Textile Industry in Alabama

Avondale Mills Textile mills moved slowly into the Southeast in the nineteenth century, arriving in Alabama roughly between the 1810s and 1820s. By then, cotton crops had already been flourishing in the Southeast for many decades, so its abundance suited the development of southern textile production. The owners of this historically northern-based industry saw advantages in the South's abundant and low-wage labor force, notoriously anti-union politics, affordable land, and lenient labor laws. Cities and towns such as Florence, Huntsville, and the Birmingham suburb of Avondale developed as a direct result of northern investment into Alabama textile mills and mill villages. Many mills started small, but rapidly developed to workforces of more than 1,000 individuals. The industry would be one of Alabama's major employers even into the 1980s, until automation, global competition, and economic recessions began to shutter much of the industry in the state and the rest of the South.

Though only a handful of mills existed in the early nineteenth century in Alabama, the textile industry soon became essential to many local economies. Entire families left sharecropping and tenant farming or their own land and moved into textile mill villages, staying for generations. By 1900, Alabama's textile industry employed nearly 6,000 workers and that number more than doubled by 1920. As of 1950, approximately 54,000 employees worked in 72 mills. Few villages or mills remain today, as local redevelopment has begun to erase physical reminders of Alabama's considerable textile legacy. But textile production is remembered today as one of Alabama's oldest and most significant industries.

Cotton was "king" in Alabama since before it became a state, and the economy had long depended on cash crops cultivated by enslaved labor. Following the Civil War, agriculture became less viable with the emancipation of its core workforce. Improvements in regional infrastructure, including the construction of railroads spurred by northern railroad tycoons and investors, worked in tandem to shift the southern economy from agriculture to industry as these entrepreneurs saw business opportunities in exploiting the South's abundance of resources, including cotton and people.

Early Textile Mills

Bell Factory Alabama's earliest known textile mills, often built with and using enslaved labor, were small and modest in income and production. Best recorded estimates of the number of textile mills operating in the early nineteenth century indicate only between 10 and 20 across the entirety of the state. Present-day Madison County communities along the Flint River and the city of Florence, Lauderdale County, are two locations known to have had these pioneering operations in the 1810s and 1820s. In Madison County, Huntsville's Cabaniss Cotton Spinning Factory, later Bell Factory, was located on the Flint River and earned a reputation for its high output in the mid-nineteenth century. It later closed after larger textile mills were established in Huntsville. The mill at Tallassee opened in 1841 and is generally considered to be the oldest continuously operating mill in the country, not closing until 2005.

The early textile mills in Alabama produced primarily coarse textiles purchased by finishing companies that would then use mechanical or chemical processes to prepare textiles for cutting and sewing. This process prepared textiles for sale as finished clothing, yarn, and upholstery fabrics. These processes could either make the fabrics more comfortable for apparel or reinforce it to make it withstand regular use or laundering. Many of these finishing companies were located in New England, where the textile industry had been long established and had access to an abundance of waterpower.

Pratt Company Advertisement, 1856 Eventually, Alabama mills advanced and expanded and began producing finer finished goods. This progress was severely curtailed, however, by the outbreak of the Civil War, when almost all production of textiles in Alabama halted. Some mills, including Tallassee Mills and the Daniel Pratt Manufacturing Company, transitioned to supplying textile goods to the Confederate Army. By the 1850s, Pratt operated an estimated 2,680 looms in Prattville for the production of a coarse cloth known as osnaburg, used mostly to clothe enslaved people, that he then supplied to the Confederacy. The Civil War also greatly affected the number of Alabamians employed in textile mills. Some Alabama historians have reported slightly more than 1,300 textile workers in 1860, but that number had decreased to fewer than 750 by 1870. After the war, there was a slow return to mill construction and production and very slowly improving employment numbers. It was not until 1900 that significant improvements became apparent.

Growth of Mill Towns

Although the Civil War had the greatest hindering effect on the emerging southern textile industry, other obstacles slowed both the establishment of textile production in the South and its progress beyond just rudimentary plants. Many of these challenges centered on securing and maintaining enough labor. One of the first issues mill owners and builders faced was the need for housing in proximity to the mills. Many mills were built in rural parts of the state along waterways without necessary infrastructure. Almost immediately, the construction of mill villages with simple homes began to attract workers with the promise of affordable housing. Early mill villages included the barest necessities, but many advanced in the coming decades, with electricity and telephones and eventually indoor plumbing. Mill owners and managers adopted paternalism (the practice of providing workers with necessities in order to keep them loyal and subordinate) as the main operating principle. They improved housing conditions and added public amenities such as schools, community centers, recreation facilities, and laundries to ensure the complacency and loyalty of workers.

Twentieth Century Textile Mills and Towns

Pepperell Mill in Opelika, ca. 1933 The start of the new century saw major increases in the total number of Alabama textile mills as well as their scale of production. By then, an estimated 31 mills with 8,000 millhands were in operation, with even more rapid development yet to come. Southern textile mills, including those in Alabama, expanded as a result of increased northern investment and sometimes even ownership. Historians note that many Alabama mills developed through public ventures, meaning groups of investors, rather than through a sole local owner. Many mills opened in important or large cities like Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and Florence, but the core of Alabama's textile industry flourished in and helped develop and expand many smaller towns, including the Avondale Mills towns of Alexander City, Pell City, and Sylacauga; the Anniston Manufacturing Company in Anniston; Autaugaville; the West Point Manufacturing towns of Opelika and Valley; Prattville; Selma; Tallassee; and others.

The layout of textile mill towns was often individualized to fit the surrounding landscape. Many Alabama mills developed in rural locations or just outside of growing cities. Grid pattern layouts were common for these mill towns, with many constructed just outside of the gates of the mill. The Shawmut Mill in Valley, however, was laid out in a circle facing the mill. Early mill village housing largely consisted of simple, one-story single-family dwellings averaging one or two rooms. Housing for management and foremen was often built slightly away from workers and was generally larger with more rooms and attractive features. Villages grew and adapted to changing demands of the workers and the needs of the company to maintain a robust labor force. Many southern mills followed the existing layout models and architectural styles used in northeastern mills. Dirt roads, small gardens, and compact houses were commonplace in these villages. Despite legal segregation and accepted racism in the South at this time, there was little difference in housing between poor white and poor Black workers. At the few mills in which freed Black workers found employment following emancipation, locating Black housing closest to the mill became the only differentiation between the races.

W. B. Davis Hosiery Mill By the early 1920s, at least 40 percent of the nation's textile industry was located in the South. This rapid growth saw a shift in the products produced in Alabama. As millhands became more skillful and factories modernized, more and more finished goods were produced in Alabama. Mills could then specialize in or focus production on specific goods, including cotton thread, seine twine, and yarn, as well as a variety of fabrics for clothing and furniture, including ticking, lining fabric, printed cloth, chambray, hosiery, and sheeting. Specialization in various finished products depended on the skill of millhands, the type of equipment companies invested in, and the scale of operations. For example, Florence became known as the "T-shirt capital of the world," whereas Fort Payne was known as one of world's top producers of socks and hosiery well into the 1990s. Higher quality products increased profits for Alabama textile mills.

The industry was susceptible to market influences such as the world wars and the Great Depression, which variously affected the days and hours worked and ultimately workers' salaries. The start of World War I led to dramatic decreases in textile orders and production and resulted in furloughs. These conditions were followed by production spikes to supply troops with products like undergarments, socks, sail cloth, and tent materials. These boom cycles gave millhands the opportunity to demand and often receive better pay. As demand fell again during peacetime, companies decreased pay. Sometimes workers refused to work for lower pay and discontent flared.

Mill Labor

Early textile mills in the state used enslaved laborer for mill construction and operation. Eventually, the labor force shifted to poor whites. Many of these early white workers were women and children from farms. The transition from agrarian to industrial life proved challenging for southern whites who had worked the land they lived on for generations. Many farmers held on to their land by sending their wives and children to subsidize their farming income. Eventually, men worked in mills between harvests before entering mills year-round. Mill work became gendered, with divisions between "male" and "female" jobs. Men often fixed machines or served as supervisors or carders and weavers. Spinning often was completed by women and became a specialized skill. Common jobs in the mill included weavers, spinners, doffers, sweepers, carders, loom fixers, and supervisors. Spinners, for example, swiftly twisted fibers into desired thicknesses for yarns after carders carefully brushed fibers to remove impurities and align them evenly so a continuous fiber could be spun.

Child Workers at an Avondale Mill Child labor was also prevalent until the mid-1930s, and many photographs of early mills feature children as young as six or seven completing dangerous tasks suited for small hands, such as doffing. "Doffer boys," as they became known, replaced bobbins or spindles (doffs) filled with yarn or thread on the spinning frames with empty ones. Other less dangerous tasks for children included sweeping. The use of children in Alabama was repeatedly criticized by Progressive reformers but was supported by political and corporate leaders such as Gov. Braxton Bragg "B. B." Comer, owner of Avondale Mills in Birmingham. When child labor was outlawed in mills as a result of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and more and more farmers turned to factory work, both men and women worked inside jobs at the mills and small numbers of African Americans worked outside the mill or performed menial cleaning tasks.

Work throughout the mills was difficult and dirty, and millhands often earned only poverty wages. Many millhands living in the company village were forced to tend small gardens and maintain kinship networks for sharing necessities like food for survival. They also suffered from diseases such as pellagra from their poor and often limited diets. For the men and women working within the factory walls, byssinosis, more commonly known as "cotton worker's lung," or "brown lung," caused lifelong damage to their respiratory health.

The Labor Movement and Mills

Difficult and unhealthy working and living conditions provided the breeding ground for unionizing activity beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Workers grew frustrated with the effects of market fluctuations on their pay as well as increased production expectations without adequate compensation. Paternalism wavered in its ability to pacify workers who sought fair pay for fair work. National textile strikes, including the General Textile Strike in 1934 and Operation Dixie in 1947 are among the most notable events related to organized labor at Alabama textile mills.

Eula McGill at a Labor Rally In 1934, mill workers adamantly demanded the end of work speedups, wage cuts, and layoffs prompted by decreased production during the Great Depression. The United Textile Workers of America (UTW) called for the General Textile Strike, organizing thousands of workers. In July 1934, an estimated 4,000 workers went on strike in Huntsville along with thousands of other workers in Guntersville, Birmingham, Albertville, and Gadsden. Groups of workers known as "flying squads" traveled across the state supporting the union drive and calling for mass walkouts. Management at various mills heard about these workers and devised methods to combat their efforts. In Opelika for instance, the "flying squad" was blocked by bales of cotton piled on the highway and guards with rifles.

This same period saw the birth of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program, which mill workers believed would improve employment conditions and opportunities. Most importantly, the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act provided workers with protections for unionizing and initiated investigations into unfair labor practices with the creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Textile workers throughout the country and in Alabama put their faith in the federal government and Pres. Roosevelt. But the results of these investigations often favored the industrialists and rarely forced compliance. The Wagner Act was designed to end strikes, but it often fostered more strikes because workers refused to wait on generally weak federal intervention. Strikes throughout the South continued and mill management tightened control. Companies routinely expelled families from company housing if they were suspected of union involvement and also placed them on industry-wide blacklists to prevent them from working at other mills.

Post-World War II

Operation Dixie in 1947 followed a similar path of increased unionization efforts followed by defeat. Operation Dixie was an effort by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to unionize workers in the South, including Alabama, as a first step for national labor unification. The CIO began planning in 1946 for this push into "Dixie," carefully choosing which textile mills to focus their resources on. Avondale Mills, which employed nearly 8,000 workers and was anti-union, became a main target for Operation Dixie, but the effort had little success. Union representatives understood that infiltrating Avondale would supply them a major victory. But the powerful and politically active Comer family continued to influence the anti-union policies of other mills throughout the region. Local newspapers across the state, from Birmingham, Alexander City, Ashville, and Lanett, among others, reported on local union election results. Votes to unionize individual mills were met with varying success for the CIO. Each election counted thousands of votes, but the CIO often struggled to gain a significant majority.

Union organizers also did not account for the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed in 1947 and would soon handicap many of their efforts. Supported by textile mill owners determined to roll back the small victories of the 1930s, the Taft-Hartley Act allowed companies to decertify unions, ban boycotts and strikes, and require signed affidavits for union members ensuring they were not Communist Party members. This act also undercut the power of unions by removing the stipulation of union membership for employment. This new "open shop" model allowed union and non-union employees alike to be employed. Alabama in particular was identified by union organizers within the UTW and larger alliances, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO, as a key state in the effort to promote unionization in the South. Despite their efforts, labor unions had little success in Alabama or the South generally.

Decline of Alabama Textiles

Despite these challenges, textile mills managed to maintain production late into the twentieth century. Mergers and various acquisitions reorganized many of the pioneering mills into major conglomerates. These efforts to stay in business failed to make up for the growing importation of cheaper fabrics from countries such as Japan, however. Throughout the state, a trend towards mill closures in the 1970s and 1980s continued, prompted by a complex combination of automation and increased productivity, global competition, and other factors that were part of the larger demise of industry and manufacturing in the United States. The textile industry, and especially the closely related and heavily labor-intensive apparel industry, contracted even more after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented beginning in 1994. The agreement removed tariffs on imported yarn, fabric, and apparel from Canada and Mexico, thus lowering prices and creating surpluses of these goods. NAFTA spurred significant changes within the textile industry, including increased automation, that required fewer workers. Cotton produced in domestic textile mills peaked in 1997, followed by a steep 70-percent decline. Competition continued from Canada and Mexico and from Asia, particularly from the many government-run plants in China after that nation joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Lanett Cotton Mills Postcard Many former mills and mill towns are remembered today only with historical markers. A few others, like Avondale Mills and related housing in Pell City, Pepperell Mill and village in Opelika, Profile Mills in Jacksonville, Tallassee Mills in Tallassee, and the mills and villages operated by West Point Manufacturing in Chambers County, for example, were designated historic districts by the National Register of Historic Places. Others, including Langdale Mill Village and Lanett Cotton Mill in Chambers County were documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey. The mills are decaying or have been torn down and the sites cleaned up and redeveloped. Several mill villages related to West Point Manufacturing in Chambers County, the West Boylston Manufacturing Company Textile Mill in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and the Alabama Textile Corporation (Alatex) in Andalusia, Covington County, are listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

Further Reading

  • Brattain, Michelle. The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Browne, Catherine Greene. History of Avondale. Birmingham: A. H. Cather Publishing Company, 2007.
  • Goff, Lisa. “Something Pretty Out of Very Little.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 78 (March 2019): 49-67.
  • Griffith, Barbara S. The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
  • Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, et al. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
  • Minchin, Timothy J. Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor Since World War II. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
  • –––. What Do We Need a Union For?: The TWUA in the South, 1945-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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