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The South’s Recovery: Who Paid the Price of Success?

Beginning in the late 1870s, white southern landowners, entrepreneurs, and newspaper editors heralded a vision of a “New South” with a modern, industrial economic system. The defeat of the Confederacy, the abolition of racial slavery, and the demise of the plantation economy provided the South with opportunities to build factories and turn its raw materials into finished products: cotton into cloth, tobacco into cigarettes, coal and iron ore into steel. But mill workers, small farmers, and agricultural tenants and sharecroppers in the “New South” suffered decades of long hours, low pay, unsafe working conditions, and deplorable living situations. These anonymous comments made by cotton mill hands and farmers in 1887 and 1889 to agents of the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics challenged the arguments of the “New South” boosters and illustrated the grim price workers paid for the region’s embrace of the much-touted new industrial order.

Superintendent Cotton Mill—Ten hours are enough for a day’s work, where children are worked from twelve years old and up, and I think the mills of this section are willing to [do] it, if all would adopt it. I think there should be a law making all run 60 hours per week, and compelling parents to send their children to school. I work 11 and 1/2 hours per day, at $75 per month. Have four in family and one at school. Live in my own house.

Employee—There are about 225 to 250 hands engaged at different classes of work in this mill, about 100 of them children—many of them very small children, under 12 years of age. Wages are about as good here as at any mill in the State and I think better than at many of them, the only trouble about wages is that they are not paid in cash—trade checks are issued with which employees are expected to buy what they need at the company’s store, which is not right. The same system is practised I am told, at the most of the cotton mills in the State, but that does not make it right and just. The tobacco factories in this town pay the cash every week. Any man who has ever tried it knows there is a great difference in buying with cash. This, with the long hours required for a day’s work, (12 hours) is the only cause for complaint; the officers are kind and closeattention to work and sobriety and morality is required of all who work here.

Employee—I work in the cotton mills. They employ men, women and children—many children who are too small to work, they should be at school; the parents are more to blame than are the mill-owners. The hands in the mills in this section are doing very well, and if they only received their pay weekly in cash instead of “trade checks,” and store accounts they would not complain if they were paid in cash and were allowed to buy for cash where they pleased, it would be much better. Ten hours are enough for a day’s work. I believe the mills here would be willing to it if there was a law making all conform to it. I believe compulsory education would be a benefit too.

Employee—This mill runs day and night. The day hands commence work at 6 o’clock in the morning and run tell 7 o’clock at night. They stop at 12 o’clock for dinner and ring the bell at 12:30 o’clock. I contend that the hands are in actual motion 13 hours per day. The trade check system is used here, and is not as good as cash, at this place nor any other place. If the hands trade their checks to any other firm, and they present them for cash, this firm demands a discount of 10 per cent. The best trade check used in this county is not worth over 75 per cent. Some of the checks used in this county are almost worthless. This long-hour system is destroy in the health of all the young women who work in the mills. The employment of children in the mills at low wages keeps a great many men out of employment. Our Legislature should do something in regard the long-hour system and trade checks, and compel employers to pay cash for labor; then, you see, competition in trade would take place, and we could save some of our earnings, which would enable us to have night schools and improve our condition much in the way of education.

Employee—There is room for big improvement for the good of operatives in cotton-mills. Twelve hours per day is too long to keep operatives at work, especially women and children. The check system ought to be stopped. A girl works for fifty cents per day, has three in family to support, gets a check each day for work, and buys her supplies from the company’s store. When the four weeks are ended she has no checks and will get no cash. Just so long as they give checks and pay once a month, they will keep us on the grind-stone, and we cannot get justice or give it, in this condition. The day is coming when mill-owners will find out that if they give their hands good houses to live in, pay them cash, and teach them how to live and take care of their earned money, both parties will prosper and grow fat.

Employee—I work in a cotton-mill and am paid once a week in "trade checks," but the company I work for will cash them any time. I think that twelve hours a day is too long for any one to work in a mill. Nine hours is long enough for any one to work in the dust and lint of a factory. I think that the Legislature ought to pass a law making eight or nine hours a day’s work in work-shops, mines and factories, and also a law to prevent the employment of children under fourteen years of age therein. The wages at the factories are about the same they were three years ago, but the cost of living has decreased about five per cent.

Source: Paul D. Escott and David R. Goldfield, Major Problems in the History of the American South, Vol. II, The New South (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), 81–83.

See Also:"Almost Broken Spirits": Farmers in the New South
One African-American Dreams About Rebuilding the South
Henry Grady Sells the "New South"