The textile industry was the most significant early industry to take root in the upcountry and Piedmont regions of South Carolina. Some New England manufacturers saw potential for factory operations along the backcountry rivers and set up a handful of small mills there after 1814.
Industry in early South Carolina was limited and tied closely to the agrarian nature of the colony. Since the lowcountry was settled largely by English planters and their slaves from Barbados, the primary economic focus was on developing a staple crop. By the mid- eighteenth century, indigo and rice were the dominant cash crops. Rice held the most potential for economic success, but the crop required labor-intensive hand milling by slaves. The growing dominance of rice cultivation in the lowcountry led planters to search for more efficient and cost-effective ways to mill the staple for commercial transport. By the Revolutionary era, planters had developed rice-milling factories that utilized water power to drive pestles. Steam power further accelerated the milling process. Aside from this technological innovation, however, the lowcountry witnessed little industrial change through the early nineteenth century.
Much of South Carolina’s pre–Civil War industrialization was centered in the upcountry. A smaller planter population and more favorable geography contributed to the region’s factory development. In the late colonial period, settlers of the backcountry districts including Spartanburg, York, Greenville, and Pendleton discovered important mineral wealth, especially gold and iron. Although small-scale gold mining operations were under way by the time of the Revolution, iron production held the most potential for industrial success. The combination of significant iron veins and river systems to power factories led to the construction of the first iron foundry in Spartanburg in 1773. By the 1850s, the upcountry had eight furnaces employing mostly slave labor to produce about four thousand tons of commercial iron per year. However, the iron industry soon declined due to competition from anthracite regions in Pennsylvania, rising labor costs, and poor transportation routes.
The textile industry was the most significant early industry to take root in the upcountry and Piedmont regions of South Carolina. Some New England manufacturers saw potential for factory operations along the backcountry rivers and set up a handful of small mills there after 1814. Most of the antebellum textile mills remained small, employing mostly white women and children from the surrounding countryside. The exception to this was William Gregg’s Graniteville factory, an industrial community based on the mill village of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Prior to the Civil War, industry in South Carolina struggled due to limited financial support, underdeveloped commercial routes, and the institution of slavery. Lowcountry planters dominated the state legislature and rarely supported state funding of industries that were generally located in the upcountry. Since the state lacked a significant railroad infrastructure until the eve of the Civil War, transportation costs were high and markets for industrial products remained local. Finally, slavery itself restricted the home market for industrial products since slaves would not be significant consumers.
During the Civil War, the iron and textile industries operated to capacity, supplying war materials such as ammunition and uniforms. Although much of the machinery was worn-out by war’s end due to overuse, the factories largely escaped destruction. As a result, many factory owners and managers were able to recover quickly from the Confederacy’s defeat and find new opportunities in a changed economy.
Northern investment, the end of slavery, and an increasing shift to cotton by small farmers all ensured that textile factories became the dominant industry for the remainder of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. Key to the expansion of this industry was rail lines, which drastically reduced transportation costs and fostered town growth. By the early twentieth century, South Carolina was the second largest cotton-textile-producing state, and mill villages dotted the landscape of the Piedmont and upcountry.
Although boosters championed the textile industry for bringing progress and jobs to South Carolina, the factories introduced some of the ambiguous effects of industrialization as well. Mill owners employed white labor, often women and children, to work sixty or more hours per week. Company towns controlled much of the workers’ lives and wages remained low compared to factory workers in the North. No significant labor conflict occurred, however, until the Great Depression when management’s increased demands on workers led to the General Textile Strike of 1934–up to that point the largest strike in American labor history.
At the same time that the Great Depression brought hardship for mill owners and workers, it also contributed to a critical advance in South Carolina’s industrial future. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery program, the state General Assembly created the South Carolina Public Service Authority in 1934. Tasked with building dams along the Santee and Cooper Rivers for hydroelectric power, the South Carolina Public Service Authority became known as the Santee Cooper project. By 1942 Santee Cooper had constructed a hydroelectric plant at Pinopolis which would be essential in powering new industries both during and after World War II.
World War II revived the struggling textile industry. War-time production demands led many mills to operate continuously using three shifts. Workers at the Charleston Navy Yard produced destroyers and naval weaponry. Employment at the yard skyrocketed from 6,000 in 1941 to 28,000 in 1943. The demand for workers at defense industries, combined with the loss of men to the armed forces, left farmers seriously shorthanded.
Following the war, South Carolina launched an aggressive effort to foster more rapid industrialization. In 1951 the state attracted the DuPont Corporation’s Savannah River nuclear weapons facility to Barnwell. The State Development Board was created in 1954 with the specific job of recruiting new industries to the state. The state assembly also created the State Ports Authority to update the Port of Charleston’s facilities to accommodate commercial trade. In a move to attract English paper manufacturer Bowater Incorporated, Governor George Bell Timmerman called a special session of the General Assembly in 1956 to amend the state’s alien-ownership law so that non-Americans could own up to 500,000 acres of land. In 1959 Bowater completed its paper-and pulp-producing plant in Catawba, representing one of the largest capital investments in South Carolina during the 1950s. Recruitment of multinational industries continued to accelerate in the 1960s. At the urging of Governor Ernest Hollings, the legislature set up a new industrial training program aimed at recruiting companies to an already trained workforce. By the end of that decade, South Carolina was drawing forty percent of its annual industrial investments from overseas.
While many in the state championed the new industries for bringing jobs and a healthier economy, some questioned the costs of such aggressive recruitment. Environmentalists criticized the state Pollution Control Authority’s willingness to relax standards to accommodate factories. Labor unions were especially critical of South Carolina’s hostility to unionization. In 1954 the South Carolina General Assembly passed a right-to-work law that prevented most unionization efforts and therefore kept wages lower than other regions of the country. The state’s resistance to union activity continued through the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1970s, most new industries were concentrated in the South Carolina upcountry. By 1973 Spartanburg was home to twenty-four foreign corporations employing four thousand workers. In the middle of the decade, Michelin built two plants and later located its American headquarters in Greenville. So many foreign industries were located along the Interstate 85 corridor between Spartanburg and Greenville that locals called it the “autobahn.” At the same time, competition from developing countries was bringing South Carolina’s textile era to a close.
Industrial expansion continued through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993 Bowater moved its North American headquarters to Greenville. A year later, BMW opened its first complete automobile manufacturing plant outside Germany in Greer. By the turn of the twenty-first century, manufacturing accounted for just over twenty percent of South Carolina’s gross state product.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Caro- lina Press, 1993.
Cobb, James C. The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Lander, Ernest McPherson, Jr. The Textile Industry in Antebellum South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.