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An oral presentation made 2/26/2011 Without attributions or references At the Charlestowne Landing Archaeology Conference By Lonnie W. Franklin, MA, RPA Hundreds of books and articles have been written that either praise or condemn the dramatic postbellum transformation of southern society and culture as being caused not by the civil war, but by the textile mill industry. The question arises, could this be true?
Was the “old south” really transformed? Or saved? Or destroyed? Why? What did the mills have to do with it? I believe that this is an important question, after all, the old south is the foundation for our current culture and society and if things changed that radically, then perhaps those things that have cultural roots with an antebellum origin could be obsolete. Perhaps we can simply learn a lesson from the past applicable to us now. What changed? While historians generally agree that the old south wasn’t anything like the images portrayed in “Gone with the Wind” they don’t agree on what it was like, and I must therefore start with the assumption that society and culture were indeed changed.
My first approach – to see if the mills had any attributes that might be responsible for the change, was the study of the remaining mills. Standing Buildings studies form an important yet distinctive field in modern archaeology. Not all archaeology happens in a square hole. That’s a deliberate seque to allow me to address the focus of this conference -the development of archaeology as a scientific discipline in our state and where it stands today, while I explain the scope and methodology of my study. As archaeologists we are often reminded that we are anthropologists or we are nothing.
The American Anthropological Association has dropped the word “science” from the organization's mission statement. The AAA has explained the omission as follows: ”To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems. Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas and Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives." Many of us here have translated hieroglyphics or Mayan glyphs, reading between the lines doesn’t give us much of a problem. They’re saying – subjectivity – considered nonscientific - cannot be eliminated, should be recognized, and in fact may be a good thing.
To quote one of my old anthropology professors: “Sometimes Binford isn’t the best way to get where you’re going. Sometimes you just got to saddle up old deductive reasoning and go for a ride.” My personal perspective is that archaeology is the Swiss-army-knife of anthropology so this should not prove too difficult to assimilate. For example:
This particular paper started out as a standing buildings project but will transition into landscape archaeology, and then into historical archaeology, and ethno-archaeology. I grew up surrounded by the mills. My grandfather was a supervisor at Newberry Mills; his maternal grandfather was the superintendent.
I will thus approach the mills as an post-processualist archaeologist/anthropologist of the most recent AAA vintage and ask the question - How far can the study of surviving buildings and the artifacts associated with them indicate how they might have influenced cultural or societal change. Asked another way, could the existing culture be manipulated and changed to suit an authority, and be reflected in remaining structures? I will have to recognize that the selection of the research question is subjective and that experimenter bias is ever-present. So, what did we dig up?
The chairman of British Leyland, an English motorcar company – coincidentally the country where the industrial revolution began - once stated that they were not in the business to make automobiles, they were in business to make money. This tool, the mill, was designed to make money. The design of the factory – right down to having no indoor toilets - concentrates on the manufacturing process with the labor force being viewed –before automation – as simply being necessary to the functioning of the process. While it clearly is built to contain and control whatever it chooses to contain and control within – much like a prison, it is nothing more than an industrial structure and doesn’t appear to have any features designed to transform a society, or influence cultural beliefs. In fact, the industrial revolution was a world-wide event that began in 1760 and a textile mill was advertised in South Carolina in 1790. A mill in Graniteville had 9,245 spindles and a capital base in today’s money of $6.4 million dollars which enabled it to compete effectively with the
north. The first of 70 mills in NC began in 1815 and in Georgia in 1829
By the outbreak of the civil war, Textile Mills were nothing new! If we are to find the mechanism that “transformed” the postbellum culture and society of the south, we need to look further.
The Mill Village
The mills were built where land was cheap, and water power was handy. They had to have cheap labor. Several had attempted using slave labor; but, as difficult as it is to comprehend, slave labor was too expensive.
Because of the central role of agriculture in the economy, people usually lived on widely separated farms. Labor had to be brought to the mill and had to have a place nearby to stay. As early as 1820 mill workers had been provided with housing.
The first mill villages were usually a “sun-baked collection of hovels on a hill, where families lived with flies, dirt, and foul odors.” Workers had to adjust from farm life where they were accustomed to work as a family, according to the sun, the weather, and the seasons; and had to adjust to the pace of machinery. Most worked ten or twelve hours straight, enduring heat, unaccustomed supervisory authority, machine noise, humidity, and choking cotton lint. It isn’t difficult to see why the population was not interested in factory work and did not reliably show up on the factory floor. The factories had to devise a way to create a reliable workforce from what they had available.
The mill village, already found necessary as minimal habitation to concentrate a workforce near the mill was developed as a tool, one where construction and design can be clearly established as having been developed to attract and to control the population. In the factory building, primary concern had to be to the manufacturing process, with the people involved being viewed as a necessary part of the process – controlled just as a piece of machinery; but no so in the village – the entire concept was to maintain and even create what the mill considered to be a proper labor force. Every aspect of the village was planned, the ultimate goal of which was to create a system whereby management could control almost every aspect of the worker’s lives, creating a loyal obedient and dependable workforce. The residences became an integral part of the system. The mill village in Granby – which was typical of the south, included a supervisor’s home at the end of both streets leading into or out of the village, with smaller homes for workers in between. Supervisors had a two story house with a front porch, emphasizing and symbolizing their superior position and authority; and giving them a place from which to oversee what went on in the village. Off-duty supervisors often acted as policemen and a lights out at 10 P.M. rule was enforced, so that everyone would be rested for the next day’s shift. Mills paid poorly but houses were subsidized and cheap. They were assigned on the basis of one worker for each room – encouraging every available family member to work, and discouraging anyone from leaving – without risking the family being thrown out of their home. The mill-sponsored church was located on the top of the hill, so that everyone could see it looking
over them, and notified the residents of changing shifts by tolling the church bell, a particularly Orwellian specter. The mill developed a company store system to provide for their needs, and secondarily perhaps to keep the employees indebted and dependent upon the mill for their needs. Wages were often paid in the form of company store credits. Children were indoctrinated from birth. They grew up in mill homes regulated by mill schedules, went to mill sponsored schools, and mill sponsored churches, hearing mill approved lessons and sermons. Between 1880 and 1910 about one-fourth of all cotton mill workers in the South were below the age of sixteen. It has been estimated that at the turn of the century 92% of the men, women, and children that worked in textile mills lived in a mill-village built and controlled by their employer. It has been said that in the 60’s the entire piedmont was a continuous mill village. Perhaps for these people, more than any group other than slaves, this village constituted the boundaries of their existence. It was often where they met their future spouses; married, raised their children, retired, and were buried. This is the nursery where the image of the new south was created, where an isolated agricultural heritage was adapted into the new industrial society.
Before the Civil War: The south was a highly stratified, agriculture-based society. Status and political representation was defined by land ownership. The highest tier in the society was occupied by entrepreneur –planters with aristocratic pretentions. They considered themselves to be independent and self sufficient, considering anyone who performed services for someone else to be one step removed from being a slave. In general they had an egocentric wealth-acquiring cultural perspective that originated in England but was developed in the Barbados. They owned slaves, and controlled the government. There was little interaction with the classes beneath them and they expected deference. Although the fewest in number, they have received the greatest representation in the historical record. The middle tier –common whites- was composed all tradesmen, yeoman farmers originally growing subsistence crops but eventually being dominated by cotton, and all other whites. In general, they did not own slaves, or owned few. The cultural perspective –for the purpose of this study- will be viewed here as that of the piedmont-Presbyterian-Scots-Irish since they would become the principle group from which Mill labor will be drawn. The strata was more or less homogeneous. Farmers were considered somewhat higher in status than tradesmen – but wealth was beginning to play the role that we would recognize today. In general there was an anti-business climate in SC. The south was uneasy with working-class whites in a slave owning society, and the yeoman farmers viewed the planters as role models. The bottom tier, that eventually became the majority, consisted of all blacks. Even free blacks that themselves owned slaves, could not rise to the level of the lowest white. Following the War: There is a common myth that the plantations collapsed with the fall of slavery and that northern
industrialists came south to profit from the situation and began the mills. Actually, most plantation owners returned to their old way of life with only a change in the legal status of their labor. There was a cotton boom immediately after the war, and most planters were able to benefit from this to the extent that the impetus and controlling capital for the new mills came from southern sources, notably plantation owners – and the mills were begun and operated with the cultural bias of the pre-war paternalistic planter role model. Planters still owned most of the land, but without slavery it was now divided into smaller plots that were farmed by tenants on a percentage basis –share cropping/tenant farming. This was secured by a “lien system” whereby individual farmers were provided supplies secured by a lien on the eventual crop at a high interest rate. To insure that payments were received, the business men required that the farmers plant cash crops such as cotton and tobacco, not food. Yeoman farmers that once were selfsufficient in a direct exchange of goods within a community were lured into the cotton boom and became participants in a commercial cash-economy dominated by merchants - making them vulnerable to market conditions. When cotton fell in the 1870’s, and crashed to 5 cents a pound in the 1890’s, farmers found themselves deeply in debt and with a crop they could neither sell nor eat. No matter how unpalatable the factory seemed, it offered a way out. Many sent their wives or children first – just to get back on their feet; and many farmers, no doubt, probably intended to earn a little money and return to farming some day – when things got better. The lowest black tier was legally freed of the threat of being bought or sold and became more mobile, but their status would be little changed before the civil-rights movements of the 20th century and they play no further part in this study. The mills did not hire them. “Men and women who sell their labor to an employer bring more to a work situation than just their physical presence. What they bring depends on their culture of origin, and how they behave is shaped by the interaction between that culture and the particular society in which they enter.” As the “common-white” class migrated to the mills, they took their culture with them. Always more in numbers but dispersed, now concentrated in mill villages, history became aware of them. The planter class, now the mill operator, used the existing scots-Irish culture as a tool to attract and mold them into what they considered to be dependable employees, not to change the culture or society, but to make them dependable cogs in the wheels of industry. The efforts to do so can be clearly seen in the remaining villages, but also recorded in numerous records kept by the mills, the developers and owners. They felt that what they were doing was a public service, and often said so. A white working class arose, unthinkable in the slave-owning antebellum south where working class whites were considered only one step removed from slavery, and a threat to society – meaning the upper class. They were right. The aristocratic presuming planter class fell when challenged by the working class over child labor, working conditions, and labor unions. When deference ended, paternalism ended. The change was profound, but mills were not the instrument of change, nor was the civil-war destruction of slavery. Slavery was not economically viable, and was already on its last legs. The instrument of change was the failure of individual farming due to an emphasis on and over-reliance on cotton, with the lien system creating a trap door that the agricultural economy fell through.
Cotton was never really king; the pursuit of wealth was king. The collapse of the cotton market created a white working class, which created the modern south. Long live the king.
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