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The mill industry and its workers created modern Georgia

This column was published in a different form on April 21, 2014.

By Jamil Zainaldin

Who were the men, women, and children whose labor in the cotton mills powered the creation of modern Georgia? For the most part mill workers were poor, uneducated, and white. (Few blacks worked in the segregated mills until after World War II.)

A young girl works as a spinner in a Georgia cotton mill, 1909. Credit: Library of Congress

A young girl works as a spinner in a Georgia cotton mill, 1909. (Library of Congress)

Mill hands migrated from the countryside’s sharecropping and tenant farming families, as did laborers who struggled to scratch a living from a land that was still trying to recover from a devastating war.

Mill work was rough and not infrequently dangerous. The average day began with the factory morning whistle. Shifts typically ran 10 to 12 hours, and the workweek six days. The high-end hourly rate for men in 1928 was 25 cents, and as low as 10 to 15 cents for women and children. To survive, most of the family worked: women and children generally could be found in the spinning rooms, while men handled the carding and weaving. When God said he needed the seventh day for rest, the millworker understood why.

Mills were a phenomenon of the countryside and the city; they could be found everywhere in the rolling hills and valleys of the Piedmont. In the era before widespread paved roads and car ownership, mill companies attracted and retained their workforce by building entire villages for families, complete with housing, churches, doctors, sporting fields, and pastures and pens for the animals they brought with them. Sometimes companies paid employees in scrip, redeemable in the mill village’s company-owned store.

Mill village and King Mill (background) in Augusta, circa 1915. Credit: Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection

Mill village and King Mill (background) in Augusta, circa 1915. (Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection)

Working in the mills was a necessity, not an ambition. Not surprising, in census records, many of those who worked in the mills described their occupations as “farmer.” To be a mill worker in an agrarian society was to occupy an ambiguous status, to say the least. In reality, they were the state’s first permanent class of wage earners.

Townspeople often looked down on them as “lint heads” and “hillbillies,” or worse. Erskine Caldwell’s book God’s Little Acre, though written as a condemnation of the South’s rural poverty and the exploitation of its workers, actually had the reverse effect of stigmatizing mill workers and their families as ignorant, promiscuous, and comic figures, if also tragic. When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice sued Caldwell and his publisher for disseminating pornography — a case they lost — the book was guaranteed to become an international sensation.

The view from inside the mill village was quite different. In their reminiscences and oral history interviews, some workers warmly recall mill culture as a “large family,” where fellow workers and managers cared for one another. For them, the mill village signified community, mutual reliance, and sense of place.

Others held a very different memory of mill village life, one of an entrapped and vulnerable labor force from whom every ounce of energy was wrung for the company’s profit.

By the late 1920s, demand for cotton goods fueled by World War I slowed down, reflected in dropping mill orders. The industry also had to contend with the rise of hemlines (shorter dresses meant less fabric). And, too, this was a period when foreign competition from Mexico and Latin America chipped away at the U.S. market.

One response of mill managers was to cut jobs or wages, and sometimes both. They also instituted practices of speeding up production, which translated as fewer people doing more, faster. Accidents happened. A single moment of inattentiveness in a long, monotonous, grueling day could cost a limb, or worse.

Mill workers picketing outside Newnan Cotton Mills, with Georgia National Guard (front), during the General Textile Strike of 1934. Credit: Atlanta History Center

Mill workers picketing outside Newnan Cotton Mills, with Georgia National Guard (front), during the General Textile Strike of 1934. (Atlanta History Center)

Inevitably, the worsening of working conditions sparked a firestorm of spontaneous strikes throughout the industry in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina especially. (Union numbers also were growing.) Their impact was limited, however, because of the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929: thousands of unemployed people were more than willing to take the place of the strikers.

The mills certainly did not escape Franklin D. Roosevelt’s gaze during his trips to Warm Springs and his meanderings through the countryside. The 1933 National Recovery Act of the Roosevelt administration set new industry-wide standards for wages, hours, and workplace safety, eliminating once and for all child labor. The hourly rate for men in the mills hiked to 30 cents, with hours dropping to 40. Because the law applied to all mill owners, and nobody gained a competitive advantage, mill owners were not hurt.

Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the parent of today’s NLRB) granted workers the right to form unions and to strike, though the South’s business leaders and politicians, sometimes with the help of the National Guard, effectively stymied the union movement when they put down the General Textile Strike of 1934 (the “Uprising of ’34”). In Georgia, 44,000 workers joined the picket lines. As a show of force, Governor Eugene Talmadge declared martial law and directed that some of the protestors be held in a former World War I German prisoner-of-war camp until tried by a military court.

World War II brought improvements and money to everyone in the mill industry, introducing a new level of modernization to meet the military’s heavy demand (from parachutes to tenting, uniforms, helmet straps, rope, and socks).

With peace, Georgia’s mills eventually would succumb to the same challenge as New England’s a century earlier: cheaper labor elsewhere. With more than 90 percent of the nation’s cotton manufacturing now located in the South, this end of an era meant fundamental changes as mills began selling their housing to workers in the 1950s; a generation of mill children bypassed their parents’ employers. By the 1960s and 70s mills begin shutting down operations entirely.

Adaptive reuse in Porterdale: lofts today, cotton mill yesterday.

Adaptive reuse in Porterdale: lofts today, cotton mill yesterday.

The story of U.S. textile manufacturing’s heyday bears a distinctly southern imprint—certainly in volume of product but in other ways, too. Unlike the late-19th-century immigrants of central and southern Europe who populated northern factories, the workers behind Georgia’s belated industrialization were from its own countryside, children and grandchildren of a devastating war still fresh in memory.

Mill and village life must have been a profoundly disorienting experience for these people, even an affront to their proud heritage as yeomen. In the face of a grinding routine that nonetheless still kept many on the margins of poverty before World War II, mill hands worked and cared for one another. In the most trying of circumstances, they revealed a true nobility of spirit.

And more: it was these Georgians and the mill owners and managers who created the modern South, spearheading our passage into a modernity of industry, commerce, retail consumerism, distant markets, transportation, corporations, and wage earning. Their work created a world of new possibilities that most would never live to benefit from.

Why preserve and imaginatively reuse these old and vacant buildings people labored in, or their modest, crumbling village homes — those messengers from our past? To some eyes, the mixed-use loft apartments in these curious block-like structures may seem oddly out of place. But they are just the opposite: these structures are an essential part of this place. They are in fact our civic monuments, and as their modern-day beneficiaries, we owe them our remembrance.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.



  1. Burroughston Broch September 4, 2017 8:32 pm

    According to the website moneysworth.com, $0.25/hour in 1928 is equivalent to $15.40/hour today.
    I lived in a mill town for 41 years and went to school with grandchildren of the original mill workers. Quite a few workers left the mills and prospered.
    Daily routine was regulated by the mill whistles and steam locomotive whistles.Report

  2. Greg September 5, 2017 9:01 pm

    For a while my uncle (who turns 100 this coming January) worked for the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, He pitched for their company baseball team that traveled to play mill teams in other southern cities. On D-Day, he was below deck on a ship supporting the Normandy invasion.Report

  3. Dan White September 6, 2017 7:56 am

    Cotton Mills were hell on earth. Don’t romanticize it but do honor the people and their culture who worked in these mills.Report

    1. Burroughston Broch September 6, 2017 11:04 am

      Have you actually worked in a cotton mill? If not, what is the basis for your opinion?Report

    2. Hugh H. Pratt July 12, 2021 4:51 pm

      Dear Dan: You are right: Cotton Mills were hell on earth. I would like to talk to you about this. Both my mother and father worked for cotton mills in Greenwood, S.C. I am writing a play about the textile strike of l933. would like to talk to you about the mills. Best Hugh Pratt 716-861-4487lReport

  4. David B August 10, 2018 9:37 pm

    I worked in the mills for almost 45 years. He probably never set foot in a mill. They were the backbones of many communities. The people working there were like families. Some people saw Norma Rae the movie and think that’s how it was. That was a Hollywood movie based on fiction mostly with a little truth here and there. Were there some bad people to work for in the mills? There has always been some bad people to work for no matter where you go in all industries. Norma Rae was a hit job on JP Stevens, probably funded by the unions. Where are our jobs today. The politicians killed our way of making a living by allowing our jobs to leave the USA under the fake story of Free Trade. Hillary Clinton was a good friend to the textile owner that owned Springs Industries. She bought out our company and then in a few years shut it down. Many lost everything they had but she didn’t loose anything. She sold out to a company in Brazil. But we still have one textile company still going. Look for the 1888 Mills label. Look for Made In The USA when you buy towels or washcloths.Report

  5. Charles E. Thacker May 22, 2021 3:14 pm

    My Daddy worked and suffered thru the Great Depression at the Canton Cotton Mills in Canton, Ga. At one time, he was making $15.00 a week and paid in company script which could only be used at the company store, which sold everything from groceries, clothing, tools, and coal for employees stoves and fireplaces. After WWII, we 3 kids were in school and my mother went to work in the “New Mill, #2 as a weaver. By the 1950s, we were getting ahead and actually paid cash for a new 1950 Chevrolet and took vacations to Fla. Fun times with other mill families to Daytona Beach. My Dad started to work at age 12 and worked there for 50 years. My mother worked for 25 years before she succumbed to cancer in 1972. Great memories being associated with some great Americans.Report

    1. Hugh H. Pratt July 12, 2021 4:47 pm

      Dear Mr. Thacker: Thank you for your article on your fathers work in a cotton mill. Both my parents worked for two cotton mills in Greenwood, S.C. I have written a play about the textile strike of 1933. I would like to talk to you about your experience. Are there any organizations now for the grandchildren of cotton mill workers. Who is trying to keep the legacy of cotton mill workers alive now? You can call me at 716-861-4487/Report

  6. V. Maxwell September 25, 2021 6:29 pm

    My paternal grandmother, a white woman, worked in a Georgia cotton mill in the 1920s. However, she died at age 28 of pellagra, a disease due to vitamin deficiency that was endemic in the South for decades. A major symptoms of pellagra was mental illness, and she died in the state hospital.

    Of course there was “family” feeling among cotton mill workers, but that also existed among slaves. Did the camaraderie among plantation workers in pre-Civil War times justify the institution of slavery? No way! And I’m not convinced cotton mills were good and just workplaces. Some were better than others, just as with some slaveholders, but mistreatment was the norm. Pellagra was common in mill towns, where workers often struggled in vain to afford a balanced diet. And, the mill owners’ harsh responses to the 1930s strikes show how humane they were! David B. blames politicians and, specifically, Hilary Clinton for selling out Spring Industries, overlooking the fact that the choice to do so ultimately was with the owner.Report


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