Last fall Karen Hobson, the executive director of the Historic Salisbury Foundation, asked me to give a talk this winter in Salisbury about the history of the textile industry in the state and I quickly agreed. After so doing, she asked me for a title for the talk to use for promotional purposes. I suggested “Spinning History: The Rise and Fall of the North Carolina Textiles Industry.” That seemed about right, given that fact that textiles are now pretty much gone in the state.
As the date of my talk approached, I began to have second thoughts about that title. The “rise and fall,” declension narrative, while elegiac, seemed much too simple to capture what in an economic sense had really gone on. So when I gave the talk in the beautifully refurbished waiting room of the Salisbury Southern Railway Passenger Depot, I told the large audience that I should have called the talk something like the “The Textiles Phase of North Carolina’s History” or maybe “The Textiles Interlude.” Let me explain why.
Simply put, the rise and fall narrative is at once too negative and too defeatist. The textiles story in North Carolina, indeed, the stories of the so-called Big Three – textiles, furniture and tobacco manufacturing – are almost always told in downbeat ways. They shouldn’t be. For textiles, and arguably furniture and tobacco manufacturing as well, were actually success stories that propelled the economy of North Carolina and improved the lives of large portions of the state’s population for over a hundred years.
When the modern industrialization of North Carolina began in the 1880s, with textiles leading the way, North Carolina, economically speaking, was on its knees. The agricultural sector, by far the largest component of the state’s economy – nothing else was even close – was in terrible shape, having not recovered from the dislocations associated with Civil War and emancipation. With the state dirt poor and its agricultural economy stagnant, something had to be done.
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And numerous small-town entrepreneurs, generally mobilizing the resources of people in their own communities, chose textile manufacturing as their path to economic progress, if not salvation. North Carolina may have been poor and backward in the 1880s, but it still had certain assets around which to build: cheap land, abundant water power, and cheap, eager labor. Fortuitously for North Carolina (and other parts of the South), by the mid-1880s textiles was a mature industry. By then, centralized, large-scale factory production, employing machine technology powered by water or steam, was a century old and, under the right conditions, could “break out” of places such as Great Britain and New England and be replicated or transplanted – including in the South.
And once the South got going in textiles, with North Carolina in the lead – our state ranked as the largest producer in the U.S. by 1924 – we didn’t look back for a long time. The jobs created and communities built by textiles and apparel drove the economy in much of the state until they didn’t any longer, beginning in the 1980s. And now those jobs are mostly gone and many of those communities are suffering. We can point to a lot of reasons – technological change, globalization, currency manipulation, international trade agreements – it is true, but any way one slices it most of those jobs ain’t ever coming back. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Many writers have disparaged the builders of the southern textiles industry, and certainly some of these builders were worthy targets. But it’s useful to remember just how awful things were in North Carolina at the time textiles got going and to consider what the state’s trajectory would likely have been like in the absence of textiles. It seems reasonable to deem successful any industry that helped so many people keep body and soul together, however modestly, for so long.
But most jobs in textiles and apparel didn’t pay a lot and didn’t require much skill, so maybe their loss shouldn’t be mourned. At the same time that textile – and furniture, and tobacco – were fading out, other industries were rising in North Carolina to supplement or replace them, most notably IT, pharmaceuticals, food processing, banking and vehicle parts.
It is up to North Carolina’s entrepreneurs today, aided and assisted by academics and government, to find ways to power the state and its people forward, including those parts of the state and those people that were dependent on textiles. This task will certainly not be easy, but for all of our economic problems today, the growth environment is not nearly so bleak as it must have looked to the mill-builders of the 1880s.
It is unlikely that we will ever again be able to hitch our fortunes to any one industry so powerful as textiles previously was in North Carolina. Every community, however distressed, has its assets and opportunities, though, and it is the job of entrepreneurs to perceive them, seize them, leverage them and transform them into jobs and growth. And it is up to others to help.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Like many cities in North Carolina, Salisbury in Rowan County has been hit hard by the massive job losses in the textile industry in recent decades. The city’s mills employed over 3,000 workers in the mid-1970s, and Rowan County as a whole, which includes mill villages of China Grove and Landis, employed well over 5,000 at that time. And this doesn’t include the huge mill complex in Kannapolis, which employed many thousands in the mid-1970s, and straddles Cabarrus and Rowan counties. By 2003 – the year the Kannapolis mill complex (then owned by Pillowtex) shut down, laying off 4,340 workers in Kannapolis in one fell swoop – textile employment in Rowan County had fallen to about 1,200. A decade later – in 2013 – that number had been reduced to 296. It has risen a bit since then, but clearly textiles in Salisbury or in Rowan County or in North Carolina for that matter will never again mean what it used to mean. Whereas in 1940 about 40 percent of nonagricultural jobs in the state were in textiles and apparel, the figure is less than 1 percent today.