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.
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.
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