From the late nineteenth century through most of the twentieth century, the textile industry dominated South Carolina manufacturing. It employed the majority of all manufacturing workers, and its company towns set the terms of life for thousands of white Carolinians. Upcountry cities such as Greenville, Spartanburg, and Rock Hill rose to prominence as textile manufacturing centers. The industry, however, has also been charged with poor treatment of workers, hostility to progressive social and economic change, and failure to prepare for the global economy of the twenty-first century. For better or worse, its impact on the state’s history has been enormous.
Factory production of textiles in South Carolina commenced in fits and starts shortly after the Revolutionary War. After 1814 a handful of mainly northern-born manufacturers migrated into the state and set up spinning mills on the rapidly flowing watercourses of Spartanburg, Greenville, and Pendleton Districts, taking advantage of the natural monopolies afforded by the upcountry’s inaccessibility to outside competitors. Their mills were typically tiny, employing on average one to two dozen workers, who were frequently the children and older daughters of local farmers. The coarse yarn they produced was sold from wagons or distributed to upcountry stores. The major market was farmers’ wives and daughters, who would weave it into clothing.
Several more ambitious enterprises, frequently using slave labor, grew up around the fall zone. The state’s most important antebellum cotton mill, the Graniteville Manufacturing Company, began operations in 1849 on Horse Creek in present-day Aiken County. Its developer, William Gregg, was one of the South’s leading advocates of industrial development, and he organized Graniteville to put his ideas into effect. Gregg modeled his mill on the great integrated operations of Lowell, Massachusetts, engaging in bulk production for both local sale and export. He employed some four hundred workers, by design virtually all white, drawn mainly from the immediate vicinity and housed in an especially elaborate mill village. In many respects Graniteville set the pattern for what came later.
The antebellum textile industry was always small. In 1860 it employed fewer than one thousand workers (around forty percent of them at Graniteville alone), compared to nearly forty thousand in Massachusetts. While the war years saw little military destruction (just one mill was burned by Sherman’s troops), the mills ran full-out to supply the Confederacy and entered the postwar era with worn-out equipment. But the industry quickly recovered, and its nucleus of “mill men” carried their experience forward into postbellum times, when a convergence of events revolutionized the industry.
During and after Reconstruction, the national economy opened up to the state’s industrial producers. Large rail systems came into existence and dramatically reduced transportation costs. The shift from slavery to sharecropping, and a major movement by small white upcountry farmers into cotton growing, opened opportunities for an expanding group of interior merchants. Many of these clustered in the numerous towns growing up along the new rail lines, each of which boasted its own set of “boosters” casting about for means of putting their community on the map.
For many, the manufacture of cotton textiles seemed an ideal growth strategy. While small-town merchants and bankers lacked manufacturing experience, the antebellum industry had accumulated experience on which they could draw. Also, by the late nineteenth century the technology and business of the American cotton textile industry had matured. A network of commission merchants, mill architects, and machinery makers had arisen to serve the industry, all of whom were eager to develop new markets outside the industrialized Northeast. Textile technology was highly portable and designed to compensate for low levels of skill. Ring spinning frames could be worked by young girls standing on crates, and the automatic loom allowed for low-cost bulk production by inexperienced weavers.
With national markets open to them, and outside technology and expertise available to substitute for local inadequacies of skill and experience, South Carolina mill men could exploit their major advantage over their northeastern competitors: low labor costs. Set by the deepening poverty of the southern countryside, wage rates were as much as fifty percent lower than in New England, and until the early twentieth century the lack of labor laws allowed mills to run sixty-six or more hours a week. Manufacturers were also able to make extensive use of child labor, commonly hiring entire families. In 1900 the U.S. Census reported that thirty percent of South Carolina mill hands were between the ages of ten and sixteen.
After 1880 the South Carolina textile industry grew rapidly, as local boosters and outside investors built large, state-of-the-art plants. By 1900 South Carolina was second only to Massachusetts as a cotton-textile-producing state, and by 1930 the state passed the Bay State to rank second behind North Carolina. Clustered in the upper Piedmont in a belt centered on the rising industrial cities of Greenville and Spartanburg, textile mills attracted not only nearby rural white inhabitants but also migrants from Appalachia. By the 1920s the culture of mill village life had become central to some one-sixth of white South Carolinians (from the postbellum years to the 1960s, black Carolinians were largely barred from mill work). Companies controlled not only housing but frequently also retailing, schooling, religion, recreation (notably mill league baseball), and other aspects of community life.
In the 1920s and 1930s, however, the industry began to experience progressively greater increasing difficulties. While they vanquished their competitors in New England, southern mills increasingly found themselves competing among themselves in a stagnating textile market, which added to the pressure to find ways to cut costs. The Great Depression worsened the problems, as competition became cutthroat and efforts at cooperative action to stabilize prices and output, such as those undertaken under the National Recovery Administration of 1933–1935, came to naught.
Most manufacturers’ costs were accounted for by raw materials and labor. With no real control over the former, they increasingly sought to get more out of the latter by intensifying the work pace. Workers responded to the hated “stretch-out” with unprecedented resistance. A period of intense, if sporadic, labor conflict began in 1929, peaking with the General Textile Strike of 1934–up to that point the largest strike in American labor history. Nonetheless, unions never made significant headway in the industry. The general lack of skill among workers and the decentralized, disintegrated structure of the industry left them at a chronic disadvantage against employers willing to go to sometimes enormous lengths to maintain their control. The failure of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ “Operation Dixie” in the late 1940s effectively ended the challenge from organized labor.
The industry revived with World War II and in the immediate postwar years prospered from pent-up consumer demand. The 1940s and 1950s saw the consolidation of many of the industry’s numerous independent units into vertically integrated giants such as J. P. Stevens and Company, M. Lowenstein and Company, and Deering, Milliken and Company. A major homegrown firm, the Springs Cotton Mills of Fort Mill, established a national brand name in home furnishings, thanks in part to the racy advertising campaigns launched by its eccentric chief Elliott White Springs. While the industry consolidated, it also divorced itself from the worker communities it had called into being. A movement, begun in the 1930s, to sell the company-owned mill villages was largely carried through by the end of the 1950s. Workers could now own their own homes, but this increasingly scattered workers and broke the link between work and neighborhood.
Following the initial burst of postwar prosperity, the industry’s troubles resumed. As early as the 1930s, southern manufacturers had suffered from Japanese competition. In a postwar world committed to freer trade, pressure from imports worsened. The 1960s saw a last burst of prosperity, tied in part to the rise of synthetic fibers, many of which were made in large, capital-intensive plants within the state. From the 1970s onward, however, South Carolina producers found developing countries increasingly beating them at their own low-cost game. Like Springs, some firms held their own with brand recognition, or like Milliken, they developed niche markets and new, sophisticated products. Many others, though, began to go under. Among the numerous smaller mill towns of the Piedmont, the closings frequently devastated communities and left workers lacking the skills with which to adapt to a changing economy. After 1997 the process of decline accelerated, and by 2001 the industry was approaching collapse, the century-old brick mills not only abandoned but increasingly dismantled. With the onset of the twenty-first century, the curtain had evidently rung down on the textile era of South Carolina history.
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