The Story of My Cotton Dress

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Scanned from The Child Labor Bulletin, August, 1914.

I HAVE HAD another accident! A big tear in my pretty new dress. This time I want to mend it. When we went to Atlanta Georgia, a few weeks ago, and saw the beautiful white cotton fields, mother told me how little boys and girls must help make most of the stuff used for our dresses. I used to think all other children had good times, and that going to school was very hard. Now I know better.

Black and white image of people working in a cotton field
The Cotton Field.

I appreciate my dresses more since I know that from the very beginning when the cotton is ripe in the hot sun, little boys and girls must pick it for my dresses, while their backs grow tired and their heads ache.

A black and white  image of one bobbin spinning to anotherMother also took me to a cotton mill, on that trip. I saw how the cotton bolls arc brought to the mill and the fluffy soft white mass is combed and then spun from on bobbin another, until it is the finest thread like the ravelings from the tear in my new dress.

The bobbins whirl around on large frames in the spinning room.

Spinning from one bobbin to another.

Little girl "spinners" walk up and down the long aisles, between the frames, watching the bobbins closely. When a thread breaks, the spinner must quickly tie the two ends together. Some people think that only children can do this quickly enough, but that is not so, for in a great many mills only grown-ups work.


Black and white image of a young girl spinning
The Spinner

Black and white image of a young girl in front of spinning machines with flat feet

Mary is one of the spinners. She was very sad. Standing all day long, she said, had broken down the arch of her foot and made her flatfooted, which is very painful.


Some people say it is good for the girls and boys to work—that all children should be industrious But they do not stop to think that there is a right and a wrong kind of work for little girls and boys. Spinning for a little while a day could be made the right kind, but work in a spinning room from 7 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock at night is the wrong kind. It keeps the children out of school, it gives them no chance to play, and they cannot grow strong.

Many spinning rooms have their windows closed all day because the rooms must be kept damp or the threads will break. Now, like growing plants, growing girls and boys need fresh air as well as light and sunshine. But there are more than a million children in this country who do not have fresh air, or play, or school because they are working. And of these there are enough in the cotton mills to make a big city full.

Black and white picture of fields
The Green Fields

A Black and White image of a young doffer boy

When a bobbin is filled, the "doffer boy" comes along, takes it off the spinning frame and puts an empty bobbin in its place.

Many doffer boys and girl spinners grow up without learning to read or write, and without even hearing of George Washington.

Sometimes the machine is so high and the boys are so little, they have to climb up to reach the bobbins. If they slip they can hurt themselves badly.

The Doffer.

At last the thread is ready to be woven into cloth. It is put through a machine called the warper, which prepares the threads which run the length of the goods. I think the hardest work the girls in the mill did was to thread every one of these warp threads through a tiny hole to prepare them for the loom that weaves the cloth.

"Surely, mother," I said when we left the cotton mill , "little girls can't do any more work for a dress."

"Ah, yes, dear," she said, "it is in the making of the dress itself that little girls take a big part. The cloth you saw woven is sent to factories in other large cities. It is cut into dresses that are carried in bundles into tenement homes. And such homes! Often only one or two rooms for the whole family to cook and eat and sleep and sew in. Mothers sew the dresses, while their little girls help draw out the basting threads and sew on the buttons.

 A black and white image of young boys standing on a warper machine
They Climb upon the Machine.

"Not long ago I read the story about Rose, nine years old. who sews buttons on little girls' dresses. Her mother used to make dolls dresses, and Rose had to snip them apart. She grew so tired of doing this for dolls for other little girls to play with, when she had no doll herself and when she wanted to read fairy stories, that what do you think she did? She snipped into the dolls' dresses with the scissors! So now her mother makes big dresses, for little girls, and Rose cannot use the scissors, but must work with a needle. She sews on 36 buttons to earn 4 cents."

A black and white photo of Rose and her sibling and mother in tenement housing "The scallops of the embroidery trimming little girls like so well for their dresses," mother continued, "are cut out by children in tenement houses. These little girls generally go to school, but often fall asleep over their lessons because they worked long after bedtime the night before, and an hour or two before school in the morning.
 A black and white photo of a family in a tenement home cutting out embroidery
Rose.Cutting out Embroidery in a Tenement Home.

"The pretty ribbon trimmings are pulled through the dresses by children in still other tenement homes. You see, their mothers do not mean to be cruel, but they must pay rent and buy coal and bread and shoes with the money the children can earn. More cruel than these poor mothers were the people who, when the fathers were little boys, made them do work that taught them nothing; for now the fathers do not know how to earn enough money, and they are idle while the children work.

"If only everybody cared, and would not buy things that children make, the factory men would give the work to the fathers and not to the children."

A black and white image of a woman with her children pulling ribbons through garments in a tenement House
Pulling Ribbons through Garments in a Tenement Home