The Human and Climate Costs of Our Perpetually New Clothes- Part 2 (of 4)

Part 2–The Long Road to Fast Fashion: US Textile Boom and Bust in the 20th Century

By the end of the Civil War, two other factors, one huge in scale and the other household-sized, were changing the United States and its textile industries. One was the railroad and the other was the consumer-marketed sewing machine.

Railroad construction was happening all over the country and the South was no exception. By 1860, the southern United States contained one-third of the country’s railroad mileage. These southern railroads were built and maintained almost exclusively by enslaved people.

US railway map from 1870 to 1890, which tripled in size during that time. (source:

In the early 1850s, Charlotte was being connected to the rest of North Carolina and to South Carolina and beyond by new railroad lines. Overnight, Charlotte became a booming cotton trading center. In the late 1860s and 1870s, cotton trading levels soon exceeded pre-war levels. The railroad brought industrialization to the “New South.” As new laws were designed to help rebuild the South after the war, New England’s textile mills found too many advantages to moving southward.{1} Water for powering the mills was cheap, as was labor. Proximity to cotton and good rail connections for transporting finished goods out of the area made the move irresistible. By the mid-1870s, Charlotte and the Carolinas saw an influx of textile mills. By the turn of the century, just the cotton mills in Charlotte alone contained 75,000 spindles running through 20,592 bales of cotton each year. Nearly 1350 workers earned $5.00 per week working six 11-hour days (less rent for their mill-house room per week). For the first seven years of the new century, seven additional large mills were added and Charlotte had moved from a major cotton trading center to a major textile manufacturing center for the nation. Banks, machinery dealers, and wholesale textile dealers soon followed.  

Initially, sewing machines did nothing to improve the work lives of women laborers. In 1850, an estimated 5,000 working-class women in New York city alone did hand-stitching in grim workshops and apartments for minimal pay and long hours. In 1853, the New York Herald reported a male tailor would get $5.00 for a coat that took two days to make while a “shirtwoman” would get at most $1.50 for a twelve- to fourteen-hour day. When the first functional sewing machines came out, businessmen bought them in quantity and hired the former “shirtwomen” to work on them in the new “sweatshops.” The pay, the long hours, and the working conditions were no better but more jobs were available to women as never before due to the heightened demand for these inexpensive manufactured garments.

One of the earliest sewing machines (source:

By the 1860s, middle-class women could purchase a sewing machine for home use for as little as $10 (the equivalent of $275 today). A half-century before such significant consumer machinery as the automobile and the typewriter, the sewing machine brought women into the modern age of machinery and foreshadowed today’s era of fast fashion. In 1889, the Singer Company brought their electric sewing machine to market and by the turn of the century a sewing machine could be found in almost every middle-class home.

Along with the railroads, machinery powered by steam and later those powered by electricity untethered textile mills from riverside locations. Small-town and “suburban” factory sites sprung up strategically throughout the South after the Civil War. In the last decades of the 18th century and early decades of the 20th century, an estimated 200,000 people in North Carolina alone left their farms to go work in the textile factories. Many of these families lost their farms due to the. inability to pay their debt to merchants from sharecropping. Seeking jobs with a paid wage, men, women, and children over 10 years old (8 or 9 years old if part-time) worked ten to twelve hour days six days per week.

By the turn of the century, most North Carolina millworkers lived in mill villages constructed by mill owners. Designed to keep the workers productive as well as tethered, mill villages contained houses of three to six rooms rented at ten cents per week per room taken from the worker’s paycheck. Yet between 1914 and 1921, mills in North Carolina doubled their annual textile production to $191 million. From 1880 to 1930, southern mill towns embodied the same indentured paternalism directed at mill workers that underpinned slave plantations. Mill owners made sure their workers had shelter and jobs but also retained authority over the schedules and private lives of those workers as the villages stayed under total control of the mill managers.

The three in the front row worked in Cannon Mills, Concord, N.C. The boy, “Otie Honeycott” (his mother could not spell his name) said he had been doffing two years already. Taken in 1912.
(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Working such long hours for six days a week, mill workers rarely saw the sun. The children working there did not go to school or play outside. The workers appeared like white, sickly cadavers and in fact many of them were. The air they breathed in the mills all day was full of fibers and dust that gave workers brown lung or byssinosis (a disease of the lungs similar to asthma and COPD stemming from exposure to cotton dust). Dismal and unhealthy working conditions for the mostly women and children in the mills brought ongoing attempts to organize unions in the area. The first major effort directed at North Carolina mills was by the American Federation of Labor in 1898. The next was by the United Textile Workers Union in 1919. The industry generally proved resistant to union efforts. The National Textile Workers Union organized a number of strikes culminating in the violent strike in Gastonia in 1929.

An almost perfect case example of the mill worker transplanted from the mountains, Ella May Wiggins was born in Sevierville, Tennessee in 1900 to subsistent farmers James and Katherine May. Joining countless other families, Ella’s followed the logging boom precipitated by the railroad advances. Those who had lived so long in harmony with nature became rampant deforesters as they sought a “cash wage.” Beyond destroying forests, the logging industry injured and killed many men. Ella’s father was one of those killed while logging.

At seventeen, Ella married logger John Wiggins. As logging work wound down in the 1920s, workers went to work in coal mines and textile mills. Textile work employed women and because John was recently injured in a logging accident, Ella needed to bring home wages for the family. John began drinking and eventually left the family. Ella first worked picking cotton and eventually moved to mill work, working in five different mill towns as a spinner. Despite working constantly, Ella never made enough to feed, clothe, or provide medicine for her children, four of whom died in early childhood. She continued working hard to support her remaining five children.

The May clan was independent and resilient and Ella May personified these qualities. In 1929, working at a mill in Bessemer City in North Carolina, Ella joined the union to improve conditions and pay for women and children at the mills. Known for her songwriting, Ella wrote and sang songs to encourage the mill workers, hoping to inspire them to join the union. Mill Mother’s Lament was her best-known song.

Mill Mother’s Lament

“We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children goodbye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend on clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening,
Our little son will say,
“I need some shoes dear Mother,
And so does sister May”.

How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You everyone must know,
But we can’t buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.

It is for our little children,
That seem to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.

But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear,
Let’s stand together, workers,
And have a union here.

by Ella May Wiggins, labor minstrel and anti-racist striker

Ella was in the back of a pickup truck with other strikers going from Bessemer City to a union meeting in Gastonia on September 14, 1929. As they neared the meeting place, a car of men attempting to blockade the road pulled in front of the truck. As men stood in the road with guns raised, one man pointed directly at Ella May and fired. She was shot in the heart and died almost immediately. Ella was 29 years old.

The strikes for which Ella May Wiggins died did little to change the conditions for mill workers but they did bring international attention to the plight of North Carolina mill workers. New labor laws at the federal level were part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The dominance of cotton as a raw material for textiles was facing an unexpected adversary. Man-made fibers meant unprecedented changes in the North Carolina textile industry. Rayon was the first to be introduced in the U.S. in 1910, but it was soon followed by acetate, nylon, acrylic, and others. During World War II, North Carolina made more textile products for the military than any other state. For inexpensive textiles at that time, nylon was largely substituted for silk and acrylic was soon substituted for wool.

By the 1970s, the highly productive and highly profitable textile industry in North Carolina began to experience the combined challenges of environmental regulations regarding polluted air and wastewater, labor laws regarding violations causing an epidemic of brown lung disease among thousands of North Carolina mill workers, changes in U.S. trade policy, and a dramatic increase in competition from foreign clothing importers. With increased regulations, wages, and production costs in the U.S., textile manufacturing ramped up in Asia, Central America, and South America. Tripling between 1974 and 1984, textile imports represented 43 percent of clothing purchased in the U.S. by the mid-1980s. By 1990, the apparel trade imbalance was nearly $25 billion. In the decade between 1975 and 1985, the U.S. saw the closure of more than 800 textile mills nationwide. In the three years between 1982 and 1985, 67 textile plants in North Carolina shut down and more than 10,000 workers lost their jobs.


1–To support rebuilding the South’s devastated economy following the war, the U.S. Congress passed a law exempting federal taxes on any cotton textiles if the raw cotton used in their manufacture was grown in the same district.  

Reference Sources for Parts 1 and 2:

Bower, Bruce. 2022. The World’s Oldest Pants Stitched Together Cultures Across Asia. ScienceNews. 

Eves, Jamie H., York, Beverly L., Buch, Carol, & Palmer, Michele. 2021. Sewing Revolution: The Machine That Changed America. The Mill Museum.

Foner, Eric. 1988.  Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York:  Harper & Row.

Glass, Brent D. & Kress, Kelley. 2006. Textiles. NCPedia.

Hanchett, Thomas W. & Huffman, William H. 1986. Mecklenburg Mill: Historical Overview.

Kanetkar, Riddhi. 2021. Khadi Weaving: An An ti-Colonial Symbol Turned Eco-Solution. Ours to Save.

North Charlotte Historic District. 2022. Charlotte City, Mecklenburg Count, N.C.

Santhanam, V. & Sundaram, V. 1997. Agri-History of Cotton In India: An Overview. Asian agri-History, Vol. 1, No. 4.

Thanhauser, Sofi. 2022. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing. New York: Pantheon Books.

Who Was Ella May Wiggins. Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee.

Wright, Gavin. 1986. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books

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