During the seventeenth century, when silk became the fashionable fabric for the upper classes in Europe, England hoped to compete with the thriving silk industries in France and Italy.
The Emergence of Cotton Production
The cotton gin, invented in the 1790s by Eli Whitney at Catharine Greene's Mulberry Grove plantation in Chatham County, turned cotton into a profitable crop for plantation owners. An industry centered strictly on cotton textile production in the state, however, was still decades away.
After the War of 1812 (1812-15) some southern leaders, in an attempt to duplicate the prosperity of cotton mills in New England, built textile factories in the South. The earliest of these mills in Georgia were the Antioch Factory in Morgan County and the Bolton Factory in Wilkes County. Both factories, built around 1810, had failed by the early 1820s, probably due to the more rural-focused economy and sparse population. The idea of textile mills as a means of commerce resurfaced when an economic depression in 1837 required alternate sources of revenue for southern businessmen. Simultaneously, more land was becoming available for cotton cultivation in central and west Georgia after the removal of the Creek Indians.
The topography along the fall line may have been right for mill operations, but the lack of easy access to a white workforce led the first mill operators, also plantation owners, to use their slaves as workers. Other factories employed members of local farm families when they were available.
Sensing the emergence of a profitable enterprise for their state, political leaders passed legislation making it easier for potential mill operators to incorporate their businesses. The industry began to flourish, and by 1850 Georgia had thirty-eight textile mills. The cloth produced in the mills evolved from the early coarse fabrics, sometimes called "Georgia wool," to cotton duck, a heavier canvaslike material. Most of the regional mills in operation at this time were small, with fewer than 2,000 spindles and 100 workers. Often these mills were situated next to the local gristmills, flour mills, and sawmills.
In Georgia's emerging cities, however, factories tended to be larger. One example was Eagle Manufacturing Company in Columbus, opened in 1851 by William H. Young, a native New Yorker. The growth of the textile industry in Georgia, along with the population increase and expansion of railroads in the state, prompted William "Parson" Brownlow, the editor of a Tennessee newspaper, to call Georgia "the New England of the South" in 1849.
As the 1850s progressed, Georgia mill owners focused on improving rather than expanding their factories. Employees, by then strictly composed of rural whites from areas surrounding the mills, were developing into a skilled workforce. Some owners in the state encouraged seasoned northern mill workers to relocate to Georgia factories, where they could pass along their experience to local workers; some experienced mill workers came from as far away as England.
Civil War and Its Aftermath
Not all the mills in Georgia were destroyed by Sherman's troops, however. The Trion Factory in Chattooga County, the first cotton mill built in northwest Georgia, was spared. One of the owners, Andrew Allgood, convinced Sherman that his factory had produced cloth for the Confederacy under protest and that he was, in fact, a "Union man." As a result Sherman issued protection papers for the mill.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, cotton production in Georgia reemerged as the single most important factor in the state's economy. As Reconstruction waned in the state, a national depression called the "Panic of 1873" occurred, during which small farmers and businesses suffered from a lack of capital. The abolishment of slavery had already caused many plantations to cease operations, and as the southern rail network expanded further, a major transformation began to occur in the state. Georgia's agricultural financial base shifted toward a new industrial focus, and textile factories became a far more viable means of commerce.
New South Expansion
During the 1870s and 1880s, Henry W. Grady of the Atlanta Constitution encouraged industrialization in the state and implied that civic responsibility required the construction of a cotton mill in every Georgia town. Community leaders, fueled by Grady's rhetoric and a series of cotton expositions held during the 1880s in Atlanta, took up a new rallying cry: "bring the cotton mills to the cotton fields." What followed was a three-decade boom in cotton mill construction; the new drive toward industrialization was coined the "Cotton Mill Campaign of the New South."
After 1880, as many Georgia mills reached profitability, northern business interests began investing
By 1900 textile manufacturing was a major industry in Georgia; according to the U.S. Census, that year the state had ninety-eight textile mills in operation. Young men were encouraged to gain skills in the cotton-trade schools that were emerging statewide, and the Textile Department of the Georgia School of Technology (later the Georgia Institute of Technology) opened in 1899. (The department later became known as the School of Textile and Fiber Engineering, and in 2003 the name was changed to the School of Polymer Textile and Fiber Engineering.)
During the 1830s, the technology for powering mills with steam became available, but the use of steam did not gain popularity in Georgia until the 1850s. Steam power—created by burning wood or coal—freed mills from their reliance on waterpower and allowed owners to situate their enterprises in urban areas other than those situated on the fall line. In the years after the Civil War, as improvements were made to the steam engine, steam-powered mills became competitive with mills that operated solely by waterpower.
One example of a steam-powered mill was the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills in Atlanta, which originated in 1868 to produce cloth and paper bags. The owner of the mill, Jacob Elsas, had always used steam to operate his factory. As he expanded operations in the 1880s, he installed a huge steam engine that was said to be one of the largest in the South.
While some mill owners began using steam power, others tested a new style of waterwheel, the turbine. Turbines were more efficient and smaller than the older waterwheels; they could process more water by spinning much faster. Some southern mill owners found turbines so effective that they continued to use them into the 1930s.
In Augusta, a canal constructed in 1845 provided an alternate source of power for the mills that were built along its banks. During that time the city was nicknamed the "Lowell of the South," after the successful industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1875 Chinese contract laborers were hired to widen the canal to accommodate more traffic.
During the 1880s widows with children, assured of decent housing, arrived at the mills in large numbers.
Small mills around the state produced cotton sheeting, shirting fabrics, and different types of twine and rope. They also experimented with textile variations. In the Dalton area Catherine Evans (Whitener) began selling chenille bedspreads in 1900, thereby creating the tufted-textile industry, which later evolved into a worldwide carpet industry. In the twenty-first century, approximately 80 percent of international carpet production centers in north Georgia.
World War I (1917-18) marked a turning point in the textile industry. The United States' entrance into the war
After the war, the industry faced new challenges. Around the state, mill families had suffered the loss of family members, some in wartime, others during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Cotton farmers were devastated by the boll weevil. Even changes in fashion affected production at the factories; new shorter skirt lengths required less fabric and, in turn, fewer workers. Even though new hosiery mills were hiring, the larger factories, faced with wartime surpluses of fabric, had too many employees.
Additional challenges for the workers included the introduction of new machinery that required very few people to operate. Mill owners, in an effort at efficient production, brought in outside consultants to conduct time studies. The result was what mill workers termed the stretch-out. A stretch-out meant that fewer workers were responsible for more machinery and greater production,
To individual mills, the popularity of the automobile meant renewed opportunity and competition. Even smaller textile mills signed contracts to manufacture components for automobiles, including tire cord and rubber products. Many mills added rubber manufacturing facilities to their existing factories. These often proved costly to operate, however, and some mills were forced to close or sell off their rubber manufacturing facilities by the 1930s. Such was the case at the Stark Mills of Hogansville in northern Troup County; the factory was sold to U.S. Rubber, a firm that later became Uniroyal.
For African Americans, life in the Jim Crow South meant limited job opportunities. The textile industry in Georgia was segregated; black male workers held only menial jobs at the factories and were not permitted to live within the mill villages. Black women had virtually no role in mill work before the 1950s. They were employed by mill families to cook, clean, and watch the younger children in the mill village.
In an industry that often struggled to remain solvent, white workers viewed the possibility of black employment at their mills as a threat to their jobs. During World War I, many industries in the northern states experienced labor shortages, and minority workers were able to get good jobs in that part of the country. Following the war, industrial growth in the North continued, while the southern textile mills faltered. The knowledge that a good job could be obtained outside of the southern states encouraged large numbers of African Americans to leave, in an exodus that became known as the Great Migration.
As mill workers became more confident, incidents of protest over code violations broke out around the state. The protests came to a boiling point when workers called a strike on September 1, 1934. This General Textile Strike of 1934, later termed the Uprising of '34, involved more than 200,000
In some instances, violence broke out between picketers and the guards hired by mill bosses. In Georgia, scattered episodes of violence were recorded at plants in Cedartown, Columbus, Macon, and Porterdale; deaths were reported at Trion and Augusta. These incidents, along with other fatalities in North Carolina and South Carolina, angered workers in Georgia, many of whom joined local branches of the national United Textile Workers (UTW) union. In 1934 there were sixty local branches of the UTW in Georgia.
Following the strike, most Georgians believed that the mill owners had prevailed. The strikers were forced to return to the same working conditions that they had fought to improve, and many strikers, especially strike activists, were banned from returning to work in textile factories. Some were also forced out of mill housing with only the clothes on their backs. Workers fearful of being blacklisted turned away from organized labor, and many never discussed the strike again. While the problems at the mills would eventually be addressed, most of these positive changes did not occur until America's entry into World War II (1941-45).
World War II Years
Patriotism prevailed among the workers. Many workers actively participated in home-front activities, such as scrap metal drives, and some Georgia textile mills went above and beyond to produce the fabric for military uniforms. When the war ended, some of the mills received the government's "E" Award for outstanding service to the war effort.
Modernization, Decline, and Adaptation
After the war, textile mill production continued to prosper for a time, and by the mid-1950s southern mills processed 90 percent of the cotton produced in the United States. But the industry was once again forced to endure changes.
As new technology developed, the mills became increasingly automated. To stay profitable, costs were cut and workforces drastically reduced. The mill operators began selling off the houses in the mill villages as early as the 1940s. The homes were first offered for sale to workers, who were able to purchase them at reasonable prices. By the 1970s all the textile companies had sold their houses; some villages, which had previously been separate entities, became incorporated into nearby cities.
In 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated quotas between the United States, Canada, and Mexico on fabric products manufactured in those three countries. Some large textile corporations viewed NAFTA as an opportunity to globalize Georgia's varied textile industry, but labor and consumer groups opposed the agreement, believing that a loss of jobs and lowered wages would result. Regardless of NAFTA, outsourcing work to low-cost Asian textile companies became a more viable financial option for some struggling plants in the 1990s, eventually leading to additional plant closures.
In 1996 total employment in the U.S. textile industry dropped to 4 percent of all industrial workers nationwide. In Georgia, 16.5 percent of industrial workers remained in the textile industry, a drop of 50 percent from the 1950s. In the northwest portion of the state, including Bartow, Gordon, Murray, and Whitfield counties, however, unemployment rates remain low due to the thriving carpet industry. During the 1980s manufacturers in need of more workers began to hire Hispanic immigrants then settling in the Rome area. Some plant managers believe that the industry continues to thrive because of this population's labor.
In an effort to save some of the mill structures from certain demolition during the 1990s, communities around the state began participating in movements to revitalize abandoned mill buildings. In Newnan, the East Newnan Cotton Mill was transformed into rental units and named the "Newnan Lofts." Cabbagetown, the mill housing area of Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, became the "Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts" in one of the biggest loft conversions in the United States. The former Enterprise Mill in Augusta was redeveloped into loft apartments and office and retail space. Smaller mill sites, situated near picturesque flowing creeks, are now desirable locations to locate guest cottages, executive retreats, and spa complexes. One example is the "Historic Banning Mills,"
Although analysts predict tough times for the industry in the twenty-first century, the Georgia Textile Manufacturers Association reports that the state's textile leaders expect to survive the new challenges. The twentieth century saw struggle and recovery, depression and reorganization, but mill communities weathered these changes to forge distinctive identities. Georgia's textile workers, past and present, view their work in the mills as a vital element in the heritage of the state.
Mildred Gwin Andrews, The Men and the Mills: A History of the Southern Textile Industry (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987).
Michelle Brattain, The Poli tics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Glenn T. Eskew, ed., Labor in the Modern South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001).
Gary M. Fink, The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Strike of 1914-1915: Espionage, Labor Conflict, and New South Industrial Relations (Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1993).
Douglas Flamming, Creating the Modern South: Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, 1884-1984 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Clifford M. Kuhn, Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta's Fulton Mills (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
Vicki Phillips, "The Thomaston Turnaround," Results (Winter 2003).
Jan Pogue, For One Glorious Purpose: Georgia Textiles: Our Heritage, Our Future (Atlanta: Georgia Textile Manufacturers Association, 2000).
Arden Williams, Georgia Humanities Council
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.