Three Bibles by Stephanie Edmonds

Joseph A. Michaels was a husband, father and cotton mill worker in North Carolina during the Great Depression. The following article, based on his 1938 interview with the Federal Writer's Project, details his life and emphasizes the hardships he faced as a child laborer and mill worker.

Federal Writer's Project

The Federal Writer's Project (1935-1942) was part of the New Deal program under Franklin Roosevelt and was created in an effort to provide jobs and "produce publications of lasting merit" (Hill paragraph 1). Director W. T. Couch aimed to capture a realistic picture of the everyday lives of individuals during the Great Depression through the production of the Life Histories Collection in both a readable and relatable way. Because of the FWP, individuals today have access to the life histories of those that might have been forgotten.

A young boy and man pose for a picture while exchanging a piece of literature under a Federal Writer's Project media stand.

Although there were guidelines for the interviewees about how to conduct the interviews, personal biases, writing style and interpretations sometimes muddled their way into the accounts. In the production of Michaels' life history, the opening paragraph was marked through so that it would not be included in the final publication. There is no confirmation as to whether this was writer John H. Abner's revision, or that of W. T. Couch. The text that is crossed out read, " 'Hm,' said Joe Michaels, in reply to my query. 'What kind of a story do you want me to tell?' 'Just tell about yourself, your family, your life as a tenant farmer; and as a cotton mill worker. Tell me what life in a cotton mill is like?' " (Abner 3728). Such editing could suggest that Abner was using leading questions, or trying to obtain a particular view of Michaels' life, as opposed to Michaels' describing his personal experiences in a way which reflected his own emotions and thought process.

A photocopy of the first page of Joseph A. Michaels' interview depicting the revisions that were made before publication.


Joseph Michaels was born in 1868 in Burke County, North Carolina and worked in cotton mills until the age of 68. As the father of twelve, he had no choice but to toil in the mills in order to avoid debt and provide for his family. The typical day was 12 hours long and yielded a 70 cent pay. In his interview he stated, "As I look backward, I cannot understand how I ever lived through it" (Abner 3737). Eventually, as soon as his young sons could, they joined their father in the grueling line of work. Because there were no strict child labor laws or legislation outlining safe and proper working conditions, employees were treated poorly and had no choice but to suffer the manipulation of mill superintendents. Michaels compared his experience to slavery when he said, "The land-lords had owned the slaves. They were property, and were usually treated as good as the mules and the other stock. The mill operators did not own their hands; and felt no responsibility for their well being" (Abner 3733). Despite it all, Michaels only stopped working when Social Security Laws were put in place and told Abner that he wouldn't be wasting time on an interview if he could be out making money.

This photo collage depicts images of child labor, mill workers and family life in the south during the Great Depression.


Mill Town Structure

One of the predominate struggles that Michaels, his family, and his neighboring community faced were the hardships inflicted on employees at the cotton mills. According to him, the entire system was set up to be a corrupt, money making enterprise that left individuals bound to their positions through debt. According to Bennett Judkins and Dorothy Lodge, mill companies offered to move families who could not pay their taxes to new mill villages and give them steady wages and a new home. Because the mills paid for all of these expenses, workers were in debt before they even set foot into the mill town (Judkins, Lodge paragraph 1). Initially this was a strong attraction, but after residents arrived, they realized that they were subjected to the apathetic and harsh rule of the superintendents and that any form of rebellion against the establishment could mean being sent to the chain gang or starved into agreement. Jeffrey Leiter elaborates on this misfortune and asserts, "Under traditional domination, subordinates accept the arbitrary power of the master without question and by convention. In any authority relationship, a continuing sense of obligation on the part of the subordinates is essential to the stability of the system" (Leiter 2). Power was exerted and maintained through fear and forced coercion. Ultimately, because of the oppressive setup, mill laborers had no opportunity to leave, demand rights or change their socioeconomic status through upward mobility.

Child Labor

Both Michaels and his children began working at an extremely young age in comparison to today's societal norms. In fact, "From the 1880s well into the twentieth century children as young as eight and nine years of age would work at least part-time in the factories" (Judkins, Lodge paragraph 7). Often times a family in debt had no other option than to send their children to toil alongside grown men and women. During the early 1900s, proposed child labor laws were largely opposed by caretakers because they threatened potential income. Bill Kauffman writes, "Parents, many of them new in the mill towns, ... 'felt the children should continue to do their part to help support the family, just as they had done on the farm' " (Kauffman 4). In order to make this work, many women and children were given "low-skill jobs created by the advent ring of spinning [the act converting fibers to thread or yarn]"" (Korstad 2). In fact, Michaels himself was paid 25 cents a day to weave in the mills. Discussion amidst scholars about the effects that such familial hardships had on children's' lives led to the conclusion that, "the Great Depression can be viewed as a natural field experiment that created an exogenous change in the social and economic situations of families and altered the developmental context of children” (Elder, Nguyen, Caspi 362). Essentially, the financial setbacks which occurred during the 1930s deprived families of what could have been a more nurturing and positive atmosphere, as well as fostered a change in the traditional jobs of family members. Michaels was a very proud and compassionate father and one of the internal struggles that he seemed to battle was reconciling his role as a protector and also a provider. He wanted the best for his children, but needed extra financial support to help the family survive.

Joseph A. Michaels' story as a mill worker and child laborer can be used as a lens through which readers today view the Great Depression and attribute what life might have been like for others in a similar situation during the time.

Works Cited

Abner, John H. (interviewer). "Three Bibles". Folder 281 in the Federal Writer's Project pages 3728-3744. Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Elder, Glen H., Tri Van Nguyen, and Avshalom Caspi. "Linking Family Hardship to Children's Lives." Child Development 56.2 (1985): 361. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Hill, Michael. "Federal Writers' Project." Federal Writers' Project | NCpedia. Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

Judkins, Bennett M., and Dorothy Lodge. "Textile Mill Villages, Evolution of." Textile Mill Villages, Evolution of | NCpedia. Tar Heel Journal Historian, 1 Jan. 1986. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Kauffman, Bill. "The Child Labor Debate of the 1920s." Essays in Political Economy 16 (1992): 1-22. Ludwig Von Misses Institute. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Korstad, Robert. "Child Labor." Child Labor | NCpedia. Tar Heel Journal Historian, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Leiter, Jeffrey. "Continuity and Change in the Legitimation of Authority in Southern Mill Towns." Social Problems 29.5 (1982): 540-50. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Images Cited

Delano, Jack. At the Mary-Leila Cotton Mill in Greensboro, Georgia. 1941. Greensboro, Georgia. Photogrammar. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <>.

Delano, Jack. Chief of Police Talking to CIO Pickets outside a Mill in Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia. 1941. Greensboro, Greene County, Georgia. Photogrammar. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <>.

Delano, Jack. Sheffield, Alabama. Reynolds Alloys Company. Kenneth C. Hall, Foreman of a Hot Mill. 1942. Sheffield, Colbert (new), Alabama. Photogrammar. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <>.

Federal Writers' Project Presentation of Who's Who at the Zoo. 1938. Archives of American Art. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 9 Feb. 2017. <'_Project_presentation_of_Who's_who_at_the_zoo_-_10497.jpg>.

Lee, Russell. Workers at Mill Talking. Gold Mine at Mogollon, New Mexico. 1940. Mogollon, Catron, New Mexico. Photogrammar. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Rothstein, Arthur. Child Labor, Cranberry Bog, Burlington County, New Jersey. 1938. Burlington County, New Jersey. Photogrammar. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Rothstein, Arthur. Family Living on Part-time Farming Unit at Loogootee, Wabash Farms, Indiana. 1938. Wabash, Indiana. Photogrammar. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.