Lewis Hine caption: One of the little spinners working in Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Many others as small. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina, December 1, 1908.
“She said that someone at the mill told her to go home at lunchtime and change her clothes. And now we have the pictures to prove it.” -Betsy Coan, great-granddaughter of Hattie Hunter
Lewis Hine caption: 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.
In an article published on January 10, 1936, the Gastonia Daily Gazette (NC) reported that Elliott W. Springs, president of the Lancaster Mills and similar mills in South Carolina, had sent a special Christmas card to his friends and associates, and to a number of his wholesale customers. The card portrayed a 12-year-old barefoot girl and an 11-year-old boy, both working at the Lancaster mill. They were actually family members posing as child laborers. The reporter explained, “It was his way of satirizing the bosh about child labor in Southern Cotton Mills.” Mr. Springs received a strong rebuke from a clothing company executive decrying the “terrible lot of these downtrodden children.” Springs replied in part:
“In 1908, a photographer from the North came to the Lancaster Cotton Mills during the lunch hour when the mill was empty. He found a 12-year-old girl who had brought her father’s lunch to the mill and persuaded her to stand by a spinning frame while he took her picture. This picture has been used ever since as evidence of child labor in the South. One of my first actions after I became president (of the mills) was to issue orders that no children should be employed in these mills.”
The photographer, of course, was Lewis Hine. He took 24 pictures at Lancaster Mills on Monday, November 30; and Tuesday, December 1, 1908, twelve of which clearly show young boys and girls working in the mill, a practice widely known and documented in textile mills at the time, both in the South and in the North. Most of the pictures also show the mill far from empty, although several were taken outside at lunch time, as Hine himself described. When Hine’s alleged “phony” child labor photo was taken, Elliott Springs was 12 years old and would have been in school, so it’s doubtful that he witnessed the alleged incident.
He took over the company in 1931, and by that time, child labor in the vast majority of mills had declined substantially, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, according to South Carolina and the New Deal, by J.I. Hayes (2001), the code authority, essentially the textile manufacturers’ trade association, received a complaint in 1933 against Elliott Springs regarding alleged child labor in his mills. Springs replied that since most workers lacked birth certificates, he had no way of determining their ages. He was quoted as saying sarcastically, “The code authority…won’t let me look at their teeth.”
Lewis Hine caption: Spinners and doffers, Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Dozens of them in this mill. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina, December 1908.
Hattie Hunter appeared in three of the 24 photos. Apparently, two were taken in the morning, and one after lunch, at least according to Hattie’s surprising recollection of the incident, as related by her family, including her great-granddaughter, Betsy Coan. I contacted her after finding this on an online genealogy forum:
“My grandmother, Hattie Hunter Wright, told me about the day that Lewis Hine came to take the pictures of the children at Lancaster Cotton Mill. She did not know who Lewis Hine was or why he was there. She only knew that she needed to work if she wanted to eat every day. She also said that they (Hine) had taken pictures that morning and that at dinner time (lunch for us) they had told her to change into her best dress and she braided her hair. The pictures of her taken that morning show her with her blonde hair messy, and after she changed her hair, (it) was braided up nice. She also confirmed that she made 50 cents a day.”
According to several sources, including The Springs Story, Our First Hundred Years, a company-authorized book written by Louise Pettus and published in 1987, the Lancaster Cotton Mills, owned by Leroy Springs, began operations in 1896, with 10,000 spindles and 250 looms. The company expanded in 1901, constructing a huge four-story building. The company grew exponentially after Leroy’s son, Elliott Springs, took over, significantly diversifying its operations, especially after World War II. The mill shut down permanently in 2003, and was later demolished. At one time, Lancaster Mills had over 5,000 employees.
Hattie Hunter was born in South Carolina on July 22, 1895, one of at least five children of John Hunter and Mary (Funderburke) Hunter. They were married about 1880. In the 1900 census, they were listed as farmers, living in Buford, Lancaster County, South Carolina. In 1910, they lived in Cane Creek, about four miles east of the Lancaster Mills, where Mr. Hunter and his children worked. Hattie married Albert Wylie Wright in about 1915. They had two sons, Burie and William. Albert died in 1955. Hattie died on July 19, 1983, three days before her 88th birthday. I have been unable to obtain any useful photographs of her other than those taken by Lewis Hine.
Edited interview with Betsy Coan (BC), great-granddaughter of Hattie Hunter. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on January 20, 2011.
JM: How did you find out about the pictures of Hattie?
BC: I had seen one of them in the book called The Springs Story, Our First 100 Years. She had passed away by then. My family told me that one of the girls in the picture was her. And then about 10 years ago, I ran across another one when I was doing some genealogy research on the Internet. In the first picture I had seen, she was wearing work clothes, but in the other one, she was wearing her Sunday clothes. That reminded me that when I was young, she had told me about that. She said that someone at the mill told her to go home at lunchtime and change her clothes. And now we have the pictures to prove it. She told me that she had only two dresses and one pair of shoes to wear every year.
JM: This is the first time in the five years I have doing this project that I have learned that one of the child laborers remembered being photographed.
BC: She probably wouldn’t have remembered anything about it had they not told her to go home and change her clothes. In the pictures of the children in the Springs book, I didn’t see any other children wearing anything but work clothes. I don’t know why they seemed to single out Hattie.
JM: When she told you that story, were you surprised that she was so young when she was working?
BC: Yes. I remember asking her why, and she told me that if she didn’t work, she didn’t eat. A lot of children in the South worked then. Does that make it right? No, but it’s a part of our history. That’s just the way it was then. But we don’t want to forget about them. If you forget, and there aren’t laws passed to change it, then history will repeat itself.
JM: Did you know anything then about child labor?
BC: No, not until after I grew up. I didn’t really know what hard work was.
JM: When were you born?
BC: 1967. I was 16 when she died.
JM: Did you live near her?
BC: My real father was kind of abusive, so my mother and I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was William Wright, one of Hattie’s sons. Then after Hattie’s husband, Albert Wylie Wright, passed away, she moved in with my grandparents, so we lived in the same house.
JM: Did she work after she got married and had children?
BC: No, she didn’t work anymore after that. After she got married, they lived in Great Falls, which was a mill town in Chester County. Her husband worked in the mill. And my grandfather worked in the mill, too. It was called J.P. Stevens. They ended up buying some property and moving out to Heath Springs, which is in Lancaster County. They had a farm.
Her son, Burie Wright, died in 1976, the same time as his wife. He killed her and then killed himself. That was very sad. They used to fight, and Hattie had a hard time dealing with it. It was awful, but it was worse for Hattie when her other son, my grandfather, passed away two years later. She outlived both of her children and her husband.
JM: What was Hattie like?
BC: She had a character about her. She was always a hard worker. She was a really tiny lady, just a little over five feet tall. She was always full of stories and full of life. She liked to get out and visit family. My mom told me that Hattie used to take her to the wrestling matches. She didn’t go to school much, but she learned to read, although she never learned to write. She eventually got cataracts and couldn’t read anymore. So I would read to her.
JM: What did you read to her?
BC: Usually the Bible.
JM: Had you already read the Bible by then?
BC: Yes. I was brought up in church. I was told that even when I was a baby, my grandfather and my mother made sure that I was in church every Sunday. And that’s the way I brought my children up. Hattie went to church as long as she could. When she was a lot older, she really started telling me all kinds of tales. A lot of time, it would be off-the-wall stuff about people in the family I didn’t know anything about. Mostly, she would pass down old wives tales. I didn’t know they were old wives tales at the time. I thought she was just a wise old lady, but apparently, a lot of people have grown up with this in the South. I remember her telling me that if the snow stays on the ground for more than 3 days here, it’s waiting on more snow.
She stayed with my grandmother until she could not stay anymore. By the time I was 15, I wasn’t living with her and my grandmother anymore. My mother had remarried, and we lived in Great Falls. Hattie’s mental state had declined to such a point that my grandmother, who worked, could not take care of her, so she had to put her in a nursing home. But she visited her every day and made sure she was well cared for. She died of congestive heart failure.
JM: What do you miss most about Hattie?
BC: I miss our conversations, and her stories.
JM: When you saw the pictures, did you feel sorry for her.
BC: Not at all. She would not want me to feel sorry for her. Even though she worked really hard, and she had a hard life, she still enjoyed life and her family. She wouldn’t have known what these pictures did, but if she knew, I think she would be proud that they actually helped to make sure that the children who came after her didn’t have to work as hard as she did.
Hattie Hunter: 1895 – 1983
*Story published in 2011.