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From North to South: A Brief History

December 7, 2009


(Hine, John Dempsey)

Before the Civil War’s beginning on April 12th, 1861, the majority of the textile industry lay in the Northern United States. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and others, were the heart of an industry that needed water power to survive, and with a steady flow of wool from New England and cotton from the South, the textile manufacturing plants flourished. Only a few short and bloody years later, however, the Northern industry stumbled to a halt due to a lack of Southern cooperation and material as well as the modern equivalent to globalization. In the wake of the war, the Southern states were left without slavery, the backbone of their cultural structure. Their unpaid farmhands were gone and previous owners needed to become employees. New England mill owners saw in this destitution a massive career opportunity and moved their business to the South where they established mills in close proximity to their raw material of cotton, and provided labor to workers who could be paid next to nothing and were completely unorganized.

In the early 19th century, the cotton industry powered New England. Thousands of women and children from poor farming communities came to mill towns seeking employment and in the case of many, security, if there was no family patriarch. The same beginning was present in the Southern mills, but with one major difference. While the North had centuries of industry behind them and understood the ideas behind organization, the South failed again and again to form any long-lasting unions. There are many theories behind this phenomena, the most strongly argued of which is the idea of paternalism. The North had a long history of fighting against authority and especially of the family-centered life style, where the South had a tradition of community and race solidarity. Mills were not just a building. They owned the land, the houses of the workers, the water supply, and the lives of their laborers. Rather than seeing this as an overstepping of bounds as the North did, the Southern states viewed it as a strong, white, paternalistic, and altogether wholesome environment. Thus, when dissatisfaction arose, it was virtually impossible for workers to revolt against a master who seemed to share their views of white supremacy and family culture. (English, 75). From the beginning of Southern mill culture, mill owners attempted to make themselves appear to be on a common ground with the workers as both their white brothers and their philanthropic caretakers. In some respect, this was true. The mills “protected” white culture by not allowing black workers to infiltrate the mill towns, and provided a place for otherwise homeless and vulnerable women and children.

Due to the South’s initial success in the cotton industry, the North began to fear for its own manufacturing businesses. In an attempt to satisfy the complaints of their own workers, child and woman labor laws, especially in the late 1800s in Massachusetts, began to take effect. By 1898, after countless worker complaints and protests, no child under 14 and with less than 3 months of schooling from the previous year could work in a mill. (English, 22-23).

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