, working in many mills.
In one mill, I got a day-sfit job. On my way to work I met a woman coming home from night work. She had a tiny bundle of a baby in her arms.
"How old is the baby?'
"Three days. I just went back this morning. The boss was good and saved my place."
"When did you leave?"
"The boss was good; he let me off early the night the baby was born."
"What do you do with the baby while you work?"
"Oh, the boss is good and he lets me have a little box with a pillow in it beside the loom. The baby sleeps there and when it cries, I nurse it."
So this baby, like hundreds of others, listened to the whiz and whir of machinery before it came into the world. From its first weeks, it heard the incessant racket raining down upon its ears, like iron rain. It crawled upon the linty floor. It toddled between forests of spindles. In a few brief years it took its place in the line. It renounced childhood and childish things and became a man of six, a wage earner, a snuff sniffer, a personage upon whose young-old shoulders fortunes were built.
And who is responsible for this appalling child slavery? Everyone. Alabama passed a child labor law, endeavoring to some extent to protect its children. And Northern capitalists from Massachusetts and Rhode Island defeated the law. Whenever a Southern state attempts reform, the mill owners, who are for he most part Northerners, threaten to close the mills. They reach legislatures, they send lobbies to work against child labor reform, and money, Northern money for the most part, secures the nullification of reform laws through control of the courts.
The child labor reports of the period in which I made this rudy put the number of children under fourteen years of age working in mills as sully 25 per cent of the workers; working of a pittance, for eight, nine, ten hours a day, a night. And mill owners declared dividends ranging from 50 per cent to 90.
* * *
From the South, burdened with the terrible things had seen, I came to New York and held several meetings to make known conditions as I had found them. I med the opposition of the press and of capital. For a long time after my Southern experience, I could scarcely ear. Not alone my clothes, but my food, too, at times seemed bought with the price of the toil of children.
Anyway, during those months, I came into intimate contact with the miners and their families. I went through every mine from Pittsburgh to Brownsville Mining at its best is wretched work, and the life and surroundings of the miner are hard and ugly. His work is down in the black depths of the earth. He works alone in a drift. There can be little friendly companionship as there is in the factory; as there is among men who built bridges and houses, working together in groups. The work is dirty. Coal dust grinds itself into the skin, never to be removed. The miner must stoop as he works in the drift. He becomes bent like a gnome.
His work is utterly fatiguing. Muscles and bones ache. His lungs breathe coal dust and the strange, damp air of places that are never filled with sunlight. His house is a poor makeshift and there is little to encourage him to make it attractive. The company owns the ground it stands on, and the miner feels the precariousness of his hold. Around his house is mud and slush. Great mounds of culm, black and sullen, surround him. His children are perpetually grimy from play on the clam mounds. The wife struggles with dirt, with inadequate water supply, with small wages, with overcrowded shacks.
The miner's wife, who in the majority of cases, worked from childhood in the near-by silk mills, is overburdened with child bearing. She ages young. She knows much illness. Many a time I have been in a home where the poor wife was sick in bed, the children crawling over her, quarreling and playing in the room, often the only warm room in the house.
* * *
I got to know the life of the breaker boys. The coal was hoisted to a cupola where it was ground. It then came rattling down in chutes, beside which, ladder-wise, sat little breaker lys whose job it was to pick out the slate from the coal a the black rivers flowed by. Ladders and ladders of little boys sat in the gloom of the breakers, the dust from the coal swirling continuously up in their faces. To see the slate they must bend over their task. Their shoulders were round. Their chests narrow.
A breaker boss watched the boys. He had a long stick to strike the knuckles of any lad seen neglecting his work. The fingers of the little boys bled, bled on to the coal. Their nails were cut to the quick.
A labor certificate was easy to get. All one had to do was to swear to a notary for twenty-five nets that the child was the required age.
The breaker boys were not Little Lord Fauntleroys. Small chaps smoked and chewed and swore. They did men's work and they had men's ways, men's vices and men's pleasures. They fought and spit tobacco and told stories out on the culm piles on a Sunday. They joined the breaker boys' union and beat scabs. They refused to let their little brothers and sisters go to school if the children of scabs went.
In many mines I met the trapper boys. Little chaps who open the door for the mule when it comes in for the coal and who close the door after the mule has gone out. Runners and helpers about the about the mine.....
I met a little trapper boy one day. He was so small that h is dinner bucket dragged on the ground.
"How old are you, lad?" I asked him.
"...I'm ten come Christmas."
"Why don't you go to school?"
"Gee," he said---though it was really something stronger---"I ain't lost no leg!" He looked proudly at his little legs.
I knew what he meant: that lads went to school when they were incapacitated by accidents.
* * *
Through the ceaseless efforts of the unions, through continual agitation, we have done away with most outstanding evils of child labor in the mill. Pennsylvania has passed better and better laws. More and more children are going to school. Better schools have come to the mining districts. We have yet a long way to go. Fourteen years of age is still too young to begin in the life of the breaker boy. There is still too little joy and beauty in the miner's life, but one who like myself has watched the long, long struggle knows that the end is not yet.
2. Why do the children make "good" employees for the mill?