The Southern Common People: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Social History

By Edward Magdol; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

Dale Newman


Textile Workers in a Tobacco County: A Comparison Between Yarn and Weave Mill Villagers *

The cotton textile industry was concentrated in the northeastern part of the United States until the late nineteenth century. Around 1880, the industry began a gradual and continuous shift to the South. 1 The Southeast's share of spindles in cotton-goods manufacture increased from 22 percent to 73 percent of the nation's total between 1899 and 1939. 2 By the mid-twentieth century, more than 80 percent of the active spindles were in the cotton states. 3

Such shifts in location of major industries are rare, 4 and a thorough explanation of the phenomenon lies beyond the scope of this essay. 5 However, the initial specialization of the southern mills upon the production of coarse yarns was integrally related to technological improvements in ring spinning and widespread poverty in the South. Ring spindles were invented in 1828, but the technical difficulties of high-speed spinning were not overcome until 1871. 6 Unlike mule spinning, which relied upon skilled male labor, ring spinning could be performed by unskilled women and children. 7 The lesson taught by the Fall River, Massachusetts, strike of 1879 was not lost on would-be textile manufacturers below the Mason-Dixon line: Mills that used mules shut down; those which used rings continued to operate. 8 As their efforts to ameliorate the destitution of landless whites impoverished by slavery, civil war, and declining cotton prices culminated in the crusade for cotton mills, 9 the new industrialists

____________________
Source: This essay is based upon a presentation at the Second Southern Labor History Conference, Atlanta, May 4, 1978, titled, "Comparison of the Living and Working Conditions in a Cotton Yarn Mill to Those in a Weave Mill Village in a Rural-Industrial County of Piedmont North Carolina." I am indebted to Jonathan Levine and David Montgomery for their criticisms of the original version.
*
Pseudonyms have been used for proper names. See the Appendix to this essay for an abbreviated methodological statement.

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