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Migrating Cotton Mills

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

If you put before you the map of the proud old State of Massachusetts and follow the Boston-Albany Road, which practically bisects the State, and move your finger from Springfield toward Worcester, you will probably locate the village of Ware. “Probably” has to be emphasized; because, while Ware is “on the map,” it cannot be found on every map. It is just one of those small quaint New England villages, which by the hundreds dot these lovely hills—the cradles of the proverbial “New England Traditions.”

Ware is one of these many villages housing a few thousand people whose dainty looking unpretentious homes encircle a somber looking brick construction of large size, competent outer buildings, warehouses, spur tracks and other paraphernalia belonging to a cotton mill. The little cottages hug close, as a brood would to a mother that protects, feeds, and watches over her offspring. In every sense of the word this somber mill has been a mother to these cottages for generations. It sheltered and fed those who dwelt in them; frugally, though—but isn’t that a New England tradition? For three generations the steam whistle has summoned them six mornings of the week to take their places in some assigned niche amongst the labyrinth of spindles, looms, shafts and dye kettles, and the large mechanical monsters that human ingenuity created for servitude shrieked, moaned, clattered, and produced the denim that covered the hairy limbs of a perspiring steam puddler or the gaudy awning cloth destined to protect “my lady’s” velvet skin from the burning sun upon the private beach of a Newport villa.

Many of these men and women are bent with age and have responded to the call of the whistle for half a century or even more. They grow reminiscent at times and tell about the bygone years when the old whistle did not sound its call at the unearthly late hour of today but long before that. Why in winter “in their times” the morning candle lights of the cottages used to wake the roosters, and the starry sky still shimmered above them as they made their way to work through the crunching snow paths. Then, gradually, the old whistle sounded its morning call later and later as industrial progress and universal prosperity permitted the shortening of the work day. The roosters are no longer fretting over the morning candle light. The working day commences in full daylight even in winter time. These old folks work now from twelve to fifteen hours less a week than they did when Johnny’s stentorian “good morning” ringing through the biting air made grandma’s heart pump faster.

And right here commences the drama of New England’s prize possession—its cotton industry.

The old mill of Ware, which was there even before the present oldest inhabitant was born, is going to pull up its stakes and desert its brood. The machinery will be boxed up and soon a string of freight cars will rattle toward the South where, in a brand new plant surrounded by cottages with the smell of fresh paint still in them, the machinery will be set up and in a few, months the whistle of this new mother will call her new brood to man the whirling spindles and clattering looms. It is the sound of the whistle that symbolizes this great Industrial Drama of the New England cotton industry. The whistle in the South will sound earlier than at Ware, Massachusetts. This is one of the reasons why the cotton mills desert the villages as well as the large industrial centers of New England for the Southern territory. Massachusetts and most of the so-called Northern States have a progressive labor legislation which limits the working hours of women to forty-eight hours a week. The Southern States have not yet reached this stage of industrial progress. No cotton mill can, at the present time, operate successfully without female labor. Ring spinning and many other operations demand the deft and nimble fingers of the woman’s hand. In the Northern States no woman can be employed at night in a mill. This is the law. In the Southern States there is no such restriction, hence a Southern cotton mill can run day and night, distributing its “overhead” expenses on almost the double of the product of a Northern cotton mill.

The cost of living is less in the Southern States than in New England, hence the Southern workers will buy more for their wages and, consequently, will work for less wages than their New England brother. Economics—this matter-of-fact science—will brush away impatiently sentiment, tradition, and even the finest of human virtues, charity, when it has to face its original inheritance, the struggle for existence. The Northern cotton industry is, therefore, deserting its dependents and invading the territory of its adversary, the Southern cotton industry, to carry on the battle in a face to face combat.

The tragedy of “Ware”—left high and dry with its native population—is repeated in a more serious form in the larger New England industrial communities with their almost wholly immigrant population.

Fall River, New Bedford, and Lowell in Massachusetts; Lewiston and Biddeford in Maine; Pawtucket in Rhode Island; Utica and Cohoes in New York, present in this economic tangle a different picture. The leaders of these communities realize that whatever concessions they may be able to grant to their cotton industries will not be sufficient to balance the Southern advantages, and their sacrifices would be in vain. The so-called coarse and medium cotton industry, which embraces 80% of the manufactured cotton commodities, has no alternative but to move South and take advantage of the prevailing economic conditions which are favorable to this particular branch.

What will happen then to the Northern industrial territory deserted by them? No one can yet prophesy it with accuracy but the magnitude of such an economic change, the probable replacement of the lost industries, and the economic effect as a whole is capable of computation.

The “Wares” of New England will, in all probability, be able to replace their losses by attracting such industrial enterprises from the metropolitan sections, for which the lower wages and the stability of labor will make the “Wares” attractive. To these industries the larger communities, losing their cotton mills, cannot offer such advantages. Stability and the industrial discipline of the villages, inbred for generations, combined with low taxes and good transportation facilities can outbid the larger communities having high taxes and a heterogeneous human element not much different from that of the metropolitan sections. These larger communities will have to make their bids to such industries in which a large available labor supply is the first consideration, and which are, at the present time, handicapped in a needed expansion program by the limited labor supply of their present locations.

According to the 1923 Industrial Census, which for the purpose of comparison is still useful, the cotton industry of the United States employs 500,000 workers. Of this number only approximately 15% is outside of the Northern and Southern territories. There are, at the present time, about 230,000 men and women employed in the Northern cotton industry, embracing the States of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. It is certain that at least 160,000 of the above number, representing the coarse and medium cotton industries will, as a result of this movement, lose their present source of income. It is further estimated that the “service occupations” ministering to the daily wants of the industrial population as tradesmen add about 25% to those industrially engaged. The additional wage earners affected by such change would be, therefore, 40,000 more, and finally the manufacturers of cotton machinery and supplies who naturally will follow their industry into the new territory will further deprive the North of the earnings of an additional 50,000 workers. Taken as a whole, this movement to the South will affect, directly, 250,000 wage earners, and adding one and one-half dependents as an average to each, it will affect the economic well being of 625,000 inhabitants.

This certainly looks, upon the surface, like a crisis but, fortunately, Providence has patterned the labyrinthal ways and means of human economics on safer lines than a mere human being could devise.

In these momentous economic changes outlined in this article, the fundamental law of space and time will greatly temper the effects of this movement. The change has already been under way for more than a decade but only recently has it gained such a momentum as to become a matter of national economic importance. Like building up the reefs, or like growing the majestic forests, the completion of all things takes time. The process may be hastened by human ingenuity but, nevertheless, the completing of the task will be gradual and it will require time. And so it is in economics. The transplanting of the Northern cotton industry to the Southern territory will take time. It is a conservative estimate that a full decade will pass before this movement is completed and it may take years before this accelerated exodus will change the economic complexion of the whole Northern territory. The selection of the new locations by the moving mills is of a momentous importance that forbids hasty decision; the preparation of the buildings, the placement of equipment, and the training of the new workers, will all take time. The whole movement will be continuous, but like the change of the seasons invisible though self-evident. “New England” will not become a territory of “dead cities of past glories”: it will change its complexion gradually, and the loft now resounding with the clatter of the loom will probably house sometime in the future a battery of sewing machines, and the warehouses now filled to overflowing with cotton will probably shelter the products of a chemical factory or of a breakfast food or of whatever commodity has found a hospitable economic shelter under the same roof from which the cotton industry was driven to another territory more favorable for its particular needs. Nature knows no standstill. Life and the consequences of life must go on. And so the economic drama of the century is in progress; and yet it is not more than a small ripple upon the never-ending ebb and tide of human existence.

This is the story of what is being enacted by the North upon the stage of economics, and now we can turn to the other principal of the drama—the South.


The South has crowned cotton as king ever since the brownish, hairy little seeds were first imported from India as an experiment. For generations the South has provided the world with the major part of this one of its most essential staples. The converters of the fibre into fabric have waxed rich and powerful: the South has remained poor. It was just the land where the cotton grew. The Civil War with its consequent economic and social adjustments made conditions even worse. It made small plantations from large ones and the tenant planter as a rule mortgaged his next year’s crop for this year’s winter supplies. Cotton proved an unbeneficient despot, but cotton was king just the same.

Cotton, the one sure crop, which provided but a bare and precarious existence, was at the same time the source of the prosperity of the Yankee. In due time, the staple came back as Osnaburgs, jeans and sheetings to meet their modest wants for such materials at prices they, could hardly afford. The thinkers of this depressed South placed upon the merchant scales bolts of cloth and computed what they, got for their staple in that bolt—and what they paid for it. Seventy-five cents of a dollar went to the Yankees for the use of their machinery, conversion wages, transportation, and profit. The sores of such constant economic chafing became more and more unbearable and an agitation for a Southern cotton industry became universal. Why should the South, kept poor by cotton, pay a levy to the Yankees for the privilege of consuming its own staple? Why should the South not manufacture its own cotton goods, provide new opportunities for livelihood sorely needed there, and stop paying a tribute to the North? Cotton is growing right at the back doors and all that is needed is machinery. The movement gradually gathered momentum and finally, about fifty, years ago, the Southern cotton industry was born—though it was a decidedly puny, misshapen infant.

The South was in a receptive state for such a development long before the Civil War and all that it needed was the speck of solid action for this crystallization of its natural inheritance, the American cotton industry. Yet it has taken almost two generations, since this initial step, to realize the full validity of its inheritance claim; that the South was destined to supply with her cotton products not only the South but the rest of the United States, and get her share even in the export trade, although this achievement was partly due to Northern capital and Northern management methods. Gradually the cotton mills became more and more numerous, the product better and better, the variety of the articles more in direct line with Northern competition: and as a result Charlotte advanced from a small city to a full sized metropolis of the South; Gastonia, Spartanburg, Greenville, and scores of other formerly unimportant rural communities advanced to the status of striving large cities. New industrial communities have been born by the hundreds, like Cannapolis and Cramer-town, and the South—the under-dog, and then the runner-up—became the pace-setter, and is now the deciding factor in the American cotton industry.

To understand clearly the phenomenal success of the development of the Southern cotton manufacturing industry, one must go back further than the “Source of Raw Material Right at the Back Door” theory. The South with its mild climate has for generations harbored a population of which very little was known outside of the South even two decades ago. This is the “mountaineer white,” a race of excellent ancestry, settled among the slopes and mountains of the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They have been the subject of many romantic tales and have probably since the time of the American Revolution led an existence in a little separate world of their own, asking little from the rest of the world and giving even less—until they were discovered as a potential gold mine for industrial development.

Cotton manufacturing, like all industries, has peculiarities of its own. It belongs to the semi-skilled occupation group where the industrial skill necessary may be acquired by an untrained person in a few days or weeks. It is in reality unskilled labor trained for a single, industrial task. While the North transplanted from the far-away lands of Southern Italy, Azores, Spain, Poland, Greece, Anmenia and a score of other countries its labor supply, the South tapped its encircling mountains for its native born labor. While the North concentrated them in the tenements of the slums and left them to the devices of the doubtful leadership of their countrymen, the South distributed its supply into hundreds of small communities, surroundings which were simple, though by all means superior to the former mountain abodes. While the immigrant of the North was but a cog in the human mechanism of the mill, in the South the labor element was a “part of the mill” twenty-four hours a day. The school, the church, the store, the meeting house were considered a part of the mill. Teachers, welfare workers, and ministers were a part of the regular mill administrative personnel. Every worker, no matter how humble, was personally known, and in case of need his or his family’s physical and emotional wants were sympathetically looked after. The South understood and recognized the need of human touch in industrial relations; the North has, as yet, failed to do so.

In the North every immigrant was a potential vote to the henchman politician with all other interests of secondary importance. In the South, with its small mill communities, the workers were of no special political importance and this is one phase of the circumstances which have enabled the South to succeed in wresting the cotton supremacy from the all-powerful Northern interest. There were, however, other economical and sociological considerations.

The wage demands in the Southern small mill communities were, of course, considerably less than in the overcrowded industrial centers of the North. In the South that particular genus of human vulture, the greedy, landlord extracting high rentals for miserable vermin-ridden tenements, was unknown. The excuse that slums are the result of the low living standards of the people dwelling in them does not justify the existence of slums and the high rentals obtained for them. In the South the cottages belong to the mills; the rental is low—just enough to cover upkeep and depreciation—and supervision by paid welfare workers of the mills assures a certain standard of maintenance and good order. Therefore, tendencies of degeneration are arrested in the bud. The stores in the Southern mill villages are directly or indirectly controlled by the mill management; therefore, gouging, profiteering and overselling — the evils of the Northern slum commerce—are non-existent. Organized vice in all its varieties which, like a leech, hangs on to the large Northern mill communities and is often in partnership with the local politicians, is, of course, non-existent in the South. The Southern mill worker, in spite of his lower wages, enjoys a much higher real wage than his fellow workers of the North and this difference is also a very important factor in the favor of the South.

If the large Northern communities are responsible for the degeneration of the Northern cotton industry, why is it then that the cotton mills located in the small New England communities where the basic conditions are almost identical with those of the South should also be forced to shut down their plants and move to the South? One of the reasons for this condition is the proximity of the large communities, influencing both the index and the real wages of that territory; and the other is that labor legislation, sponsored mainly for the large industrial communities, will affect all communities of that State, disregarding other conditions.

Against the Southern fifty-four hour week, Massachusetts’ forty-eight hour week legislation has thrown out of competition every cotton mill of the State whether it is located in a city or a village.

What is then the magnitude of the Southern economic capacity, that it can swallow such an industrial giant as the Northern cotton industry?—is the often-asked question. According to the statements of the railroad economists of the Southern States, and the different chambers of commerce associations, the concentration of the whole cotton industry in the Southern territory is but a comfortable tidbit for the whetted appetite of their industrial ambition. The mountains and the slopes are still populated with uncounted thousands of the lanky children of the mountaineers, who are no longer satisfied with the primitive existence of their fathers but await eagerly the call which will bring them such pleasures of life as their mountain existence cannot provide. Some time ago the mother of such a transplanted mountaineer family told me that in her case the deciding factors in favor of the desertion of the home of her forefathers were electric lights and ice cream. The wonders of our marvelous inventions promoting the comfort and pleasure of human beings are too much of a lure even for the isolated mountaineers of the South. Automobiles, radio, movies and silk stockings thrill the hearts of the new generation of the mountains and the opportunity to join the mill villages is eagerly awaited by them.

The real concern of those Southern industrialists who are interested only in the cotton industry is the possibility of too much infusion of other Northern enterprises who “discover” the South all by themselves. Cotton manufacturing is not the only American industry of the semi-automatic group in which the present economic advantages of the Southern territory, offer a more alluring picture than the Northern industrial centers. Silk manufacturing, for instance, concentrated in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and manned almost exclusively by immigrant population, has lately also cast covetous eyes toward the South as a result of the restlessness of its labor element, clamoring for economic betterment at a much faster pace than the industry is capable of following. One silk territory, close to New York City, is in particular suffering from a constant economic turmoil and is now again at the verge of a new battie—if this battle could be called new. It is rather the flare-up of an old controversy after a lull. A number of silk mills have already transferred part of their activities to the Southern territory in view of deserting their present locations altogether. Moreover that political “Stormy Petrel,” the woolen and worsted industry, has also commenced to “talk South.” The concern of the Southern cotton industrialists is, therefore, the over-abundance of blessings—an excessive industrial demand for its population.

The inevitable rise of unit wages and progressive labor legislation which is bound to follow this large scale industrial movement to the South is, however, no object for worry; because such progressive developments will still leave them the upper hand of the conquered industries from the North, if by nothing else, by, virtue of possession. The South’s concern will be rather the inter-territorial competition of the labor element between its diversified industries and its agriculture.

Cotton is still king and will be forever. It may be shorn of its despotic powers by an economic Magna Charta but it will remain king just the same. The diversification of Southern agriculture as the remedy for the caprices of King Cotton has been fully realized and the present behavior of cotton, sorely trying to the patience of the Southern planter, will accelerate this movement. But the thought of possibly banishing King Cotton through industrial competition is a fly in the ointment of happiness. To drive away cotton culture would be like draining the stream that moves the wheels. The fear is, therefore, that the present inexhaustible labor supply might be exhaustible after all and the momentum of the semi-skilled industries towards the South might not be stopped when the bottom of their reserve labor supply has been reached and the industries, according to the law of self-preservation, would commence to drain the human element needed upon the plantations. Is there a foundation for such anxiety? An analysis of the situation would indicate that there is not.

The mysterious workings of nature, which prevent water freezing from the bottom up and thus destroying life; the power which fixed the orbits of the milliards of celestial bodies to prevent catastrophic collisions, will also show the master hand in such comparatively insignificant things as human economics. The ultimate destiny of the American negro—”the maker of the cotton crop”—is neither the sunny fields nor the cotton mills of the South but the “heavy” industries of the East—the maintenance of the rail beds and the stewarding of the ocean traffic. Immigrants —as experience has already proved—mostly desert the “heavy” occupations with the second generation, and future immigration to fill the constant demand for the renewal in such occupations is now a matter of the past. The complete automatization of industries may also excite the library philosopher or fire the imagination of the novelist but it will never cause a wrinkle upon the brow of the engineer and the economist, who by training and experience can determine the probable pace and magnitude of such an industrial evolution. There is no question about it; industrial evolution will continue to reduce the semi-skilled occupations in such a highly complex industrial community as the United States. But such development will be too gradual to be noticeable in a generation, making such evolvement continuous and self-adjusting. The reduction of semi-skilled occupations in our American industries is taking place right now, readjusting the human element, either up or down upon the scales of industrial occupations. The gap left by the restriction of immigration in the “heavy” industries is, however, only partially filled by the new mechanical devices and the demand for unskilled labor is as great as ever. The negro population of the South—the most suitable labor for the “heavy” industries and at the same time this most essential factor of the present day’s cotton crop—is moving toward the industrial centers of the middle West, East and North to fill this gap, as the increase of the negro population of these industrial centers indicates. Their restlessness, instability, and periodical return to their old abodes among the cotton fields is not an index of their industrial unfitness, as some observers seem to believe, but purely the result of a transitory period. If the former supposition were true, the marked increase of the negro population in the industrial centers since the ban on immigration would have to be explained as a supernatural phenomenon.

It seems that every natural and economic law works in the right direction to bring this Industrial Drama of the Century to a happy ending. Cotton—this most essential staple which for generations has kept the Southern planter “just a step ahead of the poorhouse”—will finally yield to the irresistible pressure of economic progress. Two years ago cotton sold far below the cost of production because the left-overs, overplanting, and the beneficial effect of the intensive warfare upon the boll weevil, increased the crops beyond anticipation. But its price has already recovered, though not sufficiently to provide the farmer a fair profit. The demoralization of the market taught an expensive but useful lesson. Prosperity depends less on acreage than on intensity of cultivation. Intensified cultivation and diversification of crop are the only preventives against the demoralization of this great Southern staple which will remain forever the body covering and everyday necessity, of the millions. With the diminishing labor supply, mechanical cultivating and harvesting devices will soon enter the plantations and help the farmer in meeting the new requirements. The result will be the same sized cotton crop as today but with a greatly diminished labor and acreage. Cotton harvesting devices experimented with during the recent years—like the “wedge” which pulls a whole cotton stalk into a box and permits the picking of the boll in one-sixth of the time of the present method—are the forerunners of this change. Intensive cultivation will make cotton a profitable crop instead of just the tie which barely holds the body and soul together. Like every other staple, cotton has its economic limitations and if its price soars above the normal production level, the substitution of other staples will commence. High cotton prices invariably increase the use of jute and paper fiber for such commodities as baggings and coarser fabrics, consumed in immense quantities by the world. The selling price of such commodities is not capable of adjustment above a low limit and, as the nature of the basic fiber is not of prime importance, substitutes will take the place of cotton. On the other hand, rayon, a synthetic fiber made of cellulose, having the appearance and the properties of silk, with cotton prices high, will fall into the line of direct competition with the better grade of cotton products because of its superior appearance. Thus, cotton is placed in an economic vise; its consumption reduced at both ends until the equilibrium of price relations is restored again. The marked progress such substitute fibers have already made to the detriment of cotton during the recent years was due entirely to the high cotton prices, and the planters of this staple realize that to maintain the supremacy of cotton a reduction of the cost of cotton growing is a necessity.

The increased industrial invasion of the South and the lure of the Southern negro labor to the North, is, therefore, a blessing in disguise for the Southern cotton culture. It will accomplish the thing that the South in particular and the cotton consuming world in general have hoped for for years. It will achieve the diversification of the Southern agriculture, the reduction of the cotton acreage, the intensification of cotton cultivation, and the reduction of cost of cotton production—all things badly needed by the South— and into the bargain, the South will have also secured the object of its dream for generations—the cotton manufacturing industry.

So the “Industrial Drama of the Century” is on. It is a real thriller, if you please—like the old-fashioned melodrama, with the ambitious young man who is striving to get along, the b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l heiress as the heroine with whom the hero has been in love since childhood, the silk-hatted villain, and even the mortgage on the old farm to be paid off.

Sentimental audience, please spare your tears. The drama will have a happy ending.


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