Lintheads were disparaged as illiterates and as failed farmers who had become low paid, minimally skilled operatives or machine-tenders, a relatively new occupational category in South Carolina.
A disparaging nickname for cotton mill workers, of unknown origin, “lintheads” is sometimes equated with the term “white trash.” It likely came into common usage early in the twentieth century, when the growing number of cotton mills and mill workers began to alter the landscape of South Carolina life. As their ranks grew from 2,000 in 1880 to more than 71,000 by 1930, mill workers became an obvious social presence as well as a political force in South Carolina. Many found this new population threatening, especially after mill workers became the backbone of support for the controversial governor and U.S. senator Cole Blease.
“Linthead” had both a literal and a figurative meaning. A veritable snowstorm of cotton lint in the mills covered workers from head to toe. The term also differentiated mill workers from farmers and townspeople, the other major components of the white population.
Lintheads were disparaged as illiterates and as failed farmers who had become low paid, minimally skilled operatives or machine-tenders, a relatively new occupational category in South Carolina. Benjamin R. Tillman dismissed mill workers as “that damn factory class.” They went to the factory because they had no other realistic alternatives; they went there to feed their families and, they hoped, to improve their lot and that of their children.
Cotton mill workers, who played a critical role in the modernization of the South Carolina economy, made the “linthead” epithet a badge of honor. When the former mill operative Olin D. Johnston occupied the governor’s office in the 1930s, a poet wrote: “Hats off to the governor / Of the Palmetto State! / They may call him linthead / But I think he’s great.” Students at Olympia High School in Columbia used to sing “The Linthead Fight Song”: “We are a bunch of lintheads, / Lintheads are we. / Born in a factory, / We don’t care about spinning around the universe, / Of all the other lintheads, we are the best, / We come from OHS, the halo of all the rest.”
Byars, Alvin. Lintheads. Cayce, S.C., 1983. Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.