Lesson Plan: Overview

Images from South Carolina Cotton Mills

Grade Level: 5th

Academic Standards

Standard 5-3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of major domestic and foreign developments that contributed to the United States’ becoming a world power.
5-3.5 Explain how building cities and industries led to progressive reforms, including labor reforms, business reforms, and Prohibition. (P, G, E, H)

Historical Background Notes

During and immediately following Reconstruction, the southern states suffered a dramatic economic depression.  The Civil War had disrupted transportation and supply networks, while the abolition of slavery destroyed the plantation economy of the South.  Without any major industrial centers, the economy of the south continued to rely almost solely upon the agricultural products produced there through a system of sharecropping and farm tenancy.  As a result, those citizens who owned no land were left with few better options than to work the land of another, barely scraping by economically. 

In an effort to cut costs and boost profits, northern investors opened textile mills throughout the south.  Locating the mills in areas in which the cotton was grown allowed investors savings in many ways.  First, with the south’s mild temperatures, cotton could be grown virtually year-round and mills could engage in continual production of textiles.  Second, by locating the mill close to where the crop was grown, the cost of transportation was drastically reduced.  Finally, locating a textile mill in the South allowed an investor to employ a much cheaper labor force.  Most citizens of the south were struggling to survive on the income that was generated through their family farm or by sharecropping on the land of another farmer.  Many southerners were relieved to be employed in a mill, where they earned an actual paycheck, regardless of how small it may have been.  In fact, it became a common practice for mill bosses to hire entire families who had previously struggled to survive from farming.

Working conditions for mill workers could be difficult and dangerous, especially for children who were employed.  Working hours could be as long as twelve hours, regardless of an employee’s age.  Child labor laws existed at this time, but they were largely ignored and both children and adults lied about a child’s age in order for that child to remain employed.  Often, it was a financial necessity for all able bodies in a household to earn a wage.  Further, education was not a priority in the lives of most of these workers.  In the report, “Child Labor in the Carolinas,” A.J. McKelway, of The South Caroliniana Library, writes, “Illiteracy prevails here.  Many boys and women could not even spell their own names (McKelway 1909, 744). It must be noted, however, that life in a mill village, was not entirely terrible.  “Employers tended to be paternalistic, providing company housing and a variety of housing” (Henretta et. al.  2002, 496).  Mill workers tended to bond together, becoming a sort of “family.” 

One final note of importance on this subject is that this period is also marked by the flight of large numbers of people leaving the south for the more prosperous industries and opportunities that were available in the North.  After Reconstruction, large numbers of African Americans and Caucasians fled to northern cities to seek employment and a better way of life for themselves. Conversely, the South was not a desired destination for northern workers or immigrants looking for a place to locate in the United States due to the fact that “wages were too low and attractive jobs too scarce.” (Henretta et al. 2002 497).


Primary Sources
  • Hine, Lewis Wickes. “Carolina cotton mill worker and his family all are working. Location: South Carolina.” ca. 1908[?].Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01488 (Accessed: June 16, 2004).
  • Hine, Lewis Wickes.  “A group of workers on the mill stops, Beaumont Cotton Mill, Spartanberg, S.C., 6:30 P.M. All work and others smaller. Location: Spartanburg, South Carolina.”  [1912 May] Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.02550 (Accessed June 16, 2004). 
  • Hine, Lewis Wickes.  “Newberry Mills (S.C.) Noon hour. All are working here. Witness, Sara R. Hine. Location: Newberry, South Carolina.” [1908 December]  Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01476 (Accessed June 16, 2004). 
  • Hine, Lewis Wickes.  “Hattie Hunter, spinner in Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. 52 inches high, worked in mill       for 3 years. Gets 50 cents a day. Dec. 1, 1908. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina.” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01450 (Accessed June 16, 2004). 
  • Hine, Lewis Wickes.  “Boys working in Maple Mill, Dillon, S.C. Pete Dunlap (smaller). Said 11 years old. Mannings Dunlap. Both doff--40 cents a day. Location: Dillon, South Carolina.   http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01479 (Accessed June 16, 2004). 
  • McKelway, A.J.  “Child Labor in the Carolinas.”  Charities and the Commons: A Weekly Journal of Philanthropy and Social Advance. Vol. xxi, no. 18.  (January 30, 1909): p. 743-757. (accompanying photographs by Lewis Hine).
  • Van Vorst, Mrs. & Marie Van Vorst. The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Ladies as Factory Girls. New York:  Doubleday, 1903; found in Barabara Mayer Wertheimer, We Were There: The Story of the Working Woman in America.  New York:  Pantheon, 1977.  
  • Secondary Sources
  • Bartoletti, Susan Campbell.  Kids on Strike!  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.
  • Freedman, Russell.  Kids at Work:  Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor.  New York:  Clarion Books, 1994.
  • Henretta, James A. David Broady, and Lynn Dumenil. America: A Concise History, 2nd Edition. Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
  • Mofford, Juliet H., ed., Child Labor in America.  Carlisle, MA:  Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 1997. 
  • Tools
  • Photocopies/overheads of primary resources/photos. 
  • Graphic organizer for students to record questions and comments about photographs.
  • Lesson Plans

    This lesson requires three to four 45 minute daily sessions.
    1. Classroom teacher discuss Reconstruction and the Industrial Revolution in Social Studies. The economic, political, and social climate of the United States & South Carolina at that time are a part of this classroom unit of study.
    2. Students visit the Media Center to learn about the use and importance of primary resources.  Media Specialist leads discussion of what constitutes a primary resource, and the class generates a list of examples of primary resources.
    3. In the Media Center, students work in groups of two to observe pictures of SC mill workers (especially children) at work and in mill villages.  Students discuss pictures and record questions and ideas that are discussed.
    4. The following day, students return to the Media Center.  The Media Specialist shows overhead transparencies of the pictures that the students viewed the day before and reveals what information she knows about the pictures.  Students share their observations and questions about the pictures.  Students and Media Specialist engage in discussion of mills, economy, laws, and customs of this time period.
    5. The Media Specialist reads aloud an excerpt from Vorsts’ “The Woman Who Toils…”  Leads further discussion of child labor and the conditions of cotton mills in South Carolina during the early 1900’s.
    6. Students read “Child Labor in the Carolinas,” by A.J. McKelway, in pairs.  Media Specialist leads class discussion of “laws” and other information presented in this report.
    7. For homework, following all of the above class activities, students are asked to write a paragraph (or more) comparing and contrasting their life to that of a child working in a South Carolina textile mill in the early 1900’s.

    Teacher Reflections

    No teacher reflections available for this lesson plan.

    Student Assessments

    • Informal observation of group work and class discussion
    • Written response/paragraph will be graded by the classroom teacher and used as a social studies quiz grade

    Examples of Students Work

    No examples available for this lesson plan.


    Betsy Long
    Lugoff, South Carolina