Lewis Hine caption: Nannie Coleson, looper who said she was 11 years old, and has been working in the Crescent Hosiery Mill for some months. Makes about $3 a week. Has been through the 5th grade in school. She is bright, but unsophisticated. Told investigator, “There are other little girls in the mill too. One of them, says she’s 13, but she doesn’t look any older than me.” Location: Scotland Neck, North Carolina, November 1914.
“She was a very fastidious housekeeper. Everything had to be just right.” -Violet Harrell, daughter of Nannie Coleson
“It’s a part of our history we look back on, and we kind of regret that things like that happened. It was very special to see her picture and know that she overcame those obstacles.” -Libby Taylor, granddaughter of Nannie Coleson
According to Child Labor in the American South (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), the Crescent Hosiery Mill opened in Scotland Neck in 1902. Being without electricity, the mill powered its knitting machines by a steam engine. Many girls were employed as loopers. They operated a machine in order to sew shut the opening in the toe of the stockings. They were often paid by the number of stockings they completed and not by the number of hours worked. Most of the children had an 11-hour workday.
In both North and South Carolina, the child labor law prohibited children under twelve from working, but enforcement of the law was rare. In the early 1900s, it is estimated that the textile mills in North Carolina and South Carolina employed roughly half of all child laborers in the United States. Nannie was one of them.
Two things immediately struck me about this photograph. One was the high degree of concentration exhibited by little Nannie, as if she were completely undisturbed by Hine’s presence and his large view camera. As I have discovered in many cases in this project, the photographer somehow captured a personality trait in Nannie that would last far into adulthood. The above comments by Nannie’s daughter and granddaughter attest to that.
The other thing that stood out is how well this picture demonstrates Hine’s respect for children, and for the dignity of work. Hine was known to have been critical of his famous photojournalist predecessor Jacob Riis, whose depiction of squalor in the New York City slums in the 1880s appeared in his book How the Other Half Lives, which led to a public outcry for better living conditions in the city. Hine felt that the graphic images of dirty children sleeping in alleys, and similar types of photos, perpetuated the stereotype that newer immigrants were undesirable and undeserving. For the most part, Hine portrayed his subjects in ways that persuaded the influential middle and professional classes that the child laborers were pretty much like their children, not ignorant and unworthy.
My search for Nannie’s descendants didn’t take very long. I found her death certificate immediately in the North Carolina Death Index, posted on Ancestry.com. Her maiden name was included. Then I found her in the census, first as a child, then as Nannie Felton, her married name, with some of her children listed (1930), one of them named Violet. Later I noticed a Mrs. Willie Harrell listed on Nannie’s death certificate as the informant, and she turned out to be Violet Harrell. I subsequently found her listed in the Internet White Pages, and so I called her. Wiithin days, she had the photo of her mother. I interviewed her and her own daughter, Libby Taylor, Nannie’s granddaughter.
Nannie Coleson was born in North Carolina, on September 20, 1902, to John Coleson and Leah (Overton). They married about 1883 and had at least 12 children, three of which died before 1910. The Colesons were farmers. John died in 1931, at the age of 66; Leah died in 1936, at the age of 69. In 1922, Nannie married Leonidas Polk Felton.
Edited interview with Violet Harrell (VH), daughter of Nannie Coleson. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on July 22, 2008. Transcribed by Jessica Sleevi and edited by Manning.
JM: How did you react to the photo?
VH: I thought it was wonderful.
JM: Were you surprised that she was photographed working in a mill at such a young age?
VH: I was, but I knew her sisters worked there. Did you get any names of older sisters that were there?
JM: No, there were some other photos that Lewis Hine took in that mill, but none mentioned any other children named Coleson.
VH: I was surprised that she talked to him and told him how old she was and all. She was such a quiet person.
JM: Mr. Hine encountered a lot of children who lied about their age. A lot of times the mill owners would tell them to lie about their age because they were under the legal limit. Did she ever tell you about having to work as a child?
JM: When were you born?
VH: I was born in 1929. I was number three. My older sister was Nannie Geraldine, my brother was Leonidas Polk Felton Jr., and my younger sister was Barbara Anne. I’m the only one left.
JM: At the time you were born, where were you living?
VH: I lived where I am now, in Colerain, North Carolina, in Bertie County.
JM: How far is that from Scotland Neck, where your mother was photographed?
VH: Probably 50 miles.
JM: Did you know that your mother lived in Scotland Neck?
VH: Yes. She had lived in Hertford County, where she was born, and she lived around Connaritsa and Hexlena, in Bertie County. And then they moved to Scotland Neck. That’s when my mother met my dad, Polk Felton, probably in 1920 or 1921, because they got married in 1922. She went to visit her sister in Hertford County. They went to a church/social event at Christian Harbor, where she met my dad.
JM: It’s a good thing I found you. It’s disappointing when I find a picture like this and there’s no one left to remember the person.
VH: How did you find me?
JM: I found you in the North Carolina birth index. It listed you as Violet Hope Felton, born in 1929, and it listed your parents as Leonidas Polk Felton and Nannie Coleson. I had already found your mother’s death certificate, and it lists a daughter, Mrs. Willie P. Harrell. So I guessed that you might be her, and then I found you in the Internet phone directories.
VH: That’s scary. We don’t have any secrets anymore.
JM: When Mr. Hine took this picture, he was trying to tell people that there shouldn’t be child labor, and your mother shouldn’t be working at that age. How do you feel about that?
VH: Well, I knew she grew up very poor. She was very sensitive about that. But they owned a farm. There was an old wooden school house near there, and that’s where she probably went to school. I remember her saying that they would rake up the pine needles and make a wood fire in the heater at the school.
JM: Did your mother work while you were growing up?
JM: What did your father do for a living?
VH: When they were married, he was farming. She had a sister who lived in Rocky Mount. Her husband was working for the railroad. So my dad moved there and worked as a mechanic. Then they came back to the farm around 1933 and bought a farm with a brother-in-law. They probably divided it up. We still have our part, and the other part has been sold to someone outside of the family.
JM: Your mother lived a fairly long time.
VH: She was born in 1902, and died in February of 1973. She would have been 71 in September. My father had died suddenly of a heart attack at 65. I had never known him to go to the doctor or be sick a day in his life. A year before that, my brother drowned in a boating accident. So when my father died, she just sort of went into a shell. Then she went to a nursing home, and she just set there. She was sort of an introvert, you know. She told me that her mother always sat by the fire and never said very much.
JM: What was your mother like?
VH: She was very pretty. She was a very fastidious housekeeper. Everything had to be just right. She was an excellent cook. We always helped by gathering the vegetables and peeling the potatoes.
JM: I assume that you basically subsisted off the farm.
VH: Quite a bit.
JM: Did you inherit the farm from your mother?
VH: We bought the shares out. My father didn’t leave a will. Then we had some tenant farmers, but we didn’t do much farming ourselves. I rent the farm out now. I’m a widow.
JM: When did you stop farming the land?
VH: Well, when he was older, my husband became a cabinet maker and a rural letter carrier. Then he had a heart attack in 1988 and had to retire.
JM: When you grew up, did you move away for awhile and come back, or were you always on this property?
VH: After my husband and I were married three years, we moved to Rocky Hock, a community in Chowan County, where my husband was from.
JM: How far away was that from your mother?
VH: If we could go across the Chowan River, it would be three miles, but the way we drive it, it’s about 40. There’s no bridge.
JM: Did you see your mother frequently?
VH: Oh, yes. We visited back and forth probably every week or two. My husband and I eventually moved back to live with her, and I still live in that house in Bertie County.
JM: In the picture of your mother, she looks very involved with her work.
VH: That’s the way she always was, very particular.
JM: Did she have any special talents or interests in her life outside of being a homemaker and a parent?
VH: Not a lot, but she could play the piano by ear.
JM: Did you know your mother’s parents?
VH: I don’t remember her dad, and her mother passed away when I was in the second grade. I know that her dad was sick a long time at home, and people had to wait on him.
JM: Do you know where they lived in Scotland Neck?
VH: I have seen the house, but I have no idea if it’s still there. I haven’t been in Scotland Neck in probably 20 years. I remember that she always talked about the green rosebush that was in the yard. It was a two story house. I am going to go back soon and look around.
JM: Did your mother finish school? It says in the caption she’d been through the fifth grade so far.
VH: I don’t know, but she had beautiful handwriting, very particular.
JM: What did you do in your life? Did you have a career?
VH: Well, I just got married at 18 and had children. I had four wonderful girls. I had one in the first 12 years, and then three in 17 months. Two were twins, so that’s how I got three in 17 months. They’ll be 45 soon.
JM: Did you graduate from high school?
VH: Yes, and then I got married right away.
JM: Did you work at all as a child?
VH: No, I never worked. My older sister went to East Carolina Teachers College, and my younger sister went to Chowan College. She married an Air Force man, and at 41, she died of cancer, just about the time he retired from the service.
JM: It’s interesting to find out about children who worked in mills, and learn that their own children went to college. I found one who was photographed in 1908, and she sent all six of her children to college.
VH: Well, sometimes those that have the hardest time in life turn out to be the best ones.
Edited excerpts from my interview with Libby Taylor, granddaughter of Nannie Coleson. Interview conducted on July 25, 2008.
“I’m really glad you found the picture of Grandmama Nannie, and found us. I never knew the background of her childhood. I’ve always been fascinated with her. She had a personality that I got along with, but a lot of people didn’t. Some people said she was too persnickety. She was very precise, prim and proper. Everything had to be in its place; everything had to be just right. We had cleaning day, and everybody had their chores. In the fall, there wasn’t a leaf in the yard. She was very loving to me, and we used to talk and reminisce about Granddaddy. I just loved her.”
“Grandmama Nannie didn’t have a whole lot of clothes, but what she bought was the very best. She never wanted anything that was somebody else’s. She did not like handouts. The social programs they have now would just blow her mind.”
“She used to cook for the hands that worked on the farm, both breakfast and lunch. She was the best cook ever. Of course, we hold our grandparents up higher than anyone else, but she was a very meticulous cook. Everything turned out perfect. Of course, my mother – her daughter – had to have everything ready for her to cook. It was like Grandmama was the chef and everybody else in the family were like the kitchen workers. They also had to serve it and clean it up, too. She loved trying out new recipes. Julia Child was her favorite TV show.”
“She loved Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan, and she loved music. She could play the piano by ear. I played the piano, and she would always sit and listen to me practice. Sometimes she would ask me to play a hymn or two.”
“Whenever we were getting ready to go to church, everybody in the house had to get in the car before she came out. Then she would make her grand exodus from the house. When storms came up, everybody had to stay in the house, but she would go to the front porch and walk up and down during the worst part of the storm and watch the clouds. I wasn’t scared, but if I came out, she would send me back in. To this day, I’m not afraid of storms, but the rest of the family is terrified of them.”
“She would critique my speaking. That’s surprising because her education wasn’t probably all that much. If I ever said anything that was grammatically wrong, she would correct me. Colloquialism wasn’t allowed. And you know what? My oldest daughter Susan is an English teacher. Maybe it was somehow handed down from Grandmama.”
“Susan was born in 1969, and she knew Grandmama when she was in a nursing home. When I was a child, I would go with Grandmama to shop in Ahoskie, a nearby town about 15 miles from home. There was a dairy there that had a retail shop, and she would always drop by and purchase a malt, her favorite. When we visited her in the nursing home, Susan and I used to stop at a drugstore and pick up a milkshake for her, because malts were hard to find. Even though it was a substitute, it was still a treat for her.”
“Her favorite fragrance was Yardley. She kept bars of Yardley soap in every drawer of her bedroom and in her wardrobe. Everything she wore smelled like Yardley. When I got old enough to have a little bit of money, that’s what I would give her for Christmas.”
“She never talked about working in the mills as a child, but I remember other family members talking about her sisters working in the mills. Maybe it was something she chose not to talk about. I understand that when she was a girl, she overheard some of her father’s family comment that people who worked in mills were low class. Apparently, Granddaddy’s family was very proper, and she was always trying to measure up to them.”
“My mother never worked outside the home, however, like my grandmother, she was an excellent homemaker, and a devoted wife and mother. She has always been able to sew most anything she wanted. Not only would she make our clothing, she also created draperies for all of the windows, and many of the decorative accessories in her home. She has a good eye for design and could create most anything she wanted. I wonder if that was passed down by her mother Nannie’s genes.”
Nannie Coleson Felton passed away on February 6, 1973, at the age of 70. She is buried at Hillcrest Cemetery, in Colerain, North Carolina.
*Story published in 2009.