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Children at Work and Their Mothers Who Love Them

December 7, 2009

(Hine, Four Doffers)

Many of the songs recorded today in the tradition of labor history reflect on child labor and the mourning or fearful mother. Despite laws concerning how old a child could be to work in a mill, children as young as 5 or 6 could be found doing chores and “helping out” around the factory. This was mostly the case in the Southern mills where the mill town encouraged whole families to devote their working lives to the mill. Children too young to be left alone came to work with their mothers and ended helping out with simple tasks. Once they were legally of age, or more likely simply old enough in appearance, children could be added to the pay role. Even at this young age, children were separated into different tasks by gender. Boys were usually assigned sweeping and doffer jobs which allowed for vast periods of free time to play and be children. Doffers could sit around for hours, but would then be called upon to work quickly and efficiently to replace all of the empty bobbins on the weaving machines. This job was highly dangerous and often required the children to climb up into the machines to reach the spools of thread. Eventually, boys would work their way up from doffer to the position of spinner. Girls, however, were immediately placed in the roles of spinners upon their official entrance to the mill. Spinners received no breaks and needed to pay constant attention to their work. This was a much more strenuous job and required a much higher level of concentration and perseverance than the positions allotted to young boys.

While many of the songs about child labor mourn the fact that children were forced to work, the issues cannot be blamed entirely on the mills and their efforts to enlist entire families from an early age. Mothers lied about the ages of their children to get wages out of their work earlier in life, and also removed them from school and took them to the mills. The reasoning behind this, was that if they received an education, they would leave home or marry earlier, thus starting their own household without allowing enough time for their wages to pay the family back for the cost of rearing them. (Hindman, 153-166).

Most of the songs in relation to children, however, contain the mourning words of mothers. The poverty and illnesses plaguing the poor white community found its way into songs like My Children Are Seven In Number, which is set to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean with words by Eleanor Kellogg, and Mill Mother’s Lament by Ella May Williams. These are songs of the most extreme sorrow; laments of poor working mothers who could barely afford to feed and clothe themselves, much less their children. Combined with union sentiments, these are some of the most powerful and persuasive organization songs of them all.

My children are seven in number
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I’m striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread.

Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes. (Seeger, American Industrial Ballads, track 21)

This song also makes the purpose of striking clear. What is the point of a strike? To get better wages. But what are these wages to be used for? Songs such as this, not only serve the strike, but also provide conext for the suffering of the people who sing. It is all very well to sing, “Down with the boss!” or “I will not suffer this injustice,” but to say that more money is needed to feed and shoe your children carries a great deal more weight.

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