Textile Mills

Despite its industrial gains, overall the South remained essentially an economic colony of the North, supplying the raw materials for northern industries.  The South initially wanted northern capital and investments to “kick-start” the economy but never escaped this paradigm.  Southerners became agents and executives for northern corporations rather than owners or principals of their own businesses.  Industries did diversify in South but remained little more than branch plants, factories, or chain stores for businesses headquartered in the North. 

Seizing the industrial spirit and taking advantage of the South’s major cash crop, southern capitalists began a campaign to bring cotton mills to the region.  In the antebellum period the center for textile manufacturing had been New England, and its mills continued to make cloth throughout the post-Civil War period but by 1910, New South industrialists successfully captured the textile mill industry.  Described as “extraordinary,” the rate of textile mill growth in the South jumped from 161 in 1880 to 239 by 1890 to 400 in 1900. The main four southern states that had textile mills—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—took advantage of Appalachian river water sources to power the plants, but those same rivers, some rushing off the mountains into the Piedmont, later provided hydro-electricity.  The first factory to operate with electricity in the United States opened in the South.  

Small-town boosters, eager to promote the new mills, boasted that the factories would revolutionize the South.  Mill owners viewed workers as the major recipients of their generosity, offering them steady wages and housing.  In reality, the wages were so low that women and children were forced into working long hours at even lower wages than men.  What was a work day like in a textile mill?  Mill workers:

children working in a textile mill

children working in a textile mill

While workers struggled, investors in these same mills often earned profits of 22 percent, and some got away with 75 percent profits.  The textile industry, though touted as a saving grace to poor southern farmers, in fact trapped many of them into working in the mills their entire lives. Their children often followed suit, receiving minimal education and earning little.  The children sometimes suffered incapacitating injuries, such as severed fingers or limbs and byssinosis or brown lung disease caused by the narrowing of the airways due to the inhalation of cotton fibers.  Whereas Henry Grady may have been espousing a New South ethos of industrialization and modernization, the majority of southern workers found themselves caught in web of labor exploitation.    

Why Work at a Mill?

Cotton mills in Durham, North Carolina, 1909.

Cotton mills in Durham, North Carolina, 1909.

If conditions were so bad and the pay so low, why did white southerners work in the mills?  The push-pull of the economy sent rural folk off the farms.  The increase in sharecropping, tenantry, and the crop lien system across the South caught freed people and poor white farmers in a nearly inescapable system of debt peonage.  As railroads crossed the South, they brought with them commercial items for sale from the North and the Sears Catalogue with its appeal to “store bought” merchandise.  Consumer wants and needs pushed families to seek cash and that meant turning to off-the-farm work.  Poverty and the increasing lure of commercial goods drove yeoman farm families to consider the change to mill work.

Merchants and lenders, who had earned profits through the crop lien system, bankrolled the cotton mills and then invited those once self-sustaining farmers to work in them for consistent, although low wages.  The first to leave marginal farms and come to work in the mills were widows, itinerant farm laborers, and young single women.  By 1890, as more farmers had to leave the land, family units arrived to work in the mills. Shrewd owners offered housing to workers based on how many “hands” a family could provide the mill; it was necessary to have at least one worker per room in order to live in a four-room mill house.  In those early years, 92 percent of mill workers lived in the villages offered by the company, and they grudgingly accepted the mill owned house, store, school, and church.  They barely tolerated the mill owner’s intrusion into their lives and downright hated it when they were paid in scrip and could only redeem their “pay” at the owner’s store. Trading the perils of the crop lien system, mill hands lamented the way the owners kept them in debt: “If you worked at the mill they’d just take your wages and put it in the company store and you didn’t get nothing. For years and years they didn’t get no money, just working for the house they lived in and what they got at the company store. They just kept them in the hole all the time.”  Learn more about working in the mill in the “Capturing Child Labor” interactive. 

Insert Lewis Hine Capturing Child Labor images activity

Mill Village Life

For all its problems, mill village life supported workers emotionally and sometimes materially in the years before World War I.  Called by historians a “unique workers’ culture,” mill hands created their own sense of family out of the mill community.  Rural families in the South replicated the kinship patterns in the mill villages that had long sustained them, sometimes with real kin, other times with neighbors and friends.  Community gatherings fostered common trust and good will:  weddings and holiday celebrations brought mill workers together on their one day off a week.  Women often jumped in to help when a worker became ill.  They organized a “pounding” for the stricken, bringing a pound of food to the home.  Some women, through herbal medicine and midwifery, found that they could achieve a form of respect often denied them at the workplace. Delivering babies and providing healing through folk remedies were not just sidelines, they were important life sustaining tasks that mill villagers needed.  Village men achieved prominence through their music—banjo, fiddle, and guitar playing. They would make music on weekends, providing entertainment and recreation in the days before radio. These were the ties that bound one to the other and created a form of solidarity that could be counted on when labor strife overwhelmed them.

Daily Life

Mill hands’ lives were dominated by the factory that loomed as a giant structure near their small clapboard homes. Their daily routine hardly varied as owners sought to create a tractable work force. Supervisors roamed the mills making sure that carders, spinners, weavers, and doffers were fully engaged in their tasks.  Breaks were few, and women complained that they hardly had time to relieve themselves before a supervisor accused them of malingering. Discipline could include cursing, yelling, and jerking children around who may have fallen asleep or simply acted in a childish manner. 

Jobs were usually sex and race segregated; the only jobs available to black men were in the basement where they opened the bales of cotton. In the upper floors white men and women often shared jobs as weavers, while women and children worked together as spinners and doffers – replacing spools of thread and tying broken ends.  Men were always supervisors over women and women earned half to two-thirds what men earned; children earned even less.  In patriarchal replication of family life, white men held authority over women and children, but the fact that no man could earn a wage high enough to support his family; that his wife and children had to work, undermined male authority and sometimes led to domestic abuse, racial rancor, and the support of political demagogues.   

South Carolina Governor Cole Blease, who used racist language to remind poor textile workers that their whiteness made them superior to any African American, including a black college professor, handily won the white male mill worker vote, while doing nothing to improve their lot.   Such ideology coupled with the mill system perpetuated poverty, led to extreme controls in the form of vigilante justice, and kept women and children in menial and subservient positions. The tendencies to strike for better wages and improved working conditions did not materialize until after World War I, but the labor agitation almost never succeeded in gains for the workers.