The Problem of the Southern Cotton Mill

IN the remarkable economic development of the Southern States during the last thirty years, the textile industry easily leads the rest both in the amount of capital invested — fully twenty per cent of the whole — and in the importance of its sociological consequences as well. To understand these consequences with any degree of correctness, it is necessary to know something of the previous history of the particular social class from which the labor supply for these mills has been drawn. The “factory people,” as they are called in the South, are not of foreign birth, — but one per cent of the population are foreigners, and they are not in the mills; nor are they negroes, — the Negro is averse to the long hours and the steady labor, most of all perhaps to the unsocial labor which the mill demands; but they come principally from what is known as the “poor whites,” a class, as has been truly said by Mr. Edgar Gardner Murphy, whose poverty is not “the essential poverty of inward resources, but rather the incidental and temporary poverty of unfortunate conditions.”

For so long a term of years the South was regarded as purely an agricultural region, that one learns with some surprise that her earliest industrial development was in the direction, not of agriculture, but of manufactures. Among her first settlers were very many of the same origin as the settlers of Pennsylvania, — English, Irish, Scotch, Scotch-Irish, and German, — with mechanical tastes and training; and these, especially in the Piedmont region, built and operated blast furnaces, roller mills, machine shops, and factories of various kinds. In 1810 the manufactured products of Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia exceeded those of all New England and New York combined. But from that time the production of cotton by slave labor increased in importance, and manufactures declined. The negro slave and not the free white laborer was looked to to build up the wealth of the country. There ensued a great exodus of these white mechanics (Abraham Lincoln, then a baby, was in the movement) to the free Northwest. Those who remained sank lower and lower in the social scale; many of their descendants are in the cotton mills to-day, finding good use for whatever of mechanical aptitudes have come down to them as an inheritance from three generations back, and evincing, in many cases, the same good traits of character that belonged to their ancestors.

During the existence of slavery the landless man in the agricultural sections of the South, or the man with but little land and no slaves, was held to an existence having in it nothing of progress or even of opportunity. In the hard years that lingered so long after the Civil War, his condition became far worse. In addition to this luckless class of the farming belt, most of them industrious and honest, were the mountain people, remote from railroads, without books, schools, or newspapers, without contact of any sort with the great onward currents of human life, as primitive in their tastes and habits, and often almost as innocent, as the wild creatures of the woods and hills around them. The white population of the South has always been small and scattered over large territorial areas. Even now eighty per cent is rural, living, not in small farming villages, but in the veritable country, sometimes in districts which number fewer than fifteen persons of both races to the square mile. It has been impossible for such a people to create the educational and financial opportunities which are in the reach of more thickly settled communities. At the close of the Civil War, to the white illiteracy, itself more than twenty-five per cent, was added the black illiteracy of nearly five million slaves suddenly invested with the rights of citizenship. With what seems an amazing blindness, no national aid was asked or given to assist the South, with a burden absolutely impossible for her to bear in her impoverished and thinly settled condition. She assumed it with heroic, if mistaken, courage, and has diminished her illiteracy, white and black, with every decade. But, even so, there are in her borders to-day 3,500,000 persons above fourteen years of age who cannot read and write. It is not surprising that for a generation thousands of her little white children, of fine native stock and fine native capacity, have had no other teacher than the insensate machinery of the cotton mill. The waste of such human resources has not yet pierced to the national conscience; to turn its edge upon the mill owner is manifestly absurd.

For some of the evils of mill life the mill owner may be responsible, but not by any means for all, or even for the largest share. The growth of the industry, indeed, has been too rapid for it to escape corresponding perils. In 1870, from Virginia to Texas there were $3,000,000 invested in textile mills; by 1880 this amount had become $21,000,000; today it is more than $175,000,000. Taking the case of a single state, Georgia, we find a mill as early as 1825; from then until the Civil War six or eight others were built, the largest in Augusta; but the number of operatives in all combined barely reached, if indeed it did reach, 2000. At present all the old mills have enlarged their plants, more than a hundred new ones have been built, and the number of operatives is more than 25,000, with a mill population more than twice as great. Alabama has made similar gains, the two Carolinas even greater, and the industry is growing in the adjoining states. The transfer of so large a labor supply from rural life, usually of great poverty and isolation, to the crowded environment of the mill yard, and the long hours of labor amidst the ceaseless crash of machinery, could not but result in a measure of both physical and moral injury. This evil the mill owners have labored to diminish; but the most enlightened management and an unthinkable capital would have been necessary to provide against it altogether.

When an ardent opponent of the Child Labor bill declares before the Georgia legislature that the cotton mill is “the greatest missionary agency in the South, one that is doing more for the moral, intellectual, and financial elevation of her poorer classes than all the churches and all the philanthropies combined,” one acquainted with the facts may give a qualified assent to his claim. To many of its employees the mill has been the one possible escape from pinching poverty or actual want; to many more, uneducated, and untrained to any form of profitable employment, it has been the instrument which has brought them in contact with civilizing agencies already in existence, or which it has been the policy of the mill to provide. But it must not be forgotten that these advantages have been purchased in part by the labor—one feels almost like saying the life — of little children. Mill owners have used their profits to a commendable extent in improving the condition of their employees; but so long as it is on record that most of them have opposed all legislation looking to the adequate protection of women and little children, society may wisely decline to resign the whole matter to their discretion as it has been again and again requested to do. With twenty-five per cent of the factory operatives under sixteen years of age, with more than half of these under fourteen, and not a few under twelve, and subject in some states to night work as well, the South may well consider, for her own sake as well as for that of the children, whether a temporary prosperity may not be purchased at too dear a cost.

It should be added, however, at this point, that the relation of the Southern mill operative to his employer is almost unique. Almost invariably it is one of mutual confidence, and often of active good-will. While waiting in a manager’s office one may sometimes be treated to the sight of an old man, unkempt and grizzled, leaning comfortably in at the open window, and giving with cheerful confidence suggestions as to points of management, and may note that such a one is listened to not with impatience or condescension, but with a delightful cordiality of which his own native wit keeps him from taking undue advantage. And in times of trouble the women go to the officials for counsel or financial aid, with a confidence which is never misplaced. Much as suitable legislation should be insisted upon, to secure it at the cost of this mutual good-will would be to sacrifice something which the best of legal restrictions could not wholly replace. One likes to believe that the coexistence of both is not an impossibility.

Mill people are segregated to an unfortunate degree from the rest of society; but they are not for that reason closely bound to one another. Differences of education, and still more of moral standards, exist among them and create social separations as distinct as elsewhere. The best of these people rank as high as any others in good sense and the essential qualities of worthy character; the worst are the lowest to be found in the white population of the South. Between the extremes is a class, larger than either, as yet but little more developed in some regards than children, and responding readily to the good or the evil of their environment.

That environment itself differs. The prosperous mills, such as those at Pelzer in South Carolina, the Massachusetts Mills at Lindale, Georgia, and one or two of the Columbus mills, especially when at a distance from other towns or villages, provide for their operatives comfortable dwellings, large grounds with excellent sanitation, schools, churches, sometimes libraries, lecture courses, and other advantages; but in many of the older or less successful mills there is distressingly little to counteract the peculiar hardships and perils incident to factory life. The churches, women’s clubs, and benevolent associations antedated and still supplement the philanthropic work of the mill owners. Atlanta women maintain seven free kindergartens and a social settlement in their mill districts; Athens has a night school with a most remarkable record; Augusta, in addition to a superior mill school, has a parish house which is doing a work out of all proportion to its financial resources, and only explicable by the quality of its workers; and at Columbus is an industrial school which in its essentials might well be duplicated in numberless places in the South, to the lasting benefit, not only of white children, but of the black ones as well. Adjoining states show similar agencies at work. Multiplied ten-fold they would not meet the extraordinary demands of the situation. The need for external aid must always rise above the normal in a working community whose hours of labor run regularly as high as sixty-six a week, with night work not infrequent, particularly when a large proportion of the workers are women and little children. The amount of sickness will also be unusual, especially as the use of tobacco and snuff is almost universal, even with children. And the necessity for outside influences to quicken the sluggish intellectual and social currents must long exist where illiteracy is so concentrated.

Better, however, than further generalization upon the characteristics and the surroundings of these people will be an account of a series of visits paid to representative mills.

The first of these was made to a mill community on the outskirts of a large city. Founded nearly thirty years ago, when any expansion of the industry was regarded as an extremely doubtful financial experiment, the houses of the operatives were poor to begin with, and have not been bettered by the wear and tear of time. One of the mills is old also, and saturated with odors which perhaps only fire itself could destroy. The new one standing by its side is, except for the floors, clean, well ventilated, and provided with the best of machinery. The president gives me permission to spend all the time I like in the mills, and the amiable superintendent is my patient guide. He invites full investigation, and when I begin to talk with the workers, with a fine courtesy he busies himself out of earshot and leaves me absolutely free.

But I am otherwise trammeled. What right have I to ask intimate, personal questions of these toilers, more than of other strangers, more than of the men and women of my acquaintance? Yet there is neither resentment nor suspicion in the faces they thrust close to mine, that they may hear above the din and thud of the machinery.

A woman with lustreless hair and eyes and a skin like parchment smiles a little as she looks up from her loom, “No, ma’am, the work ain’t to say hard,” she says. “Hit’s jes’ tejus an’ confinin’. But a body can make mo’ at it than they can in them shops run by furriners, an’ be better protected. I like it very well.”

“The managers is all mighty kind,” another declares; “an’ our super is a good man. He was raised in a mill himself, an’ knows how a po’ person feels.” And when questioned about recreation, she answers as a dozen others have done, most of them young girls, “Why, our super he fixes for us to have all kinds o’ good religious doin’s. There’s church, an’ Sunday School, and Wednesday night prayer-meetin’” — She stops and tries to think. What other forms of recreation are there for any one to ask for?

I tarry longest in the large spinningrooms. In the long narrow alleys, lined high with whirling spindles, are childish figures moving slowly up and down, stopping every moment or two to tie a broken thread. Little boys doff the wooden spindles with a celerity that is itself machine-like, and bring others in small wooden carts. A few of the children are rosy and healthy-looking; most are pale and dull-eyed. Their unkempt hair and little cheap calico gowns are covered with lint. The lips of some are almost bloodless, and there is a brown line along them which tells its own story.

“ Why do you use snuff ? It is very bad for you,” I say to a girl of twelve, whose face is colorless except for the blue circles under her eyes and the dark stains on her white lips. She looks more fit for a hospital than for a spinning-room.

“I reckon hit’s good for me,” she replies; “it sorter seems to keep this lint fum gittin’ in my throat, an’ I’ve got a bad cough.”

I ask the same question of another child, a tough, wiry-looking little creature, with alert movements and an indomitable spirit of fun in her black eyes.

“I know I ought n’t to dip,” she says, her eyes twinkling ; “but I jes’ caint he’p it. Hit keeps me fum bein’ so lonesome.”

“How long have you been at this lonesome work?”

“Fo’ year.” (She is not yet fourteen.)

“Can you read and write?”

“No ’m, I caint.” Look and voice deprecate the fact, but turn it bravely into a joke. “There’s a real good school here; free, too,” she adds for the honor of her employers; “but I’m jes’ one o’ them that don’t never git to go to it.”

In another spinning-room I find a girl whose bony fingers suggest the claws of a bird, and whose bent shoulders and strange, unchildlike features might give her almost any age. In body she seems about fourteen.

“How long have you worked in the mill?”

“Seven year. Not in this mill.”

“Did you ever work at night ?”

“Yes’m, a long time. But that was befo’ I come here.”

“ Where ? ”

She names a mill owned and operated by people from a New England state.

I grow weary of the whirl and roar of machinery, of the filthy floors covered with expectorations, of the odors that sicken me in spite of the open windows. I return to the city. Down the long avenue the yellow light fills the space between the rows of tall trees. There is to be some important social function, and handsomely dressed women are crossing the sidewalk to their carriages. But the narrow mill aisles, lined with whirling spindles, are still before me, their sickening odors are lodged in my nostrils. In the yellow twilight the long street seems only a picture; the beautiful women, figures in a dream. It is the toilers in the mill that are the reality.

Another visit was made to a mill in a section of country but recently opened up by the railroads, and with a force of workers which, except for the few who have followed the owners from another state, are absolutely fresh from the mountains. The mill village is two miles from the nearest town, is the sole property of the corporation, and will, in a few years, furnish a complete example of what a mill can or cannot do with primitive human material. Its educational problem is a large one. Two thirds of its large working force are illiterate. But the president had employed teachers and opened a school several weeks before the mill was ready for work.

The equipment of the mill represents the latest improvements in machinery; the arrangements for heat, light, and ventilation are excellent. The workers are full of pride in their work, and not yet recovered from the exciting novelty of handling money of their own earning. The mill has been running five months; the worst-looking person in it is a boy who but three weeks before came down from the mountains.

I stop at one of the drawing-in frames and talk with a girl of refined and really beautiful features, her skin smooth and delicate, her yellow hair drawn smoothly away from her white forehead. “ I got to go to school three or four years before we moved here,” she says, “and I did love it. I wanted a good education worse than anything in the world.”

“But you are earning money now. Why not save your wages and go to school again ?”

She shakes her head. The present good has come between her and her fair dream.

I talk with another of the newcomers, a spooler. “Do you like this work?”

She throws back her head and smiles. “Yes, ma’am, I do. I’d another sort ruther be here than a-workin’ in the field, or he’pin’ ma around the house. Besides, you don’t get no pay for that sort o’ work.”

Before the whistle blows for half-past eleven I walk the few rods between the mill and the little village where the operatives live. More than a hundred small frame dwellings, staring and white, stand on a broad slope from which every tree has been carefully cut away. There are no blinds, no concealment of any sort. I stop at the first house on the corner of one of the narrow streets. A woman with gentle brown eyes invites me into her parlor. There is a carpet on the floor, a cabinet organ, new chairs, and a small table. A plaster bust of Shakespeare is on the mantel, and the walls are covered with crayon portraits in wide gilt frames.

The woman has six children and a boarder, and her sister’s family are here as visitors. There is not room for me to spend the night; but I may have dinner and supper. On the clean dinner-table there are turnips, potatoes, hash, two kinds of preserves, and sweet-potato custards, with plate after plate of hot biscuits, big and soft, arriving constantly from the tiny stove-room. The customs of the table violate some of the points of etiquette; essentially, they are as fine as could be found in kings’ palaces. The young man sitting opposite me, with the fine open face and handsome blue eyes, cannot read, but he eats only after those about him are served, and then modestly and quietly.

“It’s a pity them labor agitators ain’t got a good job o’ work to do,” the man of the house says to me. “I’ve worked for the owners o’ this yere mill seven year over in South Ca’lina, an’ I’d trust em a sight sooner’n I’d trust ary one o’ them labor fellers. An’ as for that Child Labor bill you women air tryin’ to pass, it’s jes’ plum foolishness. Look at my daughter there, — you think the mill’s hurt her?”

The girl’s cheek is like a damask rose; her black eyes smile at me shyly. “All mill girls do not look like her,” I insist.

In the rainy afternoon, in company with the mill physician, I visit house after house. They are furnished chiefly with children, and the kind physician comes opportunely to each, for there is sickness everywhere. The small front room has always two beds in it, sometimes three, and is the general living-room for the family; the only place, also, into which a visitor can be taken. The stranger, however, is not received as an intruder into the privacies of family life, but as an honored guest; and the childlike freedom and kindliness of the conversation which follows are as touching as they are charming. In more than one house there is no stove, sometimes only a single cooking utensil, a spider or oven, set out on the hearth, the chips on its lid filling the room with smoke which only the visitor seems to find disagreeable. “You will find things looking different in these houses a year from now,” the doctor assures me.

Estimates of the new prosperity, however, are now and then qualified. “I like where we come from better,” a woman says. “The childern likes it down here because there’s somebody for ’em to be with. I’d ruther be off ten miles fum anybody than to have folks as clost around me as they air here.”

When I go elsewhere for the night and ask my friendly entertainers for my bill, the woman’s gentle eyes deprecate my request. “I don’t charge you nothin’ for what you et,” she says.

Her husband takes up the matter vigorously. “We’re pore, but we ain’t that pore,” he declares. “Whoever comes to my house can eat what they want to without havin’ to pay for it. You come to see us again.”

Some one comes in with an advertising pamphlet, and the youngest child grasps it eagerly and bends over the fire trying to read its silly rhymes. I remember that in this house of fourteen persons I have not seen a single book, and think of a more delicate way to pay for my entertainment.

The village of Roswell, Georgia, is known elsewhere, if at all, as the place where our President’s mother was born and reared. To visit the little town is to taste the flavor of the Middle Ages, for a single steep street there is an epitome of a chapter repeated often in those past centuries, — the evolution of a middle class between the noble and the serf.

The village was founded by a wealthy gentleman from the coast, who erected a stately home in the original forest and gave large building lots to the friends who chose to follow him. The colonists brought their own minister, built a brick church and schoolhouse, and prepared to rear their families in simple elegance and solid comfort. In 1837 they built a cotton mill, and a social entity of an utterly diverse kind entered upon its career. The beautiful old mansions still stand in their spacious grounds; but only two are in possession of descendants of the original owners. Scattered around the mill are the little whitewashed cabins in which the old story of humble toil repeats itself. But the steep street has grown up between, — its simple cottages built there one at a time through the slow years by the more ambitious of the mill people, whose children now carry on the small traffic of the village or follow trades or professions in other parts of the state.

The mill stands by the small river. Its steep, dark steps, flight after flight, are worn into deep hollows by the tread of generations of feet. The mill seems little and old and shabby after the great brick buildings I have been visiting for days before. But the sunlight and warm air pour in at the open windows; one can look easily from end to end of the rooms and see each separate worker, and machinery no longer makes human beings appear like mere patented attachments to itself.

I stop beside an old woman with a face much wrinkled and yellow, but full of good-humor. “Been in the mill long?” I scream above the crash of the looms.

“ Hain’t never been nowhere else,” she screams back cheerfully.

She nods across at another old woman in a straight calico gown and threecornered shawl. “Her an’ me’s been a-workin’ here for pretty nigh fifty year,” she screams again.

Her face is so kindly and so humorous I venture another question. She shakes her head. “Had to work. Some learnt at the Sunday School the big folks had. I did n’t. Folks did n’t think nothin’ about educatin’ their childern in them days.”

But what is merely picturesque in the quaint hill village becomes depressing in the city far to the south. Instead of the little whitewashed cabins and the open country around, are the dingy brick tenement houses, their grime and poverty in full view from the paved sidewalk; and for a hundred workers under a single roof there are a thousand. Some of the many mills are new; some are old and inexpressibly dismal. I pass through one immense room lighted only by electricity, and try to think what it would be to live through those long, long hours with never a beam of sunshine to fall upon my loom, never so much as the chance of looking up from my flying shuttle to the tranquil face of the sky.

The types of operatives already so familiar are here also, — quiet, self-respecting men going steadily about their work; others whom ignorance and poverty have brutalized in mind and body; women neatly dressed and contentedlooking, and women whose personal appearance shows an inner life equally unregarded and wretched. And always as before, in the long, long alleys of the spinning-rooms, the little children. They look more pallid and listless, I think, than any I have seen; more stunted in body, perhaps because of the climate; though some of them, indeed, are less than twelve years of age. In a little open space I am cheered by a group of doffers using their off period for a game of marbles on the worn, uneven floor. I lean over and talk to them. Their sallow faces make quick response to my interest. “Get down an’ play a game with us,” one of them says enticingly.

“How old were you when you first went into the mill?” I ask of a toothless, wrinkled woman whose bent shoulders move my heart to pity.

“I never worked in no other mill but this one,” she replies, “an’ I don’t know how old I was when I begun; but I recollek good an’ well the first day I come in I had on a new dress that it tuck jes’ three yards o’ homespun to make.”

“And you’ve been here ever since?”

“Off an’ on for a heap over forty year.”

She told me also that she could not read a word, and that she had been the mother of nine children. “Some of ’em ’s dead, an’ some’s married an’ gone,” she added patiently. “I works now an’ takes keer o’ myself, an’ I ’m glad there’s a mill to work in.”

From one of the windows I look down at the wide canal, its waters diverted from the Savannah River. In this new channel of man’s devising the dark current flows steadily on; too muddy to reflect azure sky, or swaying trees, or the green rushes of the marshy levels through which it flows; drawn at length to the service of the mighty wheel, fulfilling its part in the complicated machinery, and falling away unseen in the underground darkness.

It is a type of the human life drawn day by day through the long years within these inclosing walls; becoming one with band and spindle and flying shuttle and turning wheel; passing steadily on toward the darkness, and as ceaselessly renewed, but reflecting all too seldom the firmament lights of the ideal, or those lowly flowers which ought to make gracious every human existence.