I’ve tapped into a wonderful resource for researchers and those interested in photographs alike. The Library of Congress has digitized a number of their collections, which are available for use through their website. I’ve been enjoying searching through their collections for images that interest me, which is pretty much every single one of them!
Today’s photograph is from a disappointing period in Roanoke’s history.
It’s of 12 year old Mamie Witt, one of many child workers in Roanoke’s Cotton Mill, which was built around 1900. By herself, she ran this line of spools, plus several more not seen in this image, in order to support her family. What all these spools are doing, I don’t even know, and I can only imagine the perils of having a spool snap or jam. If you look closer, almost at elbow length, you can see the whir of the bobbins, as they swiftly move back and forth, tiny blurs across the image. Her expression is the saddest of all, though, illustrating a childhood lost. She most likely made less than 50 cents a day, working long hours with few breaks.
Child labor laws in Virginia at this time were uncontested, with even the town of Roanoke actively pursuing the use of child labor in this mill. The exploitation of children in this situation was advocated for by both the town and a local hotel manager, who declared that the mill would be able to provide a way of life to those poverty stricken individuals in the Norwich neighborhood of Roanoke. While philanthropic in it’s beginning, the Mill quickly employed children from the outset, without providing education or a better way of life for many of its employees and tenement residents.
Despite the wrong or rightness of the Roanoke Cotton Mill’s choice to employ children, Roanoke became part of a greater project to end child labor. Lewis Hine, a New York school teacher turned investigative photographer, captured this and many other images of long-faced children in Roanoke, as well as in other southern towns. Employed by the National Child Labor Committee, he photographed children hard at work in hopes of ending child labor. Countless photographs and four years later, nothing had been overturned with child labor laws. He continued to pursue reform, while photographing other milestones of history (like the building of the Empire State Building!)
It wasn’t until the 1930s that child labor slowed. As a result of the Great Depression, desperate, jobless men gradually replaced the children. Additionally, the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 aided in the gradual demise of child labor, detailing minimum ages and number of hours children were allowed to work.
This photo of Mamie is both captivating and poignant, illustrating how far society has come in the past 100 years.
Harris, Nelson. Greater Raleigh Court. Charleston: The History Press, 2007. Print.
Harris, Nelson. Hidden Histories of Roanoke: Star City Stories. Charleston: The History Press, 2013. Print.