Villages often followed a simple pattern, with workers housed in rows of identical single-family houses or, in some cases, duplexes, while higher-ranking managers lived in larger houses closer to the mills in the community centers.
The establishment of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company’s mill on the Saluda River in Anderson County in the early 1880s marked the beginning of the Piedmont mill village boom. Early textile entrepreneurs built not only factories but frequently also entire villages, such as Piedmont in Greenville County, Clifton and Pacolet in Spartanburg County, and Graniteville and Langley in Aiken County. To ensure a steady supply of labor, employment contracts were signed with whole families, rather than with individuals, and the mill villages were central to this effort to retain employees. Quality housing and other amenities were crucial to attract and retain workers to the often isolated location of early mills. When mill villages were at their peak in the early 1900s, it has been estimated that as much as one-sixth of South Carolina’s white population lived and worked in them.
Villages often followed a simple pattern, with workers housed in rows of identical single-family houses or, in some cases, duplexes, while higher-ranking managers lived in larger houses closer to the mills in the community centers. Black employees were housed in separate alleys, often on the other side of the mills from their white counterparts. In addition to housing, mills usually built churches and schools, and they sometimes provided electric lights and other amenities. Many mills retained company stores that sold on credit, and workers were sometimes paid in credits redeemable only at the company stores. Mills provided structured recreation as well, with baseball and softball teams providing a sense of community to boost employee morale.
Despite the often paternalistic approach to the operation of the villages, many mill villages gained a reputation for crime, disorder, drunkenness, and other vices. Mill workers were often derisively referred to as “lintheads.” Mill owners worked to counter this reputation through intensive public relations campaigns. Pelzer and other mill villages prohibited saloons, imposed curfews, and even banned dogs in an effort to appear cleaner and more desirable.
As technology made it possible for mills to locate farther from water power sites and closer to an existing labor supply, the isolated mill villages soon gave way to enclaves established nearer to major towns. But the practice of providing housing, churches, company stores, and recreational facilities continued, as a means of maintaining control over the lives of an increasingly mobile workforce. Such plans, though often couched in the humanitarian language of paternalism, were aimed at forestalling any attraction workers might have toward organizing unions or engaging in other political activities. Thus, mill villages such as Drayton, Berea, Olympia, and many others formed virtually adjacent to, yet socially and politically separate from, Spartanburg, Greenville, and Columbia. Attempting to assuage fears that rural people recruited as mill workers might disturb town life, mill owners began promoting the mills as a positive good that could bring culture, education, and religion to the uncultured, uneducated, and unchurched rural folk. Meanwhile, politicians in smaller towns such as Clinton, Abbeville, and Newberry struggled to compete for the opportunity to build mills, regarding such investment as a virtual guarantee of prosperity much as their antebellum counterparts regarded raising cotton. The town of Clinton, home to Presbyterian College, saw its leading citizen W. P. Jacobs assert that the successful opening of the mill there was proof of God’s favor and the town’s righteousness.
In an effort to curb costs and preserve profits during the declining economic conditions of the 1920s, mill superintendents tried to get more work out of fewer workers, resulting in a phenomenon workers called the “stretch-out.” Conditions deteriorated as mill owners opted to discontinue funding community improvements, and housing and other facilities were allowed to deteriorate. The stretch-out and a series of bitter strikes undermined workers’ acceptance of existing conditions and exposed the shortcomings of the highly publicized paternalism of mill owners.
The mill villages were dismantled for many reasons, beginning in the 1920s. The automobile became more affordable, making it easier for workers to commute and easier for them to change jobs if working conditions deteriorated. Tougher child labor laws undermined the custom of hiring entire families to work, making it less cost-efficient for companies to provide housing. Intense competition forced mill owners to reexamine their costs, and often the amenities of the mill villages were allowed to decline. Additionally, during the 1920s many small mills were bought out by larger competitors who seldom had much stake in community life unless it affected the bottom line measurably. Many mill owners, contemplating the increasing mobility of the workforce, concluded that workers would be more likely to remain in the community if they invested in it as homeowners, and they began the process of selling the houses off, with their current occupants sometimes given first option to purchase at a slight discount from market value. Still, the companies remained in charge of the process. In many cases workers with a reputation for complaining or working to unionize were told that they would not be offered the chance to buy, and most white mill neighborhoods remained all-white until federal intervention in the 1960s. As the villages were sold off and institutions supported by the mills declined, the sense of community evident in neighborhood stores, parks, schools, churches, and mill league baseball declined, leaving behind only the physical artifacts of the mill village: rows of identical houses surrounding, in many cases, a silent and empty mill building.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et al. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Herring, Harriet. Passing of the Mill Village: Revolution in a Southern Institu- tion. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949.
Hodges, James A. New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1933–1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Moore, Toby. “Dismantling the South’s Cotton Mill Village System.” In The Second Wave: Southern Industrialization from the 1940s to the 1970s, edited by Philip Scranton. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.