“Catawba Cotton Mill”

In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original works, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel.  

Some of the doffers and the Supt. Ten small boys and girls about this size out of a force of 40 employees. Catawba Cotton Mill. Newton, N.C., 12/21/1908, (National Archives Identifier 523141)
“Some of the doffers and the Supt. Ten small boys and girls about this size out of a force of 40 employees.” Catawba Cotton Mill. Newton, N.C., 12/21/1908, (National Archives Identifier 523141)

Today’s poem, “Catawba Cotton Mill” by David Wojahn, was inspired by a Lewis Hine photograph of child workers in North Carolina.

From 1908 to 1912, Hine took approximately 5,000 photographs of children’s working and living conditions for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine photographed children engaged in a variety of industries across the United States.

Hine’s lens captured images of children—some as young as three years old—working in agricultural field work, canneries, cotton mills, factories, peddlers in street trades, and in coal mines.

In this photograph, doffers and their supervisor pose for the camera at the Catawba Cotton Mill in Newton, North Carolina. When the bobbins on the spinning machines became full, doffers were responsible for removing the full bobbins and replacing them with empty ones. This particular mill employed 40 workers; 10 of whom were small children.

Hine’s photographs became influential in the movement to enact child labor laws in the United States during the early 20th century.

To view more of Hine’s photographs from the National Archives, visit our Flickr page.

Catawba Cotton Mill, 1908 by David Wojahn

                             –a photo by Lewis Hine

Propping his tripod, Hine remembers
Childhood snowfall in Wisconsin,
Flakes careening in prairie wind,

A red sleigh skimming a frozen lake,
Curlicued breath-mist of two dappled drays.
But this is a blizzard of cotton dust

From the looms & thirty thousand spindles,
Gauze-air, whirlwind of innumerable floaters.
The thermometer reads one hundred & three.

& for these seven ten-year-olds, childhood
Is six ten-hour shifts & on the seventh day
They rest, heads nodding over hymnbooks,

The drone of temperance & hellfire.
But this is din, not drone, the spindles’
Manic prayer wheels, the doffers

& the “little piecers,” skittering on hand & knee
Beneath the clatter of the looms,
Patrolling for clumps of cotton waste.

This is weaver’s cough and “mattress maker’s fever,”
The mad percussive shivaree & glossolalia.
But then, for this moment, it ceases.

The foremen have gathered their doffers
& stilled the looms & spindles—
Six boys, a lone girl. The foreman

Adjusts his derby, pointing them toward
the cyclop-eye: Hine’s 5 x 7. They are ordered
To look solemn, as if they could look

otherwise. Pulled slide, the flashpan
Dusted with power, the sizzle as the room
Erupts in light. Where the punctum?

Where the studium? To end your life
At twenty-five or thirty. Missing fingers,
Mangled hands, to walk somnambulant

To a sullen dormitory bunk, picking
Cotton shavings from your hair,
Mattress ticking spat onto a rude pine floor.

But Hine has set his flashpan in its case,
Broken down his tripod. Fiat Lux.
Hine gathers his work & faintly smiles,

Adjusting his bowler & making a fist, as if
To attest that in this foul rag & sweatshop,
In this charnel house of ceaseless

Motion, his lens might render
One fugitive instant of dignity. Light
            Is required, wrote Hine, light in floods.

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