Economic Transformation and Child Labor

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Intersection of North Broad Street and Marietta Street, Atlanta, Georgia, 1910s. Copyright Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Courtesy of Georgia State University via the Digital Library of Georgia.

In 1913, Atlanta’s economy was transforming from agrarian to industrial. From 1900 to 1905, Atlanta manufacturing increased by seventy-five percent, and the city had become a hub for transporting agricultural products. While the state of Georgia remained primarily rural and agrarian, Atlanta was becoming an urban, industrial city. A symbol of Atlanta’s new industrial growth, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills was one of Atlanta’s largest employers in 1913. It was owned by the Elsas family, prominent members of Atlanta’s Jewish community.

Economic development in Atlanta was promoted by Henry W. Grady, managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution. He solicited Northern investment in Southern business by emphasizing the appeal of accessible Southern labor and selling Atlanta as part of the “New South.” Grady’s “New South” emphasized the industrial progress that underscored the distance from the Civil War and it concealed violence employed to maintain a familiar racial order.

Working conditions in many Southern manufacturing facilities were difficult. Factories were hot in summer, cold in winter, and sanitary conditions were poor. But the issue most prevalent in 1913 was child labor. While most Southern states set a minimum age of twelve for child workers, on April 26, 1913, the Atlanta Georgian reported that Georgia’s child labor standards were the nation’s worst, with factories employing children as young as ten.

The National Pencil Company in Atlanta exemplified these industrial conditions: the factory was supervised by Leo Frank, a Northerner, and Southern girls like Mary Phagan were hired to work low-wage jobs.