FOR MANY AMERICANS, DENIM IS A SYMBOL OF FREEDOM AND REBELLION. IT’S ONLY APPROPRIATE, GIVEN THE FABRIC’S ROOTS IN THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY.
Byline: Scott Malone
“Two miles long, half a mile wide, 20,000 men and women working inside, Lived for their work and worked till they died. Call it damn hard work, call it Amoskeag pride. Let the sun beat down, let the wind blow chill. But nothing stopped production at the Amoskeag Mill.”
— The folk song “Amoskeag Mill,” by Charlie Ball
Jeans were radical long before the hippies got hold of them. Not just the uniform of the working class, denim is the fabric that first put the American working class to work.
Mills constituted the first large-scale industry to develop in a fledgling U.S., at a time when the continent was largely agricultural. In the years before and immediately after the American Revolution, making and wearing home-made cloth — largely cotton-twill cloth — was a statement of independence, a way to defy those overseas rulers.
Denim’s role as a symbol of freedom and rebellion goes back a ways.
The U.S. textile industry was sprung from the minds of immigrants who smuggled in their recollection of British machinery at a time when His Majesty declared that mill equipment — and even plans for mill equipment — could not be brought out of England.
From that defiant beginning, North America’s first major industry developed in New England and later became a bedrock employer of the post-Civil War South. For the last 200 years, the textile business has played a key role in the U.S. economy. Millions of Americans have worked and lived in the walled mill towns of New Hampshire and Massachusetts and in the company-built suburbs of Carolina mill country.
From the industry’s earliest days, the nation’s large production of cotton made denim a core product of American mills. The movement got its start in the late 1700s when American colonists decided they wanted to wear clothes made locally.
“A lot of different things were happening,” explained Karen Herbaugh, curator of the Museum of American Textile History in Lowell, Mass. “America was trying to break away from Britain and there were a lot of people who were in favor of becoming self-sufficient. However, England actually wouldn’t allow people who worked in the mills to take machinery or ideas out of the country.”
In 1793, Samuel Slater founded a cotton yarn-spinning mill in Pawtucket, R.I., generally believed to be the first such operation in the U.S. As technology progressed, weaving operations followed, though slowly.
Twenty years later, the first weaving-mill city was incorporated as Waltham, Mass., and by 1826 another mill city followed in Lowell, Mass. The mills produced cotton fabrics, using fiber grown in the Southeast.
In 1838, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. founded the town of Manchester, N.H., and began to create, on the shores of New Hampshire’s Merrimack River, the mill that was eventually to dominate the region and for a time become the world’s largest textile plant.
In the early years, the company primarily employed young women from area farms, housing them in dormitories, feeding them and in many ways regulating their lives. The growing city — which with its high walls and iron gates resembled a medieval village — eventually attracted immigrants. First came the 1850s Irish fleeing the famine, and later, French Canadians. Typically, each wave of immigrants was willing to work for lower wages than the preceding one, according to the book, “Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory City,” by Tamara K. Hareven and Randolph Langenbach.
Amoskeag produced a variety of cotton cloth. As early as the 1870s, it was a key supplier to the growing West Coast jeansmaker Levi Strauss & Co.
The mill relied on relentless expansion to drive its profitability — even in the 19th century, keeping costs down was a concern for mills — and in the early 20th century, employed 17,000 workers (not quite the 20,000 claimed by the folk song) and occupied eight million square feet of floor space.
“When I came here, there were several companies and many different mills,” a Manchester textile worker employed by the giant mill at the turn of the 19th century told the authors. “There was the Stark, the Bag mill and what was called the Mouton d’Or [named for the gold ram that served as its weather vane.]…We didn’t yet speak of Amoskeag at that time. Later, the Amoskeag started buying everything.”
The company’s — and much of the New England industry’s — focus on growth through expansion, rather than by modernizing existing plants, eventually caught up with it. By the 1920s, the company was facing growing competition in the Southeast and started cutting wages and laying off workers to remain competitive.
That caused labor unrest throughout the industry and led to a number of massive strikes in the Twenties and Thirties by unionized Northern workers, unhappy with the sometimes squalid working conditions forced by rising expectations of worker productivity. By 1936, unable to keep up with its new competition, Amoskeag silenced its looms and turned out the last of its workers.
Among its competitors at that time was a growing cotton fabrics mill called Proximity Manufacturing Co., today known as Cone Mills Corp.
That company traces its roots to 1891, when Moses and Caesar Cone turned their attention from the wholesale grocery business and a cigar-making operation to textiles. They formed Cone Export & Commission Co., a sales agency intended to boost the business of two North Carolina textile companies the brothers had invested in over the past four years.
Their sales efforts were successful, and quickly they realized there was demand for a wider variety of fabrics than the plaid cotton flannel that the mills in their area were producing. In 1895, they established Proximity, their first denim mill, which would weave fabric in Greensboro, near to where cotton was grown and ginned.
The Alaskan Gold Rush hiked demand for dungarees, and in 1905 the company opened its second mill, called White Oak for the large tree next to it. By 1915, Proximity began selling its denim to Levi Strauss and in 1922 became the company’s exclusive fabric supplier.
During the early 1900s, demand for denim remained high, and more companies began turning their attention to the business. In 1906, Avondale Mills Inc. was founded as an Alabama denim mill.
The Southeast at this time was still largely rural, and manufacturing workers needed to live close to the plants. To make this easier, mills, including Proximity, began building boarding houses and private homes on mill property.
The houses were followed by company stores, schools, YMCAs and other facilities, and company towns became an important part of the region’s working class culture. During World War II, demand for fabric skyrocketed, with the Federal government the top customer. In 1942, the textile industry employed 1.2 million Americans, which pretty much marks its peak.
After the war, many mill employees continued to live in company-owned housing until the 1950s, when mills began selling off their housing operations, typically to employees.
In 1951, Proximity, renamed Cone Mills Corp., went public. Management focused on updating machinery and technology, determined not to repeat the mistakes which had doomed the New England textile industry.
Also at this time, Swift Manufacturing Co., which had begun operations in Columbus, Ga., in 1882 making cotton plaids, added denim to its repertoire.
During the late Fifties, demand for denim dropped off as dressier styles prevailed across much of the U.S. Cone converted its first denim plant, Proximity, to produce khaki twill. In 1963, Avondale got out of the denim business, not to return until the Seventies.
But as the Sixties geared up, jeans blasted back into popular culture, Cone returned Proximity, its original plant, to denim production.
Those boom times for jeans attracted other companies into the game. In 1962, Burlington Industries Inc. — already in business for 39 years — bought the Stonewall denim plant in Stonewall, Miss., marking its entry into denim.
The textile industry continued to grow through the Seventies, despite the takeoff of polyester doubleknits and the leisure suit. In the Eighties, with Wall Street booming and corporate raiders running amok through American industry, both Burlington and Cone dodged hostile takeover attempts by going private in leveraged buyouts.
In the Nineties, after returning to the public markets, denim makers began to face greater and greater competition from overseas competitors who proved able to make high-quality denim at low costs.
This led domestic denim mills to continue their migration south, past the Rio Grande. Burlington in the late Nineties set up a denim mill in Mexico, and Cone broke ground on a denim mill in that nation as well.
Today’s mills continue to navigate troubled waters, still developing their operations in Mexico and elsewhere around the world to better compete with Indian and Asian suppliers. Mill companies are also extending their reach into apparel production, starting full-package garment businesses intended to free their customers to focus on marketing and design.
Now into the 21st century, U.S. mills likely will have to speed up the pace of change and explore other new ventures as they prepare for 2005, when the last quotas that protect their production will be lifted under the terms of the Agreement on Textiles & Clothing reached by member nations of the World Trade Organization.
In other words, life is still damned hard at the mills.