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The Roaring Twenties: Recession, Boom, Depression


The Twenties were years of boom and bust, of revulsion at the thought of war, years of the Jazz Age, hip flasks, gang war, Al Capone, years of millions of immigrants, and a postwar baby boom that would raise the population by 34.7%, to 123 million the 1930 census.

The U. S. Senate rejected President Woodrow Wilson's vision of a League of Nations to keep the peace, and he passed ineffectively into history while a cigar-smoking, womanizing small town publisher, Warren G. Harding, succeeded him, only to die of an embolism early in his term and leave to Calvin Coolidge the heritage of scandals in the Justice, Navy, Interior Departments, and the Veterans Bureau. Coolidge said little; the spotlight was on his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, the "Great Engineer" who had so efficiently managed civilian war relief in Europe and was now the darling of business for his many helpful innovations. He would be elected president in 1928.

The post war boom of 1918-1920 was followed in 1921 by an 18-month recession brought on by tight credit, a glutted market, heavy inventories and a sharp drop in export trade. Pay cuts were general, business failures soared. For farmers, the recession would continue into the Depression years of the Thirties. Cotton went from 16 cents a pound in 1920 to 9.5 cents in 1930. Growth in such industries as coal, lumber and flour milling was flat.

1920 Most Prosperous
"What new developments for the textile industry will the year 1920 bring forth?" The Reporter asked in the first issue of the new year. "As 1918 saw the end of the Great War, the year just completed will be remembered as a period of readjustment, with business almost at an ebb from the signing of the Armistice until March or April, and then gradually improving until, by the end of the year, the textile mills were found to be enjoying a remarkable prosperity, even surpassing that noted during the war—1920 is likely to be one of the most prosperous years in the history of the textile industry."

In Europe, the British were worried about the assurance of cotton supply for the Lancashire mills. -Can the U.S. supply us?" asked a columnist from Manchester, going on to promote the growing of cotton within the Empire. His question was timely, for the Sea Island crop was down from 125,000 bales to 7,000 bales due to a devastating hurricane and the boll weevil, threatening the supply of fine fabrics for the tailors of Saville Row. The door was open for Egyptian cotton.

Trucks In The Mill
In the U.S., the big boom was in the automotive industry, which moved to first place in both value of product and value added by manufacture. Detroit and other auto centers would turn out 2,798,737 passenger cars in 1929. By 1930, the census would show 4,135,000 autos, 900,000 trucks and 920,000 tractors on the road and in the field. The production of tires and inner tubes doubled. Gasoline production quadrupled.

A page one Reporter headline exhorted: "Let's Go! To The Show, We Mean!" The show was the 1920 automobile show in Boston, an event considered of vital importance by The Reporter which discussed the merits of the trucks to be shown, and the savings they offered the mills.

Also much on the mind of The Reporter's editors was the lift truck and its potential for saving space, time, and manpower, especially in the warehouse.

Highly desirable, said The Reporter, was the one-ton truck with swivel lights, pneumatic tires (early trucks ran on solid rubber tires) and "a thoroughly proven power tire pump" for use on flats.

Lightfast Dyes Help Industry Thrive
The chemical industry was on a steady growth pattern; domestic producers held onto the dyestuff market. The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists was organized in 1921 with 200 charter members. Because of their successful production of colors fast to light and washing, the printing machine was making a comeback.

In other textile laboratories, researchers inspired by the success of "artificial silk" were working on other man-made fibers that would reach market a decade later. Meanwhile, production of artificial silk, now called rayon, zoomed from three million pounds in 1919, to 33 million in 1929.

The ice-box, the wood-burning cook stove, the hand-cranked Victrola for records were giving way to products of the new electrical firms. During the decade, sales of major appliances rose from $109 million to $268 million; of small appliances, from $71 million to $106 million; of radios, from $15 million to $338 million. Sales of industrial electrical appliances went from $46 million to $976 million.

Education was becoming more common. Where there had been only 111,000 high school graduates in 1910, and 231,000 in 1920, by 1930, there were 592,000.

Doctors were becoming better trained, and "vitamin" was the health buzz word. Medical researchers were inching toward the "miracle drugs" that would reach the public in the Thirties. The iron lung, developed in 1928, meant life for hundreds of polio victims. By 1930, life expectancy for men was up from 53 to 58 years, and for women, from 54 to 61 years.

The 'flickers" were maturing. The Technicolor process was perfected with the in 1922, although it was rarely used by movie producers because of expense. American Telephone and Telegraph Co. achieved television transmission from New York to Washington in 1927 although commercial application was far away. In October, 1927, the first full length sound movie, "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson, opened in New York and ran nationwide in 1928. This ushered in a new era in entertainment, with its massive influence on the fashions which move textiles out of the stores.

Staple Apparel Gives Way To Fashion
Before the World War 1, 80% of mill production had been staples. As the Twenties moved on, more and more farmers acquired automobiles for the Saturday trip to town and to the movies. Imitation of the fashions shown on the silver screen was inevitable, and staples began to fade as the auto/movie influence gained strength.

Charles A. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo in 1927, becoming a national hero. He went on to survey the transoceanic routes to be followed by Pan American's Clipper planes and later by the workhorse DC-3.

Cotton Picker Invented
For the mills, the most significant invention of the period, even if not recognized at the time, was the development in 1927 by the Rust brothers of the mechanical cotton picker. Before long, the ginning labs of the Agriculture Department would be dealing with problems of trash in machine-picked cotton, and card room overseers would be swearing.

The years just after the war were marked by considerable apprehension over the spread of communism from Russia, which was pumping out propaganda calling for world revolution. A bomb explosion in Wall Street, the roundup of some 2,700 suspected reds by Attorney General Palmer's forces and the absorption of the IWVV into the U.S. Communist party fed the flames of suspicion.

These concerns, plus fear of the immigrants landing at Ellis Island, proved fertile ground for the mushroom growth of the Ku Klux Klan which claimed five million members in the mid-Twenties, terrorized hundreds of small towns and exercised considerable political power in Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Exposure of their acts of terror by national magazines and prosecutions for beatings and burnings turned public opinion against the hooded mob so that by 1930 membership had dropped to 9,000. The textile industry could easily afford the loss of the sheet sales.

But, there were grounds for the fears that had lured many men into the Klan, particularly in the North and Midwest. Communists had taken control of many locals of the ILGWU, the Furriers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, United Mine Workers and others, and struggles for control of the unions continued into the Forties and Fifties.

The conservative upcountry of South Carolina recalled the times in 1914 when the IWW propagandist Joseph Ettor, who had led the strike in Lawrence, Mass., came preaching the anarcho-syndicalist gospel in the mill villages. In his history 'Mill and Town in South Carolina 1880-1920", Dr. David Carlton said:

"The Wobblies moved into Greenville in early 1914, and, by May, were claiming two thousand members. Although they figured in a minor incident at one of the mills at the end of May, they attracted little attention until early July when a wildcat strike at Lewis Parker's Monaghan Mill escalated into a major confrontation. There were rallies and parades, one of which featured the very novel sight of a red flag being carried down Greenville's Main Street …the strike at Monaghan had been the result of an accumulation of petty grievances and was rapidly defused by the willingness of Parker to consult with a workers' committee.

Carlton noted that the strike leaders generally showed far less knowledge of IWW principles than did Parker himself, and that Parker had the bulk of the meeting's proceedings transcribed and published in the Greenville News of July 17, 1914.

Labor Unrest In New England
In these present days of comparative labor peace, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the problems of production faced by New England superintendents in the restless days of the Twenties, especially in plants where immigrant workers had little or no command of English and scant understanding of instructions. This difficulty of communication was a major factor in the move of some mills to the South, according to a member of a prominent Fall River family who supervised the transfer of one such mill to Tennessee.

The 48-hour single shift was common in the New England mills while the non-union South was moving to multiple shifts to keep the machinery operating.

After a seven-month strike in Lawrence, Pacific Mills commissioned Lockwood Greene to find a Southern site for a finishing plant. The result: the huge plant at Lyman, S. C. built in 1923, now operated by M. Lowenstein (Springs Industries} which acquired Lyman and Pacific's mills in Columbia, S. C. in 1955 from Burlington which had bought control of Pacific Mills the year before.

The Southern Trek
Others joining Pacific in the Southern trek were American Thread Company to Dalton, Ga.; Stark Mills to Hogansville, Ga.; Cascade Mills to Mooresville, N. C.; Worth Mills to Fort Worth, Tex.; and Southern Worsted Company to Greenville.

Those moves were typical. Between 1922 and 1932, 73 mills in Fall River, Mass., were liquidated, 75% of the city's textile industry. New Bedford lost 21,000 textile jobs in the same period.

The Reporter followed the mills South, T opening a branch office at 229 East Stone Ave. in Greenville in the mid-Twenties. The publication, now being run by E. Howard Bennett, son of the founder, Frank P. Bennett, Jr., and C. Randolph Bennett, was enjoying a more open format, progressing from the grey columns of type of the early days to wide use of photos and sketches, to wider columns and larger type. The pages were filled with news and ads of machinery improvements and new accessories.

Editorials reflected a scorn for those content with the old: "The Mule Spinners Union in Fall River voted to strike because of the 10% reduction in wages. Mule spinners are an anachronism. They are about as important in Fail River as a coachman in a garage."

Throughout New England, wages were being cut 10%. The mills were running slack, only two or three days a week. Owners contended they could pay more if workers would be more productive, but they were up against the traditional union attitude of stretching the work to make the job last longer.

Said the Reporter in 1925: "The interest of New England manufacturers in Southern locations, and the investigation of the claims of advantages in Southern manufacturing conditions as to wages, hours of operation, taxes, etc., increases rather than otherwise. Since the first of the 1925 year, there have been more New England manufacturers scouting through the South than there were during the whole 12 months of 1924.

"The operatives in New England cotton mills themselves seem to be the only persons who can put a stop to this transferring of machinery from the East to the South. IF they will, of their own volition, double up the machinery tended per operative, the whole situation will be reversed and no one in the country can beat the New England mills and operatives on such a basis."

Driving Forces
Another great concern for all types of mills was the control of costs. "The industry needs more roughneck treasurers," said the Reporter in commenting on the poor profitability of a group of mills.

The drive for mill efficiency brought men with stop watches and clip boards to tile intense indignation of many Southern workers who felt robbed of respect and dignity. In March and April of 1929, the indignation resulted in unorganized, spontaneous walkouts in Greenville, Elizabethton, Tenn., Marion, N. C. and Gastonia, N. C. Once their anger was vented and their complaints heard, most of the strikers stayed out only a short duration, except at Gastonia, where the National Textile Workers Union led by Communists Fred Beal and George Pershing took over the movement. Tempers rose. Nearly all of the townpeople and most workers knew little of the union moven1ent and mentally linked it with an alien threat to society. The cliche equation of the times was: labor unions plus strikes equal Communists plus atheism plus social equality with the Negro. The Gastonia strikers had no community support. While trying to break up a strikers' meeting. the Gastonia police chief was fatally shot. In another incident, a woman striker was killed. Beal and other defendants were convicted of conspiracy to murder the police chief and sentenced to 5 to 20 years. A legacy of bitterness was left to boil over in the 1934 textile general strike, of which more later.

The Twenties saw the end of the reign of one of the industry’s most notable personalities. William M. Wood of American Woolen Co.. and the start in business of two others, J. Spencer Love, founder of the world's largest textile concern —Burlington Industries, and Royal Little, whose Textron flashed like a giant comet across textile skies before Little moved on to other ventures.

William Madison Wood (1858-1926), grandson of an immigrant from the Azores who had anglicized his name started at the bottom as a mill operative and rose through the ranks to the heights. He was assistant manager of Washington Mills at Lawrence. Mass., owned by Frederick Ayer of Boston, when he married Ayer's daughter.

In the 48-month depression of 1893-97, he persuaded his father-in-law to buy bankrupt mills and consolidate them into the American Woolen Co.. a conglomerate that became official in IS99. Wood served as treasurer until President Ayer died, but he was the big shot; full page ads in The Reporter carried the name William M. Wood, Treasurer. in large type under the company logo. When President Ayer and other officers were named, they were listed in small type in the body of the ad.

Egotist though he was, Wood was a full-blown trash mover. In 1905, he built Wood Mill, 30 acres under one roof, employing nearly 10,000 workers. Between them, the Washington and Wood mills alone added 16,000 jobs to the Lawrence economy in 10 years. But, Wood was notorious in New England as an exploiter of labor, which made him an unwitting accomplice of the IWW in the 1912 strike described earlier.

The January 8, 1925 issue of The Reporter carried the bold headline: "President Wood Has Resigned." There was no doubt in the textile world who was meant.

The Reporter commented that Wood had carried the whole load of the 60 mills of American Woolen on his shoulders, and that although a highly competent administrator would succeed him, there was no comparable giant in sight.

The article on the resignation passed on a bit of financial gossip: "The late A. D. Juilliard was largely identified with American Woolen Co., and he had become a great factor in the financial affairs of New York City. He undoubtedly helped Mr. Wood a great deal. It will be remembered that 10 or 12 years ago, the American Woolen Company had about $20 million of common stock outstanding, and that suddenly about $10 million of it was redeemed and paid off. We have never known it to be fact, but we have always believed that this $10 million represented A. D. Juilliard's cashing his ticket in the American Woolen Company. "

The Royal Little Saga
The fortunes of American Woolen and Royal Little's Textron would mingle nearly 20 years later. Little, a relative of that Arthur O. Little of research fame who did fabricate a silk purse from a sow's ear, was only 27 when, with $10,000, a partner and three employees, Launched Special Yarns in 1923 in Providence, R. 1., working with the relatively new ''artificial silk" which took the name "rayon" in 1924, following the idea of Kenneth Lord of Burlington Industries that the luster of the fiber suggested the rays of the sun. Little formed Franklin Rayon, later Atlantic Rayon, producing ladies undergarments of rayon.

World War 11 brought him opportunities he quickly seized. While busy with war contracts, he found time to buy old mill buildings in both North and South and to install modern machinery to meet a demand that seemed insatiable.

Little changed his company's name to Textron in 1944, and by 1952, had 15 mills, mostly in the South. In that year, he worked out a merger with American Woolen, which had lost the git-up-and-go of William Wood's day and, although still New England's largest textile firm, was down to 27 mills (12 of them not operating) and was losing $1 million a month because' said Fortune Magazine, the company was "a major producer of staples in an age of style." Two years later, in 1955, Little had created Textron Amerotron through a merger of Textron, American Woolen and Robbins Mills, with a subsidiary, Amerotron, operating the textile mills of his budding conglomerate. Within two years, Amerotron had liquidated the New England mills, had consolidated the best of the machinery into the Southern plants, and had built an up-to-date woolen mill at Barnwell, S. C.

Not long afterward, Little began acquiring non-textile businesses and, in 1963, sold seven textile mills to Deering, Milliken whose president, Roger Milliken, knew that style, not staple, was the best seller and who was staging the Milliken Breakfast Show for buyers at New York market time. Royal Little moved on as master of conglomerates and as author of How To Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Information'.

Enter Burlington's Love
J. Spencer Love started his textile career in modest fashion but built bigger and better than others. In 1923, with the help of local businessmen, he formed Burlington Mills in Burlington, N. C.. a small cotton mill employing 200 with himself as plant manager. He experimented with rayon, first as a decorative yarn, then as dress goods, later as drapery and upholstery fabric, then rayon crepes, taffetas and sheers.

Burlington expanded steadily, even in the Depression years, and achieved $1 billion in sales in 1962, the year of his death, the first textile firm to do so. He and his associates recognized in the twenties the possibilities of the first synthetics. More of Burlington as our textile story continues.

Signs of big trouble ahead had been mounting since the mid-Twenties. Overseas. Benito Mussolini's Black Shirts seized power in Italy and Il Duce became the symbolic dictator, pounding his chest and talking conquest. In Russia, Stalin maneuvered his way to total political control and began the terror that would eliminate millions. In Germany, a wartime corporal Adolph Hitler, was harassing the weak leaders of the Weimar Republic.

In the United States, markets for many industries had been turning slack for several years, and the textile mills were flirting with recession while millions speculated in stocks about which they knew little, speculation whose volume mounted steadily until 1929 when the market crashed on October 24, and again on October 29.

The Great Depression had begun.

Burlington Industries
J. Spencer Love was 22 in 1919, a Harvard graduate just back from World War I service, looking fruitlessly for a job in the Boston area, when he decided to head for Gastonia, N. C. where his uncle ran Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Co., founded by his grandfather in 1870. He got a job as assistant to the mill manager. Within seven months, he purchased controlling interest for $250,000, using $3,000 in personal savings, the rest in notes and loans co-signed by his father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard.

The mill was in trouble in the post-war depression, but Love coped by selling the real estate, storing the machinery and looking for a new location. He found it in Burlington, N. C. where the Chamber of Commerce helped sell stock to build a new plant.

Burlington Mills, which was to grow into the nation's largest textile firm, was chartered November 6, 1923.

Production in the new plant started before the building was completed: half the weave room floor was mostly dirt. First products turned out by the 200 employees were flag cloth, bunting, cotton scrims, curtain and dress fabrics and diaper cloth. Many of these products were out of style within a year, and new products were tried, but not successfully.

Love decided to try rayon, then in its experimental stage. He began making rayon bedspreads which sold well. The firm was soon a national leader in weaving rayon. A second plant was built in 1926, and the firm opened its New York sales office in 1929.

Expansion continued in the Depression years of the Thirties as Burlington took over closed mills. By the end of 1936, Burlington had 22 plants in nine communities and had moved headquarters to Greensboro, N. C. In 1937, the company was reorganized to consolidate its various associated companies and its stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The war years brought concentration on military production, including development of parachute cloth made with the new nylon fiber. In 1944, Burlington opened its first overseas plant.

After the war, the company renewed its diversification efforts and its construction of new plants, easy to spot because they were built with one wall of wood which could be torn out on short order to allow expansion. The firm was diversifying into new product areas, a move reflected by the name change to Burlington Industries.

Love died in 1962, the year Burlington became the first textile firm to pass the $1 billion mark in sales. Charles F. Myers, Jr. and Henry Rauch assumed the leadership, the first in a line of distinguished executies succeeding the founder.

Burlington has responded swiftly and positively to the changes resulting from the volatility of the textile markets in recent years. The Domestics division was sold to J. P. Stevens and Co., Inc., and Burlington bought C. H. Masland & Sons, a major supplier of molded floor carpets, truck liners and interior trim parts for automobile and truck manufacturers. The company created a specialized military fabrics organization and is developing new proprietary products for protective clothing and equipment. It is a leading producer of glass, rayon, aramid, and carbon fabrics for composites— materials in which fabrics are treated with resins and other substances to obtain high strength-to-weight ratios, used especially by the aerospace industry.

Today, Burlington operates 83 plants world-wide—71 in 10 states, 12 in four other countries. Its 43,000 employees turn out this range of products:

  • for apparel markets: yarn, greige fabrics; knitted fabrics of polyester and polyester blends; woven fabrics of worsted, worsted blends, cotton, cotton blends, nylon, polyester, polyester blends; denim, corduroy; printed fabrics; fabrics for home sewing.
  • for residential and commercial furnishings markets: carpets; rugs; draperies and shades; bedspread ensembles; mattress ticking, upholstery; restaurant table cloths and napkins.
  • for industrial markets: woven and non-woven fabrics and carpeting for the automotive, electronics, communications, construction, utilities, aerospace, defense and other industries.

Annual sales in 1986 were $2.8 billion, with net earnings of $56.5 million.