Labor in the Textile Mills

The mining industry was not the only sector of the economy that experienced labor unrest during the first half of the 20th century. Working conditions in the textile and mill industries, in New England and in the South, primarily North and South Carolina in areas known as the Piedmont, were just as harsh as those in the mines and resulted in union organization efforts, just as in the mining industry.

Mill owners organized “mill villages” (company towns) where the mill workers lived and played. The owners provided housing, necessary living supplies and amenities to the workers through mill-owned stores, schools, churches, community centers, and activities such as sewing clubs, and village baseball teams. (Roscigno and Danaher, The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music and Textile Strikes, 1929-1934, pp. 4-9.) However, the owners were not simply being generous; providing these things gave them additional control over the workers. A historian who visited the mill town of Gastonia, NC stated, “The company store and credit system kept most of the employees in debt to the mill. There were company boarding houses, company churches, and a company playground. The cotton mill dominated every phase of life in the village which it owned, body and soul.” (Id. at 82, quoting Thomas Tippert.) Roscigno and Danaher also noted that “Exorbitant interest rates were charged at the mill store, ministers and doctors were on the company payroll and workers who were not performing to the company standard or who got out of line ran the risk of losing their homes.” (Id. at 6.) Quoting a mill worker, Roscigno and Danaher point out: “Management want the workers to be in churches because they felt the churches domesticated the workers and that they would keep them from getting too uppity….” (Id. at 7.) The threat or actual cancellation of the baseball team’s season was a strong disincentive to worker’s objectionable, i.e. union, behavior. (Id.)

Owners instituted policies and processes that attempted to get more productivity from the workers without any increase in pay. One such tactic was the “stretch-out.” The “stretch-out” was based on purported scientific management techniques of energy experts. The result was that workers were forced to work ever-increasing numbers of mill machines. For example, spinners were stretched from 24 to 48 looms and then from 48 to 96. This speeding up had negative physical and psychological impacts on the workers. (Roscigno and Danaher, pp. 16, 40.)

Factory owners also employed the “speed-up” tactic where factory machinery speed was increased so that workers would produce more units per hour. The “speed-up” caused accidents and injuries. And after work, immigrants went home to miserable conditions in the tenements they occupied in the cities where these kinds of jobs were. (Id.)

The following songs describe some of the conditions that mill workers and their families faced.

“Cotton Mill Man, was written by Joe Langston (1964); it is sung by Jim and Jesse ( )

I was born in the shadow
Of a cotton mill smoke stack
Down in Alabama’s bottom land
Where my grand pappy broke his back
Pullin’ on a cotton sack
To raise my pa to be a cotton mill man

I’ve got lots of memories
Government commodities
Probably need payment again

While the boss man on the hill
Bought his stake and then the field
Called up on to clean his mill
The cotton mill man

Lord don’t let my son grow up
To be a sweaty cotton mill man

I grew up in the gloom
Of a cotton mill weave room
With weaver’s gluin’ calluses
All over my hands

I didn’t have a honeymoon
I couldn’t leave my cotton loom
I swore my son would never
Be a cotton mill man

I watched my woman cry
When our baby daughter died
Why the doctor never came
We lacked the money but the fame
And I cussed the day
I became a cotton mill man

Lord, don’t let my son grow up
To be a sweaty cotton mill man

The company taught us all the rules
On how to work with spinnin’ spools
So the bosses son could drive a big black sedan
The company owned the houses
And the company owned the grammar school
You’ll never see an educated cotton mill man

They figure you don’t need to learn
Anything without you earn
The money that you pay a phone  amends?
To the general store they own
Or else they’ll take away your home
And give it to some other only cotton mill man

Lord, don’t let my son grow up
To be a sweaty cotton mill man

Lord, don’t let my son grow up
To be a sweaty cotton mill man

“Weave Room Blues, written by Dorsey Dixon and sung by the Dixon Brothers in 1932, (, is another look at life in the mills.

Working in a weave-room, fighting for my life
Trying to make a living for my kiddies and my wife;
Some are needing clothing, some are needing shoes,
But I’m getting nothing but the weave-room blues. ‎

I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the blues,
I’ve got them awful weave-room blues;
I got the blues, the weave-room blues.‎

With your looms a-slamming, shuttles bouncing in the floor,
When you flag your fixer, you can see that he is sore;
Trying to make a living, but I’m thinking I will lose,
For I’m sent a-dying with them weave-room blues. ‎

I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the blues,
I’ve got them awful weave-room blues;
I got the blues, the weave-room blues.‎

Harness eyes are breaking with the doubles coming through,
Devil’s in your alley and he’s coming after you,
Our hearts are aching, well, let’s take a little booze;
For we’re simply dying with them weave-room blues. ‎

I’ve got the blues, got the blues,
I’ve got them awful weave-room blues;
I got the blues, the weave-room blues.‎

Slam-outs, break-outs, knot-ups by the score,
Cloth all rolled back and piled up in the floor;
The harness eyes are breaking, strings are hanging to your shoes,
We’re simply dying with them weave-room blues. ‎

I’ve got the blues, got the blues,
I’ve got them awful weave-room blues;
I got the blues, the weave-room blues.

“Cotton Mill Colic, written and sung by Dave McCarn, a southern cotton mill worker and part-time musician, made his first recordings for Victor in Memphis in 1930.  He also wrote “Poor Man, Rich Man or Cotton Mill Colic # 2).” (

When you buy clothes on easy terms,
The collectors treat you like measly worms
“One dollar down”, and then, Lord knows,
If you don’t make a payment they’ll take your clothes
When you go to bed, you can’t sleep
You owe so much at the end of the week
No use to colic, they’re all that way
Peckin’ at your door ’til they get your pay

REFRAIN:  I’m a-gonna starve, everybody will
‘Cause you cain’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill

When you go to work, you work like the devil
At the end of the week, you’re not on the level
Payday comes, you pay your rent
And when you get through you’ve not got a cent to buy
Fatback meat, pinto beans
Now and then you get turnip greens
No use to colic, we’re all that way
Cain’t get the money to move away

REFRAIN:  I’m a-gonna starve, everybody will
‘Cause you cain’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill

Twelve dollars a week is all we get
How in the heck can we live on that?
I’ve got a wife and fourteen kids
We all have to sleep on two bedsteads
Patches on my britches, holes in my hat
Ain’t had a shave since the wife got fat
No use to colic, every day at noon
The kids get to cryin’ in a different tune

REFRAIN:  I’m a-gonna starve, everybody will
‘Cause you cain’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill

They run a few days and then they stand
Just to keep down the working man
We cain’t make it, we never will
As long as we stay at a lousy mill
The poor are gettin’ poorer, the rich are gettin’ rich
If I don’t starve, I’m a son of a gun
No use to colic, no use to rave
We’ll never rest ’til we’re in our grave

REFRAIN:  I’m a-gonna starve, nobody will
‘Cause you cain’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.

The song “Babies in the Mill, sung and written by Dorsey Dixon in the 1960s, describes the plight of young children who worked all day in the textile factories. The song is based on Dixon’s own experience as a child laborer in the Aleo Mills in East Rockingham, North Carolina. (Hedy West, liner notes for “Whores, Hell, and Biscuits for 2 Centuries,” Bear Family Records BF 15003, 1976.) (

I used to be a factory hand when things was moving slow,
When children worked in cotton mills, each morning had to go.
Every morning just at five the whistle blew on time
To call them babies out of bed at the age of eight and nine.

Come out of bed, little sleepy head,
And get you a bite to eat.
The factory whistle’s calling you,
There’s no more time to sleep.

To their jobs those little ones was strictly forced to go.
Those babies had to be on time through rain and sleet and snow.
Many times when things went wrong their bosses often frowned.
Many times those little ones was kicked and shoved around.

Come out of bed, little sleepy head,
And get you a bite to eat.
The factory whistle’s calling you,
There’s no more time to sleep.

Those babies all grew up unlearned, they never went to school.
They never learned to read or write. They learned to spin and spool.
Every time I close my eyes, I see that picture still
When textile work was carried on by babies in the mill.

Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete, recorded the following traditional song that describes working conditions in the southern mill industry from the point of view of a factory girl. Peggy Seeger calls the song “Let them Wear Their Watches Fine. It is also known as the “Southern Cotton Mill Rhyme” (Reuss, American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics, 1927-1957, p. 86.) (

Worked in a town away down south
By the name of Buffalo
Worked in the mill with the rest of the trash
As we’re often called you know.

You factory girls who hear this song
Will surely understand
The reason why I love you so
Is I’m a factory hand.

I get up early every morn
I work all day real hard
To buy our little meat and bread
Our sugar, tea and lard.

We work from weekend to weekend
We never lose a day
And when that awful payday comes
We draw our little pay.

We then go home on payday night
And sit down in our chair
The merchant knocks all on the door
He’s come to get his share.

When all our little debts are paid
And nothing left behind
We turn our pockets wrong side out
But not one penny can we find.

Our children they grow up unlearned
No time to go to school
Almost before they have learned to walk
They have learned to spin and spool.

The boss man jerks them round and round
And whistles very keen
I’ll tell you what, our factory kids
Is really treated mean.

We work from weekend to weekend
We work from soon to late
We got no time to primp and fix
Or dress right up to date.

The folks in town who dress so fine
And spend their money free
They won’t look at a factory girl
That dresses like you and me.

As we go walking down the street
All wrapped in lint and string
They call us fools and factory trash
And other low down things.

Let them wear their watches fine
Their rings and pearly strings
But when the day of judgment comes
We’ll make them share their pretty things.

On November 24, 1909, an incident that illustrated the treacherous conditions in which textile workers labored occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York City. The factory was located on the tenth floor of a run-down wooden building near Washington Square. It was a sweatshop. Hundreds of young seamstresses, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were squeezed into a space too small for safe work. A fire broke out in the facility. There were no safety exits or fire extinguishers. Approximately 146 young women were burned to death. It was the worst workplace disaster in the history of New York City before the “9/11” tragedy. (Carry It On, p. 87-88.) “The Ballad of the Triangle Fire,written by Ruth Rubin (1968), accurately describes the terrible tragedy. (

In the heart of New York City, near Washington Square
In nineteen eleven, March winds were cold and bare.
A fire broke out in a building ten stories high,
And a hundred and forty-six young girls in those flames did die.

On the top floor of that building, ten stories in the air
These young girls were working in an old sweatshop there;
They were sewing shirtwaists for a very low wage.
So tired and pale and worn-out! They were at a tender age.

The sweatshop was a stuffy room with but a single door;
The windows they were gray with dust from off that dirty floor;
There were no comforts, no fresh air, no light to sew thereby,
And the girls, they toiled from early morn till darkness filled the sky.

Then on that fateful day—dear God, most terrible of days!
When that fire broke out, it grew into a mighty blaze.
In that firetrap way up there with but a single door,
So many innocent working girls burned, to live no more!

A hundred thousand mourners, they followed those sad biers.
The streets were filled with people weeping bitter tears.
Poets, writers everywhere described that awful pyre,
When those young girls were trapped to die in the Triangle Fire.

Another song about the same event is “The Triangle Fire, written by John Paul O’Connor, The song is part of this version of Utah Phillips’s radio show—at about 20 minutes into the program. (

Come gather around and I’ll sing you a song
Of a sight that I saw long ago
The weather was fair down in Washington Square
It was spring, I was on my way home.
It was 1911 on March 25
I remember as if yesterday
At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company
Where the girls were all waiting to pick up their pay

Chorus: Fire was the cry from the windows up high
I saw but I could not believe
Two girls on the ledged as they jumped from the edge
Into the arms of eternity
On the eighth and the ninth and the tenth floor
This factory of workers in the garment trade
Stuffed them into the rooms where so many were doomed
At the end of the Sabbath day.

The doors were all locked and the fire escapes weak
The whole building was trap and a peril
Just to make a few bucks from the rich runamoks
Who made money from the lives of young girls.

Repeat Chorus

What choice for a young girl of sixteen or so
But the sweatshop for the shirtwaists they sell
And what choice for a soul in a ten-story hole
But the pavement of the fires of hell.

Now the questions still loom in the workshops and rooms
And the question I will pose it to you
When you stand to defend all these capitalists and their friends
What price for the profits of few?

Final Chorus: And murder I’ll cry till the day that I die
For I saw but could not believe
Two girls on the ledge as they jumped from the ledge
Into the arms of eternity.

A third song about the tragic event: “The Triangle Factory Fire, written and sung by James Power (2012). (

Let me tell you a story of a great tragedy,
One that took many a life
Is a tale about greed, is a tale about strife
That’s the Triangle factory fire, Triangle factory fire

It was 1911 in the city of New York
A building where fashions are made
Young girls and women in the factory they toil
Making less than a dollar a day
For a seamstress 12 hours pay

The factory was owned by two men of renowned
The shirt waist kings they were hailed
Mr. Isaac Harris and Mr. Max Blank
Who cared just for the profit they made
Caring just for the profits they made

It was just two years before in 1909,
The women had gone out on strike
Claiming unsafe conditions and unfair wages
They were beaten, arrested and fired
Young girls beat up arrested and fired

It was March 25 when the tragedy came
They finished their work for the day,
On the eighth floor a cigarette carelessly started
Set a fire turned into a blaze, a fire turned into a blaze

Harris and Blank were on the 10th floor
and were told about the fire right away
They quickly departed to save their lives
To the workers no warnings they gave
No warnings to the workers they made

The women soon panicked as they saw smoke and flame
And they rushed to escape from the fire
But Harris and blank had locked up the doors
The women screamed for their lives,
The women screamed for their dear lives

There was only one fire escape to be found,
And it snapped like a twig and it fell
All that the women could do then was to jump
For the eighth and ninth floors became hell
The eighth and ninth floors was their hell

Witnesses watched as a man on the ledge
Helped the young girls from the flames
They jumped from his arms to their certain death
Before he too did the same
The young man who jumped to his grave

It was just 20 minutes from start until end
The children rained from the sky
The same police who arrested the strikers
Now carried their bodies aside,
146 died

The families mourned and the city grew dark
But the darkness soon turned to rage
They looked to the courts to find their justice
For Harris and Blank had to pay ,
For the lives they stole they must to pay

The trial lasted only two days
Not guilty was the verdict they gave
Not only did Harris and Blank pay no price,
From insurance six thousand they made
From the fire six thousand they made

It is a story of greed and a story of strife
And people who sought a new life
For immigrant women no justice prevailed
That’s the triangle factory fire