History, Method, Representation

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History, Method, and Representation

Photo-Elicitation and Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Child Labor in Chester County, South Carolina


By James L. Hughes

James L. Hughes is a documentary filmmaker, instructor in American Studies and an academic advisor in Political Science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Whatever violence may be done to the letter of their collective experience, the spirit of that experience remains intact and true. It is their notion of themselves, their understanding of who they are.  — Harry Crews, Childhood: A Biography of a Place



The heart of this piece, in several senses of the word “heart,” is the responses, in the early twenty-first century, of a Chester, South Carolina, optometrist to photos of people in his town. These photos were taken a century prior, in 1908, by the Northern sociologist and photographer Louis Hine (at right), as part of a project intended to expose the use of child labor in Southern textile mills. The photos, with captions supplied by Hine’s wife Sarah, were part of a project that resulted in a pamphlet entitled “Child Labor in the Carolinas: Account of Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina.”

In subsequent sections I fill readers in on Chester and the mills, how I came to talk to Dr. Doug Marion, family friend, and local optometrist and historian, how Hine came to take the photographs, and on the scholarly backbone of this piece—a research technique, increasingly popular among anthropologists and sociologists, called “photo-elicitation”: getting people to talk about photos, we might call it. I would begin, however, with the initial comments that Dr. Marion made to me about his research surrounding Hine and with the first photo we spoke about, Hine’s Photo 316.

(Please note that Dr. Marion’s words will be italics, and my responses to him, as well as my explications for readers, will be in roman type.)



Sarah Hine’s caption: “Mr. Smith, overseer in Wylie Mill, Chester, S.C. He will not let his children work in the mill, says it is no place for them. Plenty of children below 12 in the mill. He said that it is a common practice all through the south for employees in cotton mills to evade the child labor law by allowing young children to help their older sisters and brothers. The name of the small child is not on the books. That is the way we manage it.”

Sarah Hine’s caption: “Mr. Smith, overseer in Wylie Mill, Chester, S.C. He will not let his children work in the mill, says it is no place for them. Plenty of children below 12 in the mill. He said that it is a common practice all through the south for employees in cotton mills to evade the child labor law by allowing young children to help their older sisters and brothers. The name of the small child is not on the books. That is the way we manage it.”

Doug Marion: I haven’t had a lot of luck tracking down actual people, I’ve got more census records and things like that [than] I’ve actually found real relatives, and the few that I’ve found (pause) have not [provided] a lot of information about their relatives.[1]

James Hughes: Why do you think? Is it because they don’t know?

Marion: I think it is a combination. I think some people are embarrassed about having mill workers in the family and about having specifically child labor in their family, and I think some people don’t want to be reminded of that . . . that’s where they came from.

These are courageous stories to me. I talked to Jerry Robinson a little bit about it and he said, “You know, that’s how these families survived.”[2]. . . The one with the Benson family (Photo 317, discussed in the fourth section below) where the man says you know that they had to leave the farm but as soon as they get back on their feet they’re going back to the farm, this is no place for children and that kind of thing. Unfortunately the Bensons ended up staying there [working in the mill].

I don’t know whether I told you this story. One of my secretaries was a Benson. When I saw the picture I asked her, “Is this any of your relatives?” and she said, “No I am not any kin to those people. I know who they were, but they lived at the mill. I’m not any kin to those people.” And after I did some research (pause) it’s her family, it’s definitely her family.
In fact some of the children in that picture are not identified, but I feel sure, looking at the census records, that one of them is her grandmother, her grandfather, excuse me. One of the little smaller children . . . I don’t think she knew, I don’t think she was covering up. I really don’t think she knew she was really kin to those people and [she was] very, very close kin to these people. I think [she] kind of lost touch with these relatives, but like I said, that would be her grandfather in the picture.

But, going back, I tried to do some research [into] where these people come from and lived, and some of the obituaries give you little hints when they moved to Chester and left the farm and stuff. I guess economic conditions—they just couldn’t make a living on the farm. The mills were a new thing and a way to make money and a way to have shelter over your head. I think a lot of these cases these people in order to keep food on the table . . . the kids had to work. By today’s standards we think that’s horrendous, but at that time that’s what they did in order to make ends meet.

(Note that in the South, to hail from a mill family in a small rural town can carry connotations of ignorance stemming from poverty, and these feed stereotypes. Whether these connotations are true or not, the “type” sticks. Gone is an individuality and, with it, specific stories. Instead of encasing the past as a national monument or sacred space, the past here is one of shame and guilt.[3])

Marion: I think it’s a combination of they were uneducated; lot of them couldn’t read and write. And then the later generations don’t want to be remembered of where they came from. If you made something better out of yourself you don’t necessarily want it to be known that your mama and daddy couldn’t read and write, or that your mamma and daddy went to work in the mill when they were 8 years old.

Later Dr. Marion (pictured below) reminisced about his Chester childhood: When I was growing up there was a definite class distinction. Not that you would not associate with people who worked in the mill or that kind of thing. There was a definite, you wouldn’t, these were the kids . . . you wouldn’t go down to the mill village and play with these kids in the mill village. Not that I was forbidden or anything like that, I think it was just understood. You know that was the 1960s. Think about what it would be in the 1900s.

One of the things that draw me to these photographs is what a fabulous photographer [Hine] was and how he really got the emotions of these children in the photographs.

I was just totally shocked. I had done some research, well, not research, but just playing on the Internet and Googled “Chester SC,” and some of the pages from the pamphlets had come up that had the photographs in them, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon them, I guess it was at The University of Maryland, that had the original notation that he took, and it had all of them.[4] Maybe four of them got used in the pamphlets of twenty-something photographs in Chester. His original notation she [Sarah Hine] took that got edited in the pamphlets.

It’s interesting to read the edited captions of what they decided was worthy of actually putting in for propaganda purposes, for lack of better words. To me they are so edited and [contain] such little information. There, you can understand a lot of times names are left out because that wasn’t pertinent for what they were trying to do with these photographs.

That’s why it was so exciting to me to find the original notes that he took. It was also interesting how he was speaking to children. I’m sure these children had quite a different accent than he was used to hearing. You really have to take what he wrote down with a grain of salt when you’re trying to figure out names and things like that, because [the Hineses] wrote what [they] heard, a lot of times. Then I figured out who most of these people were, since they were taken in 1908. I went to the 1910 census, basically walked through piece by piece. . . .

I can find absolutely nothing about that man [the overseer or mill superintendent]. Of course, unfortunately, his name is Smith. I can’t find somebody whose name was Smith living in that area in 1910. Of course, he could have left between 1908 and 1910. So, I don’t know who Mr. Smith is. You think he would be the one person, being the superintendent, the overseer, that you could find some information about.

Look at the banisters on the house, the quality of that house is so much greater than all the ones of the kids in the mill village. He obviously had a little higher standard of living.

J.H.: Do you think those children are his children?

Marion: I would think they would be his children. I would think that Mr. Smith particularly wouldn’t want to pose with . . .

J.H.: With mill children?

Marion: Well, with obviously the children who worked in the mill. He probably knows what is going on here, taking pictures of propaganda against child labor. I wouldn’t think he would pose with the children who were working in the mill.

J.H.: What do you think about the attitude that he wouldn’t let his own children work?

Marion: I think, obviously, people who were a little more educated had a higher standard of living for themselves, and I know there was definitely a class distinction there, and these people, you know, they [the millworkers] had their own school, their own grocery stores, and nobody had a car. The mill village was a town unto itself. I think a lot of times you just didn’t associate with these people.

I had a great aunt whose husband was a mill superintendent. They moved around quite a bit. They always had a home. They lived in the mill village, but they always had a palatial type home in the mill village—the mill owned it, you know, but it was almost like a feudal system, the castle and the hovels around it.

We tend to look at all that with our own prejudices and looking at it with our eyes. These mill houses were probably much nicer than the shacks they lived in on the farm. It’s kind of easy to look at them and condemn what we think the living situation was, but it probably was a pretty nice living situation at the time.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat it, but I definitely think you have to step back and look at it from the point of view that nobody much had running water in 1908; nobody had electricity much in 1908. A lot of times these villages had more than they would have before they moved there.

I think it’s the same thing when people talk about slavery, what a horrible institution it was, but then you had people saying how much better off they had it than where they were. Obviously, those are two ends of the spectrum and it’s probably somewhere in the middle.



Growing up in Chester, South Carolina, I was always aware of the textile mills in the county, but never interacted with them in any concrete way. I knew that my paternal grandfather and namesake, James Langston Hughes, was the doctor for the ubiquitous Springs Industries from the early 1970s until he suffered from heart problems. It wasn’t until I got older and moved away that I gained historical perspective on the place I call home. After my father, Richard Hughes, retired from the Chester County emergency room following more than twenty years of service, he took a position in the medical department of Springs similar to the one my grandfather held thirty years earlier, but with one important difference. Whereas my grandfather was subject to regional pressures, my father was subject to global ones, because of the changing nature of the economic world.

One consequence of globalization was Springs Industries shutting the doors of its last manufacturing plant within Chester County in 2007. Given that Springs was Chester’s long-time economic and cultural backbone, outsourcing the work to lower-paying Brazilian mills hit the town hard. This led me to think about the mills in a different way.

My concerns about my hometown merged with my interest in visual depictions, culture, class, and the history of rural and working-class Southerners. I wanted to consider my county’s long-time reliance on the mills and the effects of their closure. I began talking with Chester’s citizens about the mills.

In talking with Dr. Marion about Hine’s photos of Chester’s mill children I was particularly interested in exploring whether the photos had helped create stereotypes of the Southern rural and working class.[5] My initial conversation with Doug took place in the summer of 2009 at a social function. I have known him as far back as I can remember. His brother Bill is a local attorney, and his mother, Anne, still resides in Chester. His family is keen on history and photography, interests that led them naturally to Hine’s work. At the end of the first conversation Doug suggested I stop by and see the photos. Over the next few days I went, in a sweltering heat, to his office, which was next to the hospital along State Route 97. He explained briefly how he had been going about his research and then offered me his large three-ring binder which contained print-outs of Hine’s photos and various newspaper clippings and notes, including about genealogical research he was doing.

Almost a year later, I met him one morning in the living room of his house on York Street, one of the main thoroughfares in town. No set questions guided our discussions; instead the conversation centered on and around the photos. I listened to Doug and responded with clarifications, memories, and other questions, wanting him to tell me as much as possible about wabouthat these photos meant to him, to give him more of a voice than Hine’s subjects possessed.


Photo 317. Sarah Hine’s caption: “Wylie Mill, Chester S.C. Boy with calf is Pimento Benson. Raising it for beef. Has worked in mill 2 years. Mr. Benson said, “Just as soon as the boys get old enough to handle a plow, we go straight back to the farm. Factory is no place for boys.” Next to Pimento is Ray Benson. Helper in the mill. Next, Clarence Rust, works in the mill.”

I note that Permentter Benson (with calf), which Sarah Hine heard as “Pimento,” was born in Fairfield, South Carolina, around 1896 to James Henry Brown (1866–1918) and Nancy Benson. He was able to read and write, and, like so many of his time, his family came off the farm to work in the cotton mill in hopes of a better life. He died on Saturday, April 30,, 1972, at 76 years of age, leaving behind his wife, Sarah Black Benson, and his son, James Neal Benson, who resided in Pittsburgh at the time.[6] His brother Wray, in the photo next to Permentter, and five years his younger, did not share a similar fate; he died on Tuesday, March 31, 1939, at 38.

Marion: His name was really Permentter, which is interesting, because that really is an FFV Virginia [First Family of Virginia] name.[7] And I’ve never been able to figure out where that came from, where the Bensons . . . did they come from Virginia and have elegant ancestors? All I can do is trace them down to Fairfield County when they lived on the farm there.[8] But he [Hine] names this one “Pimento” Benson.

He reads caption to jog his memory. “Next to [him] is Wray Benson”; he became a constable in the mill village. And then it says “Clarence Roof”; so Clarence Roof must have been a neighbor or a relative.[9] This is probably my secretary’s grandfather, then his sister, then here’s half of somebody else who’s probably another Benson. . . . [T]he cow, to me, is so different than any photograph I’ve seen him [Hine] take. I wonder if the whole point was the cow, going back to the farm, you know what I mean?

Do you remember James Rape who used to have a photography studio going up the hill in Chester, kind of halfway between the commercial bank and my daddy’s office? He’s Jeff Orr’s grandfather.

I admit that I vaguely remember. (Note that I am also at play in the exchange with Doug. His research and comments jog my memory and uncover connections. My thoughts of James Rape, although I only vaguely remember him, lead me to thoughts of when I was a child skateboarding, on the hill Doug mentioned, with friends who were African-Americans. They lead to when we were stopped by local police, and I was not harassed as my friends were; I was told to go home. They lead to calls my mother received that alerted her to the fact that I was with “blacks”; calls which quickly drew her ire and a response that the children in question were family friends, welcome at her house anytime. )

Dr. Marion went on: He [James Rape] grew up in the mill village and decided that he was going to be a photographer and while he worked in the mill he took photographs at night until he was able to build up enough money and clients so he could quit working in the mill. I don’t know how he came to my office when I was working on this. I don’t know how he started talking about something and I realized and I asked him if he knew any of these people. He talked about Wray Benson and what a mean man he was. I wish I could remember the exact story. In essence, he shot and killed his dog for no reason. And I think what elegant names they had. You know, obviously these were not poor dirt farmers at some point in the game.

J.H.: Tell me about the names, the lineage.

Marion: You would think Nicholas W-R-A-Y Benson is kind of an unusual name, especially the spelling. And his brother’s name is James Permentter Benson and both of these names sound like somebody got some education and some history behind them. I would think they would be family names.

But it says here, in Wray Benson’s obituary, he was born in eastern Fairfield, his parent’s moved to Chester thirty-three years ago. That kind of coincides with the information you get from Lewis Hine that they just moved here from the farm. It’s interesting how it weaves together for me, the story of this family.

It’s just little fragments. I wasn’t able to find out a lot about Clarence Roof, but I did find his obituary and there were a lot of leads. I think it’s interesting that’s one of the photographs, or whoever the committee was that made the pamphlet, chose to put them in the pamphlet.[10] I think the cow sort of tells the story that these were farm people who basically came to the mill as a last resort when they couldn’t make ends meet. And the plan was to go back to the farm as soon as economic times got better.

J.H.: Are there reasons why you think they don’t make it back?

Marion: The mill system was such a paternalistic system. You come to work for the mill, and I can’t give you specifics about these mills, so I’m being a little bit more general. I don’t know how much you know about the Lando mill, but it was set out in the middle of nowhere, by itself. . . . Its own little mill village was its own community within a town, but Lando was in the middle of nowhere as it was definitely its own community . . . People have no transportation, homes were owned by the mill, so if you quit working in the mill you didn’t have a roof over your head, and they paid the people half in cash and half in tokens. And the tokens were only redeemable at the mill store.

That sounds like that’s really padding their own pockets, because it’s forcing the people to buy stuff, but, in Lando, there was nowhere else to buy stuff! If you were going to buy anything it was at the mill store. But I think that combination of economic times, the fact that these people did not make a lot of money, I’m sure they existed from day to day on the amount of money that they made, so savings were probably unheard of once you got into the system. . . . [F]or these people it was a generational thing; not only were you stuck in the system, your children were stuck in the system. I’m sure people left, but it was not many.


Originally from Wisconsin and now best known for his 1930s photographs documenting the construction of the Empire State Building, Lewis Hine was a sociologist and photographer who believed that the camera could lead to progressive (or Progressive) social reforms. He began learning photography from Frank Manny at the Ethical Cultural School in New York. At Manny’s request he began to Hine Empire State Bldgphotograph children’s school work. In 1908, Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to shoot documentary photos of children at work in the United States. The NCLC was a coalition of reformers, including Alexander J. McKelway, a former preacher turned reformer and lobbyist, who oversaw the Southern region.[11] McKelway put Hine on assignment to travel throughout the South photographing children at work in canneries, glass factories, coal mines, and cotton mills. The mill businesses had moved to the South to escape the labor unions of the North. Cheap labor and lax work laws allowed mill owners to put whole families to work. The pro-mill argument held the belief that families and children were better off in the mills than on the farms, where they were subject to the whims of nature and of the land-lease system. Hine believed strongly in child labor reform and that “the forces that will educate [mill owners] to the necessity for [reform] will be those of radical and efficient legislation and inspection, demanded by vigorous public opinion.”[12]

As regards Hine’s approach to photography, many critics, reflecting a key argument in the early years of photography, have suggested that Hine and his contemporary, Alfred Stieglitz, were diametrical opposites, with Hine less concerned about art and more interested in the “objective” truth the camera could capture to advance social goals.[13] While it is certainly true that Stieglitz’s Nietzchean approach was rather different from this, it is also apparent that, from the beginning, Hine believed in the importance of using technique, form, and composition to effectively lobby for one’s beliefs.[14]

The NCLC photos were published by a leading Progressive journal, The Survey. This title reflected Taylorism, the social method that had inspired the editors. Taylorism, a form of scientific management of workflows, was behind the methodical way in which Hine attacked his assignment. Historian Kate Sampsell-Willmann writes: “Hine advocated; he agitated; he indicted. But because his medium contained a high degree of verisimilitude and his methodology looked ‘objective’ as a social science survey, his visual product was more effective than words.”[15]

Like many of his time, Hine believed that the power of volumes of data would produce the intended twin results of labor and law reform. He thought photos acting as “visual fact” could shape the community outcry needed to enact change. One doesn’t have to know that he worked for the NCLC to read his photographic intent, which, coupled with the captions, tell a story of Southern poverty and child labor abuse. This was not lost on the later photographers (Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans among them) who Hine inspired and who would subsequently become known for their depictions of the Depression South, which they documented for the Farm Security Administration.

Working on the NCLC pamphlet “Child Labor in the Carolinas: Account of Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina,” Lewis and Sarah Hine visited Chester County on Saturday and Sunday November 28 and 29, 1908. Hine took twenty-five photographs of mill workers in the county. Most of these were of children who were employed in the mills—portraits of children from the Springstein, Wylie, and Eureka mills. Sarah’s captions were to be mounted along with Lewis’s gelatin silver prints. Having Sarah as a witness added an air of factuality, verification, and truth. She provided an extra voice, an “independent” verification, to confirm her husband’s visual claims.

In trying to get access to the mills themselves, Hine often posed as an independent journalist. During the same trip that brought him to Chester he did manage to get shots inside the mills in nearby Newberry and Lancaster, South Carolina. But once word got out about the actual nature of and backing for his project, Hine found it increasingly difficult to get photos of the children at work. As a result, all of the pictures Hine took in Chester were outside of the mills, including portraits in yards, on front porches, and on mill grounds.



Photo 369. Sarah Hine’s caption: “(Tallest) Sam Bigham, Eureka Cotton Mills. Been in mill 10 years. (Next) Washey Dover--Been in 3 years. (Next) Lloyd Barnado--2 years in mill. (Smallest) Ernst Floyd--10 years old, 52 inches high. Been in mill 2 years. Spins--60 cents a day. Witness S.R. Hine. Location: Chester, South Carolina.”

Photo 369. Sarah Hine’s caption: “(Tallest) Sam Bigham, Eureka Cotton Mills. Been in mill 10 years. (Next) Washey Dover–Been in 3 years. (Next) Lloyd Barnado–2 years in mill. (Smallest) Ernst Floyd–10 years old, 52 inches high. Been in mill 2 years. Spins–60 cents a day. Witness S.R. Hine. Location: Chester, South Carolina.”

Photo 369 includes Chester native Ethel Robinson’s father, Wash Dover. He is second from the left. Hine reports the name “Barnado” in his notes for identification for the child to Wash’s left. This is a mistake, as it should read “Varnadore,” a common last name in Chester County.

Dr. Marion: Jerry [Ethel’s son and local doctor] seems to think his name [Wash] was John Washington. That becomes “Washer” in the census. Jerry didn’t know much about his grandfather. I don’t think Granny [as Ethel is commonly known] knows a lot about him. It was interesting, I knew that Granny was a Dover, and it was just shortly after I found these pictures, days [later] she came to get her eyes checked. I just was talking to her and I said, “What was your father’s name?” and she said, “Wash Dover.” I about dropped my teeth. I just found these pictures and got her talking about it. It was obvious to me . . . she was not cagey in that she didn’t want to talk about it, but I think her father died at such an early age. She didn’t know a lot about . . . she was happy to talk to me about her experiences. She didn’t really know a lot about him working in the mill. She was pretty amazed that there was a photograph of him.

JH: It’s funny how these things cross.

Marion: In fact she was really the first person that I was able to sort of make a connection with about these people. I think there’s a lot of mixed emotions; I think that in some ways she’s excited that somebody wants to know something about her, but in other ways it’s almost like it’s a little bit embarrassing. This is who her family was and this is what they did. But the more I talk to her, the more she didn’t seem to mind that. I think maybe she thought that I was going to think it was something to be ashamed of and when she figured it out that I didn’t care about that, she seemed open to talk about it.



As the above excerpts from Dr. Marion’s comments should suggest, photo-elicitation is a simple research technique in which visual evidence is used in an interview to elicit responses.[16] Photos (and, potentially, other visual culture artifacts) serve as catalysts, producing personal narratives, and scholars’ and other readers’ interpretations are thus based in the intersection of personal experience and attitudes with documentation or artifacts of the past. Following this technique, the subjects in the Hine photos, for example, serve not only as historical actors but also as enduring and evolving sources of responses and interpretations.

The anthropologist John Collier, Jr., pioneered the photo-elicitation technique beginning with John’s visually based field research in the 1940s which resulted in his seminal book, later revised by his son Malcolm: Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. After taking photographs of his subjects and their physical surroundings, John Collier, Jr., began using his photographs in interviews and found that a simple image would open up memories and avenues of inquiry. The Colliers have written, “Photographs can be communication bridges between strangers that can become pathways into unfamiliar, unforeseen environments and subjects. The informational character of photographic information makes this possible.”[17] Photographs, they found, can also help bridge the gap between academics and the public, strengthening both scholarship and public knowledge in the process.

Photographs are also used by historians as evidence of period dress, living conditions, and other such “facts.” In such work there is a tendency, however, to look to pictures as proof of something already believed, as confirmation. In photo-elicitation the photograph does not, and indeed cannot, foreclose possibilities; instead, it acts as a point of departure for inquiry which can challenge forgone conclusions and give voice to people otherwise not heard.

My interest in the technique was an outcome of my studies of stereotypical representations of the rural South found in film, representations that I have planned to juxtapose with ethnographic documentaries I was filming about Chester. This led to the conversation with Dr. Marion in which I learned about the Hine photos. I realized that photo-elicitation would allow for a convergence of the visual, the historical, and the contemporary—the same material I had been exploring with film. Indeed I believe that my conversations with Dr. Marion about Hine’s work demonstrate how the technique can add to our understanding both of our past and of our present. Along with my comments, the fact that Dr. Marion was in a sense doing some of his own photo-elicitation work in talking with town residents, added further layers to the text. As regards my work with Doug and photo-elicitation more generally, my sense is that the results have been best—most informative—when the interviewer does not try to guide the interviewee and provide historical facts, but simply joins in the conversation.

Hine’s photos are important because they provide a historical perspective of Chester in the post-Reconstruction South. But the photos were the beginning of a larger, ongoing visual narrative about the rural- and working-class South, and this narrative has, contrary to Hine’s intent, hardened stereotypes and continued to silence those it represents. In Hine’s prints and his wife’s captions citizens of Chester, the children included, are pawns in an ideological game of child labor laws and fodder for formal debates. By contrast, Doug’s memory, comments and research help to reclaim lives as well as to reveal the current state of Chester, which is a convergence of the past and present, and of hopes for the future. To quote historian David Perlmutter, it becomes possible “to link historical meanings with present political contexts. This involves not just finding a primary historical meaning but also tracking how [an] image is used and viewed by subsequent publics.”[18] Far from being a complete picture or history of Chester, the mills, or the South, photo-elicitation and personal history competes with orthodox representations of the past and present. But Doug’s personal connection with the place and its people allows our research to go places, to gain stories, to see Chester in ways an outsider cannot.




Roughly forty miles south of Charlotte and fifty miles north of Columbia, the small town of Chester, South Carolina, sits among rolling hills of loblolly pine and southern red oak. Adjacent to the Catawba River, which was named after the Native Americans who were the original inhabitants in this region, Chester’s location below the fall line of the Carolina Piedmont made the county geographically ideal for the rise of Southern cotton mills beginning in the 1880s, in the wake of the Civil War.[19]

Besides the geographical conditions conducive to water-powered mills, there was in this part of the South an abundance of rural workers willing, or forced, to accept steady pay and mill work, abandoning the instabilities of sharecropping. As Lawrence Goodwyn explains:

Nowhere in America did the burdens of poverty fall more heavily than upon the farm families of the rural South. The crop lien system had driven millions west in the 1870s, by the late 1880s the system had graduated to new plateaus of exploitation: as every passing year forced additional thousands of Southern farmers into foreclosure and hence into the world of landless tenantry, the furnishing merchants came to acquire title to increasing portions of the Southern countryside.[20]

The land had once attracted and suited the fierce independence of Scots-Irish immigrants, and it had cultivated habits, able bodies, and steady temperaments that could be put to use in the new mills. Northern mill tycoons—moving their operations to the aggressively anti-union South and away from the labor unions that had grown up to defend and advance worker interests in the North—took advantage not only of the geography, but also the desperation of white sharecroppers who were subject to the whims of nature and financial peonage system that kept them indebted through a crop-lien system. The promise of better pay, company housing, and liberation from the caprices of nature lured white men and their families to mill and town.

Why did Carolinians and other Southern white mill hands not migrate to higher wage states in unionized areas of the North? There were the ties to kin and land and lack of transportation; in addition, the wage discrepancy was eclipsed by a solidarity found in mill culture’s whiteness. Workers were yoked to bosses and bosses to workers in a faux class solidarity based on race. This led white mill hands in South Carolina to look past or forgive their lack of good pay. The workers who did leave both state and job in search of better pay risked being shut out by mill owners if they returned.

In this case, the mill hands’ whiteness, along with their racial attitudes, made it easier for them to be exploited. The white workers clung to their racial identity as something that distinguished them, giving them social privileges that their counterparts in the black community lacked and seemingly could never gain. Historian Broadus Mitchell recognized this as early as 1930. “All the workers are of one blood with each other and with their employers, and this racial identity has obscured economic cleavage,” he wrote. “The thought has been held to by employers and employees alike that this is a White man’s industry; that this opportunity of work is to be reserved against the Negroes has further emphasized unity of interest.”[21]

In addition, the technology meant that unskilled laborers could be easily trained to mass produce products from raw goods with a minimum of experience.[22] The local paper, the Chester Reporter, described the establishment of one of the first mills in Chester, indicating the wondrous synergy of man, machine, and geography:

Steam was raised in the engine of the cotton factory for the first time last Friday, Saturday and Monday were spent in putting on the belting. On Tuesday the machinery was set to running and this will go on for several days for the purpose of testing adjustments of the whole outfit of machinery. The whole number of looms received, nineteen, have been put into place. A contract has been made for the delivery of 100 looms as fast as the machine shops can turn them out. The big wheel is the object of much wonder and remark. It is about the biggest of the kind ever seen here by most of the people about here. The engine is of the Watts Campbell Corliss pattern. Some of the factory hands have moved in and others are expected soon.[23]

Although in the Piedmont both the towns and the county were transformed by the arrival of the mills, the mills also divided this new world in two. As sociologist John Kenneth Moreland observed in the 1940s regarding the Piedmont mill town of York, not far from Chester, it was divided into the mill culture and the town culture. The “mill people have not been fully integrated into the life of the town,” he wrote.[24] Moreland believed that paternalism, the workers’ sense of failure, their lack of education, and the employing class’s lack of interest in mixing with the mill workers resulted in the common belief that “the mill worker (like the stereotype of the Negro in the minds of the town people) is satisfied with his lot and does not have the desire or the capacity for change.”[25] As the sociologist Marjorie Potwin wrote in 1927: “As clay-eaters, or crackers, or sand-lappers [the mill workers] dragged themselves to the cotton mills and in mute appeal begged the industry to make what it could of them. . . . They were despised alike by the laboring whites and blacks, and it was mainly their presence, conspicuous because sensational, rather than in the majority, which stigmatized cotton-mill work and created prejudice against the mill people.”[26] Led by the captains of industry, the identity, economic fortunes, and indeed the lives of such towns were inexorably bound up with the mill business and its sources of capital, for which the workers needed to be considered of little value. The mill worker quickly became a breed apart, sequestered in its own part of town, human cogs in the manufacturing machine. On the other side of town, men of industry, a new breed of Southern town lawyer, doctor, and businessman saw an opportunity, indeed a Christian duty, to embrace manufacturing and the mills in order to rebuild, re-brand, and renew their local areas after the Civil War.[27]

Chester typified the Piedmont mill towns which were “[b]uilt in isolated areas with their own housing, stores, and school, mill houses were surrounded by garden plots and chicken coops, and more substantial amounts of farm and pasture land were available on the outskirts of town.”[28] Particular to South Carolina, however, was the very low wages. Economist Stephen L. Shapiro has pointed out that, compared to their neighbors in North Carolina, South Carolina male textile labor paid, on average, 10 percent less per laborer per day.[29]

Thanks to the exploitation of these workers, the town of Chester enjoyed a kind of boom. By 1888 it had a population of 2,800, a score or more businesses, five white churches, three Negro churches and an academy.[30] A mill prospector gave another view: “I was so impressed with the uninviting surroundings, lack of educational facilities and civilized society etc., that I decided that I would not move my family down there for the whole outfit as a gift.”[31]

Whatever one’s opinion of Chester, the town was caught in the boom and promise of the manufacturing frenzy. In the wake of the Civil War, the low country plantations were in shambles, physically, psychologically, and economically, while in the Piedmont, though battle-scarred, leaders converted their fervent Southern nationalism to the cause of economic rehabilitation through manufacturing. Confederate veteran Samuel Eliot White, born just north of Chester in Fort Mill, was spurred by Charlotte Newspaper editor D.A. Tompkins, who laid out a vision for a “New South” built on manufacturing. White convinced men of means to invest in the Fort Mill Manufacturing Company, incorporated in 1888.[32] He formed the Chester Manufacturing Company and the Catawba Manufacturing Company. For its part, the Springs family acquired three plants in Chester County and eventually purchased both the Chester and Catawba Manufacturing plants—renamed the Springstein plant and the Eureka plant, the latter after family land in Europe.

After World War II the “textile-mill complex” was caught up in larger economic changes.[33] The Southern economy continued its shift from agriculture to manufacturing and other new businesses were lured to the region with tax breaks, anti-union (“right-to-work”) laws, cheaper labor, government defense contracts in the midst of the Cold War, and a new technology-driven industrial economy.[34] Springs took advantage of such hunger for industry as laws were adopted providing tax loopholes for Springs, which threatened to move unless such a concession was made.[35]

All of this presaged Springs’s merger with Brazilian cotton magnate Coteminas. This merger precipitated the final blow in 2005, when, after the merger, Springs Industries became Springs Global. Two years later the CEO Crandall Bowles (Samuel Eliot White’s great-granddaughter) and her fellow descendants sold all their privately held stock to Coteminas and left textiles. “In the current stock offering, my family will sell a significant portion of our Springs Global holdings,” Bowles offered, “I will continue to serve on the board of Springs Global. I will leave knowing that our company has survived radical change and emerged with solid market value. I have great confidence in my co-CEO and successor, Josue Gomes, and the rest of the management team.”[36]

Coteminas’s subsequent closure of Chester’s Katherine Plant cost Chester County upwards of 700 jobs in the last few months of the company’s “phase-out.” Built in 1968, and subject to a multimillion dollar upgrade in 2002, the Katherine Plant, which transformed raw cotton into unfinished sheeting and cloth, was the largest and most modern of Springs’s manufacturing sites in Chester. The last major Springs plant in Chester, Katherine closed its doors for good in 2007, following the closures of the Gayle, the Springstein, and the Eureka. The Katherine’s demise, after more than a century, signaled the end of substantial textile mill employment in Chester County.

As a result a once proud mill town is now in the throes of cultural and economic crisis. It received a devastating blow when Springs closed, becoming an unwilling participant in and witness to the death of the Southern institution of cotton mills and of the small town life that the mill economy had created. Already in 2008 well more than 10 percent of the local population was unemployed, and the national recession led this figure to skyrocket to more than 20 percent by August, 2009.[37] Although the official rate has come down some since then, county residents tell me that the real unemployment figure is hovering closer to 40 percent.



Some prominent Chester locals have petitioned the county to put up lights off the exit to attract commerce, as Chester, 14 miles off the interstate down Highway 9, now exists in a kind of no-man’s-land between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. The Country Omelet and The Front Porch mom-and-pop restaurants signify the “countryness” of this county, but they are also competing for dollars with national chains, including Burger King, Waffle House, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

On the other side of the Quick Stop gas station, down a former dirt road is Lando. There is little of the mill left save for a small museum with artifacts. One cannot help but be struck by the disappearance of one form of capital, at the expense of its workers, for newer, low-paying, multinational service businesses. Such an observation reconnects Chester’s past and future, which are not diametrically opposed, but are being reimagined and reworked in the twenty-first century. The jobs that existed in the isolation of Lando now are part of a “global community.” Federal regulations came to protect the children and other millworkers with child-labor laws, a federally mandated minimum wage, and laws to protect union organizers. Of course the mill management pointed to all this as reasons they moved their operations overseas (beyond the reach of national laws and customs). Unfortunately, this type of story is becoming all too familiar in rural towns throughout the South.



  • The Hine Empire State Building photograph, is “Lunch time and Smoke,” from Hine’s Empire State series (1930-1931). The original is in the collection of the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive to which it was a gift Photo League of New York.
  • The photograph of Doug Marion was taken by Bill Marion.
  • The photographs of Springs (and of the Available sign) as well as of the Waffle House and Relax Inn signs were taken by Rebecca Hughes.



[1] Dr. Marion, interview by James Hughes, digital audio recording, 9 April 2010, York Street, Chester, South Carolina. All of the following conversation is from this interview. The recording is on file in the author’s personal archive. The interview has been edited for flow.

[2] Jerry Robinson is a local doctor and grandson of Wash Dover, who appears in Photo 369. Robinson grew up and still lives in Chester, while practicing medicine in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Marion is his contemporary and refers to Jerry multiple times.

[3] Patrick Wright argues this point in regards to England in On Living in an Old Country The National Past in Contemporary Britain (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Dr. Marion is speaking about the several NCLC pamphlets that used Hine’s photographs of children at work.

[5] Douglas Harper, “Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation,” Visual Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002, 15.

[6] Chester Reporter, May 3, 1972, Obituaries.

[7] The “First Families of Virginia” are ostensibly original settlers with blue-blood origins.

[8] Fairfield is the county that borders Chester to the south.

[9] Hine identifies him as Clarence “Rust,” which is another instance of Hine not being able to decipher the thick accent.

[10] Again, Marion is referring to the National Child Labor Committee pamphlet, “Child Labor in the Carolinas: Account of Investigations Made in the Cotton Mills of North and South Carolina.”

[11] Walter I. Trattner, Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America, (Quadrangle Books, 1970), 57–58.

[12] L.W. Hine, “Child Labor in Gulf Coast Canneries: Photo-Graphic Investigation Made February, 1911,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1911): 122.

[13] Susan Sontag, “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly,” in Vicki Goldberg ed., Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), 508; Estelle Jussim, “Icons or Ideology: Stieglitz and Hine,” The Massachusetts Review 19, no. 4 (1978): 680–92. Also see the chapter “Camera Work, Social Work” in Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 164–230.

[14] Jussim, “Icons or Ideology.”

[15] Kate Sampsell-Willmann, Lewis Hine as Social Critic (Oxford, M.I.: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 77. Sampsell-Willmann is making her statement in the context of the Progressive era. Such objective truths, taken for granted in the early twentieth century photograph have, as contemporary commentators have shown, been challenged and replaced with a more subjective and postmodern worldview. However, the comment helps to shed light on the context of Hine’s work for the NCLC.

[16] Harper, “Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation,” 13.

[17] John Collier, Jr., and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), 99.

[18] David D. Perlmutter, “Visual Historical Methods.” Historical Methods 27, no. 4 (Fall 1994): Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 9, 2013).

[19] Catawba comes from Kawahcatawbas which means “the people of the river.”

[20] Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, abridged (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 72. “Furnishing merchants” refers to the small-town shop owners, bankers, doctors, and others of the same social class.

[21] Broadus Mitchell, The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1921), 125.

[22] Stephen Yafa, Big Cotton: How A Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map, 1st ed. (New York: Viking Adult, 2004), 184.

[23] Quoted in Elliott White Springs, Clothes Make the Man, (Self-published, 1949), 28.

[24] John Shelton Reed, Dan Huntley, and John Kenneth Morland, Millways of Kent (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 204.

[25] Ibid., 204–05.

[26] Marjorie Adella Potwin, Cotton Mill People of the Piedmont; A Study in Social Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), 51.

[27] Yafa, Big Cotton, 188.

[28] Gay L. Gullickson, “Technology, Gender, and Rural Culture: Normandy and the Piedmont,” in Jeffrey Leiter and Michael D. Schulman, Hanging by a Thread: Social Change in Southern Textiles, ed. Rhoda Zingraff (IthicaIthaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 43.

[29] Stephen L. Shapiro, The Growth of the Cotton Textile Industry in South Carolina, 1919-1930 (Columbia: University of South Carolina., 1971), 151–52. Also see David Carlton, Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

[30] Louise Pettus and Martha Bishop, The Springs Story: Our First Hundred Years, (Fort Mill, S.C.: Springs Industries, 1987), 66–67. The narrative that follows can be found in this volume and Elliot White Springs, Clothes Make the Man.

[31] Quoted in Carlton, Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920, 106–07.

[32] Pettus, The Springs Story, 19. Also see Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 154–61.

[33] Cynthia D. Anderson, Social Consequences of Economic Restructuring in the Textile Industry: Change in a Southern Mill Village (New York: Garland, 2000), 120.

[34] See Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South 1938–1980 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press Books, 1994), Chapter 6, “Missiles and Magnolias,” 135–73; Numan V. Bartley, The New South 1945-1980: A History of the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 143–46.

[35] James C. Cobb, Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-90, 2nd ed. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 61.

[36] Charlotte Business Journal, “Close Family to Sell Majority of Springs Holdings,” Charlotte Business Journal, July 23, 2007, http://charlotte.bizjournals.com/charlotte/stories/2007/07/23/daily32.html (accessed August 2009).

[37] I updated this in April 2013 based on the last complete numbers for February 2013. See Employer’s Association of South Carolina’s website at http://eascinc.com/unemployment_rate.html.

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