Cotton is used in one form or another by every needleworker. My own sewing studio is full (overflowing may be a better description) of quilting fabric and reels of cotton in every colour imaginable. A visit to a quilt store to view the lastest fabrics is always enjoyed and eagerly anticipated.
Unfortunately cotton production doesn’t come with the best of histories. Today we are going to find out a little about cotton mills of the 1900’s in the United States but we could just as easily be talking about mills in my own country, England.
The working conditions in many cotton mills were notoriously bad, not to mention dangerous. Owners were not interested in considering the health and welfare of their workers because it might cost them money and reduce their profits. There were many dangers that mill workers were exposed to on a daily basis.
It is hard to imagine but child labour was still extremely common in the United States in the early 1900’s. All across the nation children would spend their days slaving away in mines and cotton mills, far away from the school rooms. Child labour in industry sparked controversy and especially in industries where supervisors bullied children to work harder and assigned them to dangerous, exhausting or degrading jobs. Child workers were denied educational opportunities which reduced their life-time earnings.
The National Child Labor Committe (NCLC) had been trying to put a stop to child labour since it was founded in 1904, and in 1908 they enlisted the help of Lewis Hine.
Lewis Wickes Hine (1874 – 1940) was an American sociologist and photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labour laws in the United States.
After he became the photographer for the NCLC he spent the next decade documenting child labour including children working in cotton mills.
Hine’s work for the NCLC was often dangerous. He was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. At the time, the immorality of child labour was meant to be hidden from the public.
Photography was not only prohibited but also posed a serious threat to the industry. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hines was forced to assume many guises. At times he was a fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman, or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery
It was these photos, along with the detailed captions, that the NCLC distributed to try and educate and convince the public that child labour should be illegal. They would put the photos in newspapers, circulars and slide shows.
A century later and the cotton industry is still big business. It is the single best-selling fibre in the world. Cotton is one of our most adaptable and widely used fibres to make clothes, linen, tarpaulins and oils.
It is grown in areas with long, hot, dry summers with plenty of sunshine, and low humidity. The main producers are America, China, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Brazil and Turkey. Egyptian cotton is still considered to be one of the most high quality cottons. America and Britain are Egypt’s biggest customers.
Cotton growing is still very labour intensive and so there is s a demand for cheap labour on cotton plantations. Alot of cotton today is genetically modified and many dangerous pesticides are used to ensure that crops are not ruined and the high demand can be met.
Children are still involved in every part of the cotton journey in different parts of the world, as. The two main areas that children can still be found working are in cotton growing or picking and in manufacturing (making items from cotton).
Some children start working on large commercial farms or family farms growing crops to sell around the world when they are as young as 5 years old. In Kazakhstan, for example, it has been reported that children work in cotton and tobacco fields and factories for up to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week during the harvest period. Without the child workers the landowners would not manage to harvest all of their crop.
Children can still be found working looms and sewing machines to produce fabric, carpets and clothing in many developing countries like India. Many work in terrible places which are cramped, dirty and badly lit.
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