Currently Reading – The Cotton Mills of South Carolina, 1907

Over the past several years I’ve read quite a few well-researched books about the conditions in Southern textile mills in the twentieth century, but nothing really compares to a good old book written during the period of study.  It gives you a feel for the attitudes of the period, at least through the writer’s eyes.  As such, this book gives only the thoughts of August Kohn, but it helps to know a bit about the author, and the times in which he lived.  We need to also realize that the situation in textile mills was constantly changing, so what was true in 1907, was no longer true in 1918.

Kohn was the son of immigrants; his father was German and his mother was Austrian.  He was born in South Carolina a few years after the Civil War, in which his father had fought for the Confederacy.  His father was a banker, and August Kohn had the advantages that can only be bought – a private school education and a university degree from South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina.  He went to work as a newspaper reporter, for the Charleston News and Courier, and became the head of the paper’s Columbia bureau.  He left the paper in 1906 to go into real estate, but he continued to write special articles for it.  This book is made up of a series of articles he wrote about the textile business in South Carolina.

The readers of the Charleston paper were far removed from textile production, which was clustered in the piedmont region.  Originally, this was due to the location of the water fall line, but even after steam power was developed, the mills still were located in the area northwest of Charleston.  This area was sparsely settled, and it was due to the cotton mills that the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg were developed.  Recruiters for the mills traveled through the countryside of the western Carolinas, promising good jobs that were easier than life on an Appalachian farm.

Many of the Southern mills existed because many Northern mills moved south in order to escape the growing labor movement.  People in the South would work for less money than Northern workers, and the mills were closer to the supply of the raw material – cotton.

In 1907 there were few child labor laws, but there was a growing movement calling for reform.  In the Southern textile mills, children were often forced into the mill by economic necessity.  The parents simply did not make enough money for the family to survive.  And the mill owners used child labor because they did not have to pay them the wages of an adult.

Of course, this meant that built into the system was the fact that many mill children had little chance of getting an education.  There were no mandatory education laws in South Carolina at the time, and even if there had been, there were many loopholes in the child labor law that allowed children as young as ten to legally work in the mills.

So, how does Kohn’s book fit in with the issue?  Much of the book is simply a justification of the actions of mill owners and operators. He knew there were many problems within the mill system, but he tended to put the blame on the mill workers themselves and on outside interests.

Many of those who have undertaken to present the conditions that exist here have been unfair, chiefly because they have not gotton facts but have used the distorted data of sensationalists.

His overall view was that the people who worked in the cotton mills were much better off than they had been on the farm.  Working in the cotton mill had actually improved the character of the former Appalachian farmer.

Descended from the early English, Scotch and Germans, they have been sleeping, as it were, while the procession of progress has been passing by.  Serious, independent, as all hill and mountain people are; sensitive, because of that independent spirit; for the most part sober, they are a people of untold possibilities, now that they are beginning to arouse themselves from the drowsiness of generations and to grapple earnestly with the duties of this active, work-a-day world.

As for the lack of jobs open to black people in the mills, he gave a very simple reason.

Experiment has been made on several occasions, notable in Charleston and in Columbia, with colored help, but it has proven a failure, largely because of the lack of ambition on the part on the part of the colored people as a race to accumulate money, and because of the disposition of the people to work two or three days in the week and rest for the remainder of that period.

In writing about the health of mill workers, Kohn acknowledged that many workers suffered ill health.

There are still to-day a great many… pallid people in the cotton mills.  I want to write in GREAT BIG LETTERS that the pallor found among cotton mill operatives is not due to the fact that they work in cotton mills.  

He goes on to say that the workers brought the pallor with them, in the form of hookworms.  There were, no doubt, many cases of hookworms in the mill population, but I found it odd that nothing was said of the dangerous dust and cotton lint that was ever-present in a cotton mill, and which caused breathing problems and even death in many of the workers.

As for child labor, he was at his most defensive.  The mill owners did not want child labor, but they were not able to fight it due to parents wanting their kids to work, and the state legislature not passing sufficient laws.  In some respects, Kohn is right.  In 1907 there was no legal system in South Carolina to record births, and so families often lied about a child’s age in order to put it in a mill.  The factory superintendent would just take the parent’s or even the child’s word for it.

Kohn insisted that the work was not hard, and that it was what the children wanted.

I want to say here in a great many instances the children themselves want to go into the cotton mill.  They seem to like the idea of working and of earning their own livelihood.

Today we can easily see the fallacies in Kohn’s writing, and are shocked that people could have been treated in such a manner.  But one thing I’ve learned from reading so much about the textile and clothing industry is that the abuses have never stopped, they’ve just been moved off-shore.  We now have child labor laws and minimum wages in the US, so the manufacturers leave the US and go to where people are more desperate for work and where there are few protections for workers.  It’s really very similar to what happened in the US in the early twentieth century.  Many historians will argue that the first “off-shoring” happened when factories were moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

Today is the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which over 1100 people were killed.  It is being commemorated as Fashion Revolution Week, with thousands of people on social media asking, “Who made my clothes?”  In doing so, people are placing the responsibility of ensuring safe working conditions where it should be – with company officials.  I’ve found it interesting which companies have responded to people asking the question of them, and which ones chose to ignore it.

Next week I’ll be writing more about what we can do to make companies accountable for the deplorable working conditions in many of the factories around the world.  I’ll also share ideas about making your own closet more socially responsible.

11 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading, Southern Textiles, Viewpoint

11 responses to “Currently Reading – The Cotton Mills of South Carolina, 1907

  1. Shantha

    Lizzie

    Have you read ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn’? Set in the early part of the 20th century in NYC, provides interesting insight into ideas about child labour.

    Shantha

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  2. Many of Kohn’s arguments sound similar to those made by people justifying labor conditions abroad today. The more things change…

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  3. Christina

    Great post Lizzie. I am actually encouraged by the growing increased awareness over working, social and environmental conditions in the fashion industry. The other issue is the sheer environmental impact. There are figures out there which vary but it apparently takes 11,000 litres of water to produce a pair of denim jeans. Never mind the toxic sludge from the dyeing process. Social media can do a lot to highlight these practices.

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  4. Really looking forward to your next post about making companies and our closets more responsible, thanks so much for that!

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  5. Wonderful post, Lizzie – thank you. Very sobering topics for us all. I would love to read more about fabric manufacturing, as I prefer to make clothes, or upcycle from thrift stores. I do remember several past posts about new manufacturers with better weaving practices. Still, wish the sewing community at large had more choice & general info. Guess it’s one hurdle at a time. . .

    Liked by 1 person

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