Tag Archives: textile history

A Tour of Textile Town – Spartanburg, SC

It began with a brochure. I’m not sure who the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau thought they were targeting with this brochure, but as it turns out, it was me and friend Liza. She had picked it up on a recent trip through the area, and then asked if I were interested in joining her on the tour. And of course I was.

We met at stop nine, which really should be stop Number One, the Spartanburg Regional History Museum. I have written about regional museums many times, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not. This time we got lucky.

As expected, the museum was heavy on the textile industry. That was a good thing. This huge cotton bale was sitting there for visitors to feel and marvel at the softness of it. In the background you can see the steam whistle that governed the lives at the Beaumont Mill, which was located just down the street.

After Reconstruction, Spartanburg promoted itself as the Lowell (Massachusetts) of the South. The combination of cheap labor, no labor unions, and the proximity of the cotton crop led to the rapid spread of textile factories across the region.

By the 1920 there were dozens of textile mills across Spartanburg, today most, if not all, closed.

One of the fun features of the museum was this wall of doors, which could be opened to reveal facts and artifacts.

Many were on the textile theme, as this door that told us just how poorly textile workers were paid.

Others touched on other topics such as education and sports. In the first college football game played in South Carolina, Spartanburg’s Wofford College beat nearby Greenville’s Furman.

In a refreshing change from what is often seen in local museums, the discussion of war focused on the homefront and local involvement in the various conflicts. A Revolutionary War battle, Cowpens, was fought in Spartanburg County, so there was a small display on the battle. There were several WWII era training camps in the area, and they too were featured. The homefront was remembered, as in this wallet for ration coupons and tokens.

Along with the display doors, artifacts are also stored in flat drawers with can be pulled out and studied. Unfortunately, there was usually little to no explanation about the contents.

However, where else could one get such a great look at a nineteenth century slipper?

There were few clothes on display, and this circa 1895 dress was labeled as Edwardian, and was displayed backward.

From the museum we headed to an actual mill, the Beaumont. The building was recently repurposed as part of the local hospital system. They have included a good display showing artifacts and photos from the history of the building.

As mills closed across the Carolinas in the 1990s, much of the machinery was sold to factories around the world. This is a survivor, a C & K shuttle loom.

This was probably used to make plaid cotton.

Beaumont was visited by photographer Lewis Hine in 1912, when he was documenting the child labor so prevalent at the time.

During WWII, Beaumont devoted their entire output to cotton duck.  Above is an advertisement to try and encourage workers to apply for war work at Beaumont.

It’s really interesting how old, empty mills, considered to be a blight on the landscape less than twenty years ago, are now being converted to all sorts of uses. The work at Beaumont is very well dome, and I loved how the history of the building is remembered.

The mill village at Beaumont is still there, and most of the houses are in good shape.

Click to enlarge

Next on the list was the village of Pacolet. This town is a bit outside Spartanburg, but we were enticed by the promise of an intact mill village and the presence of a museum. Unfortunately the museum was closed (on a Friday, no less) and we could not convince the people at the town hall to drop by and unlock the door, even though a sign on the door hinted that that might be a possibility.

I see Pacolet as a real lost opportunity to show all the aspects of the mill complex. There is a great map painted on the wall next to the museum, but orientation is difficult, and some of the building no longer exist. But the village is remarkably intact, and so are some of the ancillary structures.

Best of all is this 1915 school, which was built for the children of black mill employees. It’s a remarkable survivor of the era, when few black people were employed by the mills. This structure is in bad need of preservation. And yes, there are windows, all on the other side of the building.

As the day was drawing to a close, we had time for just one more stop. We picked the facility of German manufacturer Menzel which has two sections of the Berlin Wall installed on their grounds. This has nothing at all to do with textile history, but who could resist seeing part of this symbol of the Cold War?

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Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for whites only, though some black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.

 

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Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Beacon Blankets Make Warm Friends

Those of you who have been reading this blog a while know I’m interested in more than just old clothes. I also love reading about the Southern textile industry, and especially in how it operated in my state of North Carolina. Like much of the rest of the South, cotton grows in NC, though not where I live in the a bit too cool for the crop mountains. As a kid I had cousins who lived in the textile town of Gastonia, and even then I was fascinated in the difference in their way of life as cotton mill kids, and that of mine, whose father worked making paper.

Even though the Asheville area does not grow cotton, textile industries developed in the mountains after the arrival of the railroad made getting the cotton here very easy. Most of the businesses made hosiery, but there were sewing plants as well. The denim-weaving center was a few hours east by rail, and so small jeans and overall factories were scattered across the mountains.

But most of the actual spinning of cotton and production of cotton took place in the cotton growing area of the lowlands. A major exception to this was Beacon Blankets, which were made in Swannanoa, ten miles or so east of Asheville. The company actually started in the textile center of Massachusetts, but in the 1920s, the owner, Charles D. Owen, looked to the South in order to cut costs. He chose the Swannanoa River Valley, as it was undeveloped, and there was a ready and eager work force nearby. I’ve written quite a bit about the history of Beacon, and the motivations of Northern companies in their quest for cheaper production. part 1 part 2 part 3

I recently found a little brochure published by Beacon, telling consumers (and retailers) why they needed to use cotton, rather than wool, blankets. At the top is a drawing of the massive factory at New Bedford, MA. Beacon was a vertical factory, meaning that the entire process of blanket-making happened under the same roof. They collected cotton waste from other industries, reprocessed the fiber, spun the yarn, dyed it, and loomed it all in the same facility.

There’s no date on my brochure, but because it shows the facility in Massachusetts, I can assume that it was before the 1925 move to North Carolina. Another clue is the cover picture of the Indian, and the use of “Indian Blankets” in their product line listing. In 1930 Beacon was sued by the Navajo Nation because Beacon’s use of  images of Native Americans and the term “Indian Blankets” seemed to imply that the blankets were Indian-made. After 1932, Beacon had to drop the phrase “Indian Blanket” and limit the use of images that implied the blankets were Native-made.

But the best indicators of age are the lovely illustrations of people using Beacon Blankets.

Skirts (and nightgowns) are several inches off the floor, and most of the women still have long hair.

The illustrations show the loose waistline of around 1919 to 1921.

It’s very slightly raised in some of the pictures, as you see in garments just before the waistline dropped to the hips in the later 1920s.

Beacon not only made blankets, they also manufactured what they called robe cloth. It was a bit lighter weight than the blankets, and was sold to both robe manufacturers and to home sewers. If you look in a vintage mail order catalog, it is likely you find both the finished robe and the robe cloth yardage for sale.

If you watch old movies and television shows, it’s quite likely that you’ve seen Beacon robes in action. Last night an early 1960s episode of The Andy Griffith Show was playing, and Floyd the Barber was wearing one of the best Beacon robes I’ve ever seen. Of course, by 1960s, his robe was terribly old-fashioned, which was the point.

 

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Thoughts on a Return to USA Production of Textiles

With all the talk about Made in America and bringing jobs back to the US, it is easy to look at the textile and clothing industries through rose-colored glasses.  I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC.  Like many cities in the Carolinas, Greenville was built on the textile industry, and the city really suffered when fabric and clothing makers began closing due to foreign competition starting in the 1970s.

Today, however, the city seems to be doing alright.  There is a downtown that is returning from the brink of emptiness, and they have an arts center, Heritage Green, that is simply amazing.

Are the textile jobs missed?  Yes, I’m sure they are.  Would it be possible to return textile jobs to Greenville?  I have my doubts.  Would people even be willing to work in a textile mill like the ones that closed?  My guess is no.

Along with this weaving machine, the museum had audio to simulate the conditions inside a cotton mill.  The background photo shows the rows and rows of machines, all noisily running to produce the cloth.  People had to yell in order to be hear above the din.

And look closely at the vertical belt that connects the machine to the source of power.  See the wisps of cotton?  Cotton was everywhere in the mill, and workers inhaled a lot of it.  Many became sick with “brown lung.”  My father’s youngest sister died from it.

As time progressed, textile technology improved, something that did not stop when textile jobs first began moving to Mexico and Central America in the 1970s.  My guess is that a textile worker who lost his job in 1985 would not recognize a modern textile plant, with so many of the jobs once done by humans now being done by computers and machines.

And that is the first major obstacle to returning textile production to the US.  Technology has progressed to the point where we don’t have the trained workers in the US who could run a modern textile mill.  We don’t have the machinery, except for these examples found in museums and in rare factories like the White Oak denim plant in Greensboro, NC.  Some sewing factories have even had a hard time finding enough workers who can run an industrial sewing machine.

The museum has this great display on the “stretch-out”.  The stretch-out began in the 1920s, when in an effort to increase profits, doffers, the workers who tended machines and removed ( or “doffed”) bobbins holding the cotton yarn from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones, were given more machines to tend.  Slower workers were fired, and the ones remaining had to pick up the slack by tending more machines.

The museum let visitors time themselves at a doffing task, and then see if the time could be improved upon.  If not, then I guess you would be history at that mill.

The president-elect has said that tariffs will be imposed on products imported into the USA as a punitive measure toward those who do not produce in the USA.  I’ve said in the past that this is not such a bad idea, but the truth is, whether tariffs are imposed, or whether firms move to US production, people had better get used to paying more for their clothes and other textile products.

Unfortunately, even in the USA, we have garment workers who make less than the pitiful minimum wage.  Jen recently posted this link to a Department of Labor investigation, and it is eye-opening.  As much as we would like to think that Made in USA insures an ethically-made product, I’m afraid that is just not the reality.

And even if minimum wage is paid, this paragraph from The Fashion Law, tells the story:

The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions.  The textile and clothing manufacturing industries have a very long histories of abuses and of circumventing law and human rights.  And when things improve for workers, this industry has a long history of packing up and moving where workers are more desperate for jobs and thus will tolerate less pay and dangerous working conditions.

It gets worse.  I recently posted a link to a company currently making camping clothing in the USA.  As it turns out, that company has ties to a White supremacy group.  Thanks to a reader who looked a bit closer at the company, I was alerted to the problem and quickly took down the link.

Do I want textile production to return to the US?  Of course I do, but I could do without the abuses of the past, and of the industry as it exists today in Asia.  This is just not a simple issue.

I’ll conclude with photos of company store tokens and coupons.

Remember that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” in which he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store”?  It was a common practice for workers to need a cash advance on their meager wages, and the payback was in tokens that could only be spent in the company-owned store.  With a system like this it was impossible to ever rise above the debt.

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Textile Classification and Weave Analysis Cards, 1915

I had an interesting estate sale find recently.  The card above was only one of about one hundred cards with fabric samples.  What makes these so interesting is that these were part of the coursework at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.  The cards were completed in 1915 by student Mamie Newman.

The cards were designed by Blanche E. Hyde.  The only information I’ve been able to gather about Ms. Hyde is that she was a teacher at Peabody.  My guess is that she was in the department of home economics.

In addition to Miss Newman’s notes, some of the cards have corrections written in by the instructor.  Ms. Hyde, perhaps?  Miss Newman misidentified the chambray, and noted that it was of average quality.  The teacher’s opinion was that this fabric was below average in quality.  I just know I’d love to find a chambray of this quality today.

The cards with their little textile swatches are delightful, and give a great view of the types of fabrics available in 1915.  Is cotton crepe even manufactured today?

Some of the card describe weave patterns, like this plaid.  Today we think of gingham as a two color, or most often white with a color, check.  Once upon a time gingham was a stripe, but gradually plaids were woven, and today, the fabric is primarily made as a check.

I wish I could say that I brought home all the cards, but that was not meant to be.  The estate company had priced these individually, and to have bought them all would have been around $300!  Still, I did think it was worth purchasing a few as great examples of the type of work  young women in home economics were required to do.  I can just picture the girls in the local dry goods store, driving the proprietor crazy with their swatch collecting.

 

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South Carolina State Museum

Click to enlarge.

Last week I drove to Columbia, SC to visit the South Carolina State Museum.  This museum is a multi-purpose institution, with exhibits ranging from art to history to science and technology.   One of the most interesting things about the museum is the 1894 building in which it is housed.  It is a former textile mill, Columbia Mills,which was a large producer of cotton duck.  The building was given to the state in 1981 after the mill closed.

Some of the original textile-making equipment was saved, and is now installed as an exhibit.  Above are spinning machines.  The museum cleverly produced the look of many rows of machines by the use of mirrors.  There are actually only two machines.

This is a dobby loom from around 1940.  It came from a textile factory in Aiken, SC.  The cloth you see on the loom is what was being made when the factory closed in the early 1980s.

The product of the Columbia Mill was cotton duck, which is a heavy canvas used for tents and conveyor belts and such.  This is one of the last bolts produced before the “Duck Plant” closed.

A lot of the museum is concerned with cotton mill village and rural life in the past.  There was a great interactive model of a large mill village which showed how the village was pretty much an extension of the factory.  And they had a “country store” set up, with all kinds of products that made me want to go shopping.

It’s my guess that most states have a museum of this sort – a mini Smithsonian that is concerned with the history and industry and natural history of the state.  (Though North Carolina has an art museum, a history museum and a natural history museum.)  All the ones I’ve ever visited are well worth the time if only for the wonderful randomness that is often encountered.

I actually had a reason for my visit.  The museum had a special exhibition of items from Springs Mills in Fort Mill, South Carolina.  The company is best known for their production of Springmaid sheets and fabrics, but beginning in 1948 the company was also known for their racy ad campaigns.   I’ve written about this in the past, and tomorrow I’ll share a few things from the exhibition.

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Sew It Yourself with Cannon Towels and Sheets

I know that half the crafters on etsy think they invented DIY (do it yourself) but here’s proof that we Seventies hippie girls were the actual inventors of repurposing.

I’m joking, of course.  Remaking textile items has been going on as long as there have been textiles.  What changed were attitudes toward remodeling old textile items.  Whereas our grandmother and mothers during the Great Depression and WWII were well acquainted with making things last, the prosperity of the 1950s made remodeling old clothing unnecessary for many.

But then, in the late Sixties, we discovered the delights of old textiles.  To get in on the action companies that made new textiles pushed using their products as crafting materials.  This poster from Cannon Mills is a great example.

Click!

There’s no date on the poster, but all the Simplicity and McCall’s patterns featured are dated 1970.  That seems right to me.  I was in the ninth grade, and I was really into these type of  Peter Max-ish graphics.  

Cannon Mills was located in Kannapolis, NC.  The town was a mill town, but was the largest of its type with around 1600 homes, a hospital and YMCA.  By 1918 the factory had become the largest producer of towels in the world.  Other Cannon factories produced sheets and kitchen linens.  At the height of the company’s prosperity, there were 30,000 employees.  Starting in the 1980s there were a series of company mergers and sell-offs, and on one dark day in 2003, the Kannapolis mill closed, putting 4340 at that mill and 3310 others out of their jobs.  The Cannon name was sold, and products with the name are now produced in Asia.

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Filed under Curiosities, North Carolina, Textiles