Tag Archives: cotton

A Night in the Cotton Mill

On a recent roadtrip, we decided to spend a night in the Brookstown Inn in Winston-Salem, NC.  What made this choice easy to make was that the Brookstown was once the home of the Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company and the Arista Cotton Mill.

The Salem part of Winston-Salem was established in the eighteenth century by the Moravians, a Protestant group  that had settled in Pennsylvania, but then expanded  into North Carolina.  The group prospered and became involved in a number of money-making enterprises, including establishing a cotton mill in 1836.  The primary name in this and the later mill, the Arista, was that of Fries.  One of the thirty investors in Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company was Francis Fries, who became the superintendent of the mill.

It’s interesting that even though much cotton was being grown in the South in the early nineteenth century, the finished products of yarn and cloth were made elsewhere.  Most Southern cotton was sold to manufacturing companies in the Northeast and in Great Britain.  Until the development of the steam engine, it was not viable to try manufacturing in the South because the fall line, which was needed for water power, was far from the centers of population.  Even with steam power, cotton manufacturing was slow to come to the South.  It seems that most people were just satisfied with the system that was in place.

But the Moravians were entrepreneurs, and were willing to take a risk on cotton production.  Unfortunately, the enterprise was not successful.  Francis Fries left the company to form the Salem Woolen Mill, and in 1850, the cotton mill was sold.  It went through a succession of owners, but eventually  the building was converted into a flour mill.

Click to enlarge

In 1880, the son of Francis Fries, also named Francis, decided to take another go at cotton manufacturing.  By that time, cotton mills were springing up all over the South.  The Arista Cotton Mill was a typical vertical operation, with one floor for cleaning and carding the wool, another floor for spinning it into thread, and finally, the last floor was for weaving.  It was built next to the old Salem Cotton Manufacturing building, which was still producing flour.

After the turn of the twentieth century, the two companies merged, with cotton chambray, also known as Salem Jeans, being the primary product.  I couldn’t find a firm date for when cotton production ended, but one source said the 1920s.  By the 1940s the buildings were being used as a tobacco warehouse, and in 1970 the complex was bought by the Lentz Transfer and Storage Company.

In 1976 Lentz was in need of more space, and so a wrecking company was contracted to tear down the old buildings.  Instead, the owner of the wrecking company recognized the historical significance of the buildings and  through a series of negotiations, the buildings were saved.  Adaptive restoration began, and in 1984, the Brookstown Inn opened in the buildings.

The inn has a very nice historical display in the lobby, with old photos and reproductions of newspaper clippings and documents.  You can see a very small part of it above, and for a better look, the inn’s website has posted some pictures of the exhibit.

I, of course, loved the Fries family photos.  This one was taken at Watkins Glen, New York.

You can sort of see how the Salem Mill building has changed over the years, even though my photo was taken from the west, and the old photo shows the building from the east.  Note the lean-to addition in both photos.  I could not take my photo from the east because the Arista building now stands in the way.

There are abandoned textile mills all over the south.  More and more people are seeing the value in these old buildings, and they are being made into shopping spaces, apartments, and inns like the Brookstown.   What I really love about the Brookstown Inn is how they continue to tell the story of the Salem and Arista Mills.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Road Trip, Textiles

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.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Textiles, Viewpoint

Sewing with Cotton Bags, 1937

Who better to tell a housewife how to sew with cotton bags than a group representing the makers of them, the Textile Bag Manufacturers Association?  This booklet dates from 1937, but I’ve seen similar ones from as recent as the late 1950s, just as paper bags were replacing the cloth sacks.  Generically known today as feedsacks, these bags are a hot commodity, selling for at least $10 each, and the best ones selling for $50 and even more.  Wouldn’t those thrifty homemakers from the 1930s be shocked to learn that what they got free with a purchase of flour or sugar are going for such prices!

Sewing with Cotton Bags is thirty-two pages of ideas of what to do with all those bags.  It was revised in 1937, but some of the styles are several years older, left over from an earlier edition.  The drawing above shows a woman who is more likely from 1932 than 1937.

The pleated sleeve shown above left was a common sports sleeve, and I’ve seen it as early as 1932.  I love how the booklet declares them to be “stylish” which is much better word in this case than “fashionable”!

The “Simple Sports Ensemble” on the left was a standard of any active woman’s wardrobe from the early 1930s through the 1940s.  This one is probably from 1935 or so, due to the long skirt and the sleeves that are not gathered.  The tennis dress appears to be from around the same time.

Wide legged pajamas were a 1930s standard.  That set on the left was designed for sleeping, but many women took them to the beach as cover ups.

Cotton sacks were not just for clothes.  You could also use them to make your summer cottage more charming.

They also worked well as a table cover.  I can imagine all the great junk that was stored out of sight, behind the feedsacks.

The patterns shown in the booklet could be ordered for ten cents each, or three for twenty-five cents.  Most are for aprons and clothes for small children, but some, like the blouses, were really quite nice, and yes, even stylish.

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Cotton Fields

I was on the road yesterday in the North Carolina piedmont which is cotton country.  As I passed by one of the large fields it occurred to me that it was likely that many of you have never seen a cotton field.  So I decided to stop and take a few photos.

Cotton is the second most valuable crop in  North Carolina, behind tobacco.  It is too cold to grow it here in the mountains, but the southern piedmont and the coastal plain are ideal for growing the crop.  It isn’t an easy crop to grow, as weeds and insects can be major problems.  It requires a lot of water and so must often be irrigated.

When the cotton is ripe, the fields are often described as snowy.  Actually, snow in this region does look like a cotton field, as the snow often falls on ground that is not entirely frozen and so patches of the ground show through.

Cotton forms in a pod (boll) which pops open when it is ripe.  What you can’t see are the seeds, which are stuck to the fibers and are hard to remove by hand.

And speaking of snowy, this is what we woke up to this morning.  The snow had been forecast, but somehow I don’t think we really believed it until confronted with three inches of the fluffy white stuff.

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Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Cottons for Spring 1952 from South Carolina Mills

I was interested in this little catalog because I’d never heard of the company, South Carolina Mills, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Spartanburg is a quick trip down the mountain, in the SC Upstate, or piedmont.  It was at the beginning of cotton country, and a lot of cotton is still grown in the region today.

Unfortunately the generic name of the company brought up every mill that ever existed in South Carolina in a google search.  But after a careful consideration of the contents of the catalog, I’ve pretty much decided that there was not a “South Carolina Mill,”  but that the company was a sales outlet for many of the region’s textile and garment factories.

In the catalog there is a wide variety of cotton-based products – clothing for the entire family, towels, carpets, blankets, curtains, and fabrics.   All of these are products that were made throughout the Carolinas.

One of the few brand names mentioned in the catalog was Startex.  Startex was located just west of Spartanburg, and made printed cotton towels and tablecloths.   Today the factory is gone, but there is still a village remaining by the name of Startex.

The catalog does not give us the brand name, but these sure look like Beacon blankets to me.  It could be that because that mill is in North Carolina, they did not want to mention it.  Or it could be that they were made by another company.  There were lots of small blanket makers in the area.

There were several pages of fabrics for the home sewer.  A few of them are labeled as being from Springs, which was a large mill in Lancaster, South Carolina.  They are the makers of Springmaid.

The catalog clearly shows the diversity of products that were being produced from cotton.  And here is a look at some of the clothing:

Probably my favorite page from the catalog was this one showing clothes for boys.  Is that argyle shirt nifty or what?

I did a Google maps search for the address given in the catalog of where to send the order.  Today it is an empty lot.

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