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Mill Family: The Labor System in the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1880-1915.

Mill Family: The Labor System in the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1880-1915 That southern cotton textile industrialists customarily employed families, rather than individuals, to work in their mills has long been well known to scholars of southern industrialization. Not until the appearance of Cathy McHugh's important study, however, has anyone systematically pondered its implications. Drawing on a wide range of theoretical and historical work, notably on human capital and family economy, McHugh's brief, tightly argued book shows how an apparent "new departure," the coming of industry to the South, utilized the values and institutions of traditional southern white culture to create a stable, disciplined work force.

Relying on analysis of an unusually complete collection of time books from North Carolina's Alamance Cottom Mill, running from 1890 to 1912, McHugh revises the conventional wisdom that southern mill workers were "floaters" unwilling to commit to industrial life, showing that a fringe group of frequent movers has statistically masked a large core of stable, veteran workers. This core group, she argues, was largely anchored in place by the family labor system. Employment of several members of a household, and the link between family employment and residence in the village, inhibited the households' ability to move. Employment of dependent children recruited parental discipline to aid in labor control; the creation of kinship ties within the mill provided an informal welfare system linked to the mill community. The family offered mill managers a labor unit supplying different kinds of workers over its life cycle and provided as well a built-in reserve of casual workers. Child labor was integral to the system; migrants from the farm expected that children would work, and managers found places for them that minimized the dangers stemming from childish indiscipline while introducing impressionable youngsters to industrial life. Among males longevity was encouraged by a wage system that rewarded experience (measured by McHugh with years of service); females, denied the highest-paying jobs, moved more easily in and out of the work force as their household roles allowed. With workers bound to the mill by ties of family and kin, industrialists could commit corporate funds to village welfare services, notably schools, secure in their ability to capture the bulk of the resulting gains in human capital. Thus the budding industrialists of the New South could make use of premodern practices to begin construction of a modern industrial society.

All in all, McHugh's argument is impressive and convincing, fitting well not only with what we know about the southern cotton textile industry but also with the arguments about the fit between "family time" and "industrial time" put forward by Tamara Hareven and others. Some parts of her argument, though, are less convincing than others. Her treatment of "mill paternalism," especially the provision of schooling, as human capital development suffers from inadequate attention to the quality of mill schools and their role in the larger village system. One wonders how well mill schools could inculcate "industrial discipline" with their irregular attendance, overloaded facilities and staff, and the frequent treatment of the student body as a reserve work force for the mill.

Moreover, her central findings on work-force stability, based on evidence from a single farm, are open to question. Unlike most firms of the New South, the Alamance mill dated from antebellum times, and thus had time to develop a corps of workers well before the enormous late nineteenth century rise in demand for experienced textile labor. It was small, rural, and isolated, the nearest firms being controlled by the same family, all circumstances serving to dampen response to alternative opportunities. Finally, the mill's work force shrank by nearly one-third between 1890 and McHugh's base point of 1902 (p. 105), a decline that apparently exaggerates persistence. In all these respects, Alamance was an atypical, even retrograde, firm, on the trailing edge of North Carolina's manufacturing upsurge; it cannot safely be treated as a microcosm.

Despite these difficulties, McHugh provides students of the industrial South with much food for thought. In particular, she raises in this reviewer's mind a troubling implication: that an industrial regime as closely tied as this one to traditional practices might prove, in the end, as much an impediment to economic progress as its facilitator. The fit between industrial and family strategies she sets forth could provide a stable labor force for a mature industry, but it discouraged the development of a flexible and versatile work force for innovative firms. The very success of the southern textile industry, then, may have limited broader economic development in the modern South.

David L. Carlton is associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. A student of the industrialization of the American South, he is the author of Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (1982) and "The Revolution from Above: The National Market and the Beginning of Industrialization in North Carolina" Journal of American History (1990). He is currently working on a study of the process of industrialization in North Carolina.
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Author:Carlton, David L.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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