High Point Museum exhibit exposes child labor practices
A photography exhibit opening this week at the High Point Museum casts a harsh spotlight on child-labor practices in North Carolina, including High Point.
Child labor in High Point?
Well, yes. A century ago, when child labor was quite common in North Carolina’s textile mills, several mills in High Point are known to have employed children — some as young as age 7, and possibly younger — in their factories.
The exhibit, which opens Thursday, includes a photo of a group of children standing in front of their employer, the old High Point and Piedmont Hosiery Mills.
“The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina, 1908-1915,” a loaned exhibit from the North Carolina Museum of History, features 40 images from the Library of Congress that highlight Hine’s work photographing children employed in textile mills.
“These photos changed the way people thought about child labor and were instrumental in building public support for child labor legislation,” said Edith Brady, museum director.
In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired Hine to document with his camera the horrendous working conditions of child workers across the country. His travels included several trips to North Carolina, where about a quarter of all textile mill workers were under the age of 16.
“The working conditions were horrific in many of the mills,” where it was not unusual for children to work six days a week and 12 to 14 hours a day, said B.J. Davis, the N.C. Museum of History’s education section chief and the exhibit’s project manager.
“You also had the deafening roar of the machine you were working around,” he said. “In some cases, you had a lot of fiber floating around in factories and you were breathing that in, and it caused a type of pulmonary disease. The mills were not air-conditioned, so in the summer it was very brutal. And sometimes they even kept the windows shut in the summer, because the humidity in the buildings somehow helped the spinning process.”
The children sometimes worked with sharp and/or dangerous tools, and some boys were even required to climb onto the machines — barefooted, no less, because their bare feet provided better traction.
“As a result, they would occasionally lose a finger or a toe around the machinery,” Davis said.
Hine traveled from mill to mill, camera and notepad in tow, photographing the child laborers — on the job, if he could — and taking notes about their ages and working conditions. Employers, not surprisingly, didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for him.
“Some mills refused his requests outright,” Davis said. “In other cases, he would make up an identity — even to the point of using a uniform or other disguise — to gain entry. In some of the cases, he had to take photos outside the mills or catch kids on a break or going to or from work in the mills. Hine could be quite creative in his approaches to get access to the kids and gain entry to the mills if needed.”
Hine’s notes accompanying the High Point photo (and others he shot at the same mill) refer to the mill as a “kindergarten factory.”
“Every child in these photos worked,” he wrote. “I saw them at work and I saw them go in to work at 6:30 a.m. and noon and out at 6 p.m. One morning I counted 22 of these little ones (12 years and under) going to work at about 6:15 a.m.”
Some of the High Point children gave their ages to Hine, including one boy who said he was 8, but that he had begun working at the mill when he was 7.
According to Davis, Hine’s work was very effective.
“He helped influence public policy by showing the American public — and, more importantly, elected officials — the extent and consequences of child labor,” Davis said.
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Want to go?
“The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina, 1908-1915,” a loaned exhibit from the North Carolina Museum of History, will open Thursday at the High Point Museum, 1859 E. Lexington Ave.
The exhibit will remain on display through June 1.
On March 20, B.J. Davis of the North Carolina Museum of History will speak to the High Point Museum Guild about the exhibit. The 10 a.m. presentation will take place at the museum.
Admission to the museum and to Davis’ presentation is free.
For more information, call the museum at 885-1859.