Thursday, February 16, 2012

A cotton mill pt. 2

Before the U.S. Civil War, the textile industry was located principally in New England. After the Civil War, reconstruction of the south and a desire to "bring the mills to the cotton" led to the development of a southern textile industry. That grow took place mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1899, D. A. Tompkins published Cotton Mill Commercial Features: A Textbook for the use of Textile Schools and Investors. His recommendations sound a lot like how coal camps were organized and run in Appalachia.

Mill owners were advised to locate their mills one to four miles outside cities, and to build houses to house their workers. The remoteness of the mills would allow the owners to increase income by operating stores to serve their employees' needs, keep operations away from the prying eyes of lawyers who might be inclined to sue over injuries, and being away from the temptations of an urban setting employees might tend to go to bed earlier and be more ready to work the following day. In short, the owners could maintain social and economic control over their workers. Further, being outside municipal jurisdictions the owners could escape paying property taxes and having governmental oversight.

The work week was from 6:00 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with an additional nine hours on Saturday. Yet wages were low, sixty percent below what was paid mill hands elsewhere. Children worked along with their parents to increase family income. South Carolina passed a law in 1903 that no child below the age of 10 could work in a mill. The age limit was raised to 11 in 1904 and to 12 in 1905. Part of the workers' pay was "in kind," gardens, housing, medical care, etc., which lowered the actual amount of cash the workers had to spend and limited their mobility further. Yet, unionization proceeded slowly. Many of the workers were better off than they had been before finding work at the mills and any attempt to strike was met with a lockout and eviction notices. Union membership did not become significant until the depression of the 1930s when production was reduced and a smaller workforce was forced to work harder to meet what production there was.

Starting in the 1930s the mill village ceased to be an asset for the mill owners and the house were sold cheaply. Some workers bought their homes; others continued to rent from new, speculator landlords. Eventually most mills closed as production moved to other countries and technology replaced many of the workers needed to operate a mill.

The mill village houses in the photo at top appear to be duplexes, although I read that they could be either a duplex or easily made into a single-family dwelling. We were struck by the fact they are what's called a "salt-box" design, which we associate with New England. Perhaps that design came south with the engineers who built the southern textile mills.


  1. Much of the textiles we wear today are produced in similar conditions, but 'out of sight, out of mind'. It also sounds very similar to the systems used in the textile mills in the north of England in the last century. Interesting post, as always.

  2. Nice post Jim. I love learning about these kinds of things/ways of life. It reminds me of the situation with our migrant workers of today though.