Women in Mill Villages

By Ann Hobgood

In the late-nineteenth century a manufacturing boom hit North Carolina, and hundreds of cotton mills were built throughout the state. As new mills opened, many jobs became available for women and children who were the family members most easily spared from agricultural work. Soon thousands of women, both single and married, moved from farms into the newly built villages that surrounded the mills. As mill work became more common and farming increasingly difficult for North Carolinians, more men came to mill villages as well, to join their families or to find jobs themselves. Nevertheless, in many mills the majority of the work force continued to be made up of women who had moved into mill villages with promises of steady work, cash wages, and hopes of being able to send their children to school.

Adjusting to life in mill villages was not easy. Work hours were long, and the jobs were difficult. Many villages lacked schools. Women reared on farms found it took time to get used to beginning work when a bell rang. Running machinery indoors and working the night shift also seemed strange and unsettling. But gradually women made friends, enjoyed living closer to relatives, and joined together to open schools and churches.

Because women employees became important to cotton manufacturers, some mill owners provided special benefits for women. Before 1900 women who lived in a mill village might receive permission to leave work a little early to prepare dinners for their families or to nurse babies left in the care of relatives. A few villages ran day nurseries for babies and toddlers, and others had family health clinics. Before 1918 children were expected to go to work in the mill after they finished the sixth or seventh grade. Some left school even earlier to help their mothers in the mill. Most women did not want their children to work in the mill, but they felt better when they could keep an eye on their own boys and girls.

Women labored very hard in cotton mills as spinners or weavers. They often left their homes at 6:00 A.M. to begin the twelve-hour day shift. They left home at 6:00 P.M. if they worked on the night shift. Mill families in North Carolina in the early twentieth century remained large, usually with six or seven children. A family often had three or four family members working in the mill at the same time. Single women employed in the mill usually lived with their families and contributed their wages to the family budget. Married women hired by the mill who had large families worked doubly hard. Most of these women depended on an older relative—an aunt, mother, or grandmother—for help with child care and housekeeping. Before the 1960s most North Carolina mill employees were white. White women in mill villages sometimes relied on black women who lived nearby to help with domestic chores like child care, cooking, and laundering in return for a small payment in cash.

For many North Carolina women, life in a mill village brought more pleasure than living in the country and farming. Some mill families settled into a village and stayed for two or three generations. Other left after a few weeks, moving on to another village where the wages might be slightly higher or the working or living conditions better. As North Carolina mill villages became established communities, women who did not work in the mill ran boardinghouses or worked as midwives and teachers. When older women retired from mill work they tended gardens, quilted, fished, visited, and worked with the church.

Women held the majority of jobs in textile mills. They performed the tasks that required prolonged concentration and manual dexterity.

During World War I mill work became more fast-paced. Children were no longer hired as workers or allowed to assist their mothers as “helpers.” Work demands by mill companies also increased. Those who could not keep up lost their jobs. In the 1920s and 1930s many North Carolina women and men worked to improve conditions in mill villages throughout the state by joining textile unions or by striking to protest substandard wages and inadequate living conditions.

After World War II employment in North Carolina mills improved as wages increased and the eight-hour day replaced ten- or twelve-hour shifts. During the 1940s mill owners began to sell mill houses to the workers. Women enjoyed becoming homeowners, but some were sad to see the villages disbanded. After 1965 both black and white women found employment in textile manufacturing throughout the South. Today, although the number of textile workers in North Carolina has declined and most of the mill villages are gone, women workers still make up the majority of the work force in mills across the state.