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Holland Thompson, 1873-1940
From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill: A Study of the Industrial Transition in North Carolina
New York: Macmillan, 1906.


Holland M. Thompson (30 July 1873-21 October 1940), historian and writer, published one of the earliest books on the history of North Carolina textiles. Thompson was born in Randolph County, North Carolina, where his father was a public school administrator. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Thompson himself became a school principal in Concord, North Carolina, before beginning doctoral studies at Columbia University. Thompson remained in New York for the rest of his life, but the New South was the focus of his research. From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill (1906) was Thompson's most important work and was based largely on the first-hand knowledge he obtained while living in Concord, the heart of textile mill country. Thompson observed both the emergence of a new class of mill owners and managers and the transformation of a generation of farmers into mill hands. Thompson went on to write numerous articles and two other books, and edited several others, as well.

In From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill, Thompson presents his own judgments about North Carolina's early twentieth-century textile society while he chronicles the history of "industrial transition" from the antebellum era through the turn of the century. Thompson's commentary helps define what later became known as a "progressive" perspective on industrialization. Overall, Thompson was optimistic about the textile industry, but he also weighed the economic and social benefits against the costs—especially to workers—more than such observers as Daniel Tompkins and Broadus Mitchell did.

Thompson presents a typical "New South" view of nineteenth-century North Carolina: he criticizes slavery for the unfair power it gave planters and notes that the devotion to plantation agriculture stagnated North Carolina's economic development before and after the Civil War. Thompson also praises the efforts of mill entrepreneurs and defends the class of yeoman farmers, who became mill hands, from the charge that they were "poor white trash." In Thompson's opinion, the rural folk were "honest, self-respecting, law-abiding, God-fearing people." Though they are "poor" and "unprogressive" and "fail to make the most of their opportunities . . . they are not degraded." (p. 113)

Thompson also assesses the current state of the industry and describes the scope of mill production as well as the nature of capital development. Thompson sees the widespread ownership of mills and even broader base of investors as a sign that textile mills expand economic opportunity much more than does agriculture. He also examines the status of workers and the relationship between employer and employee. Thompson details the long hours, low wages, and sparse living conditions in the mill villages. He counters this, however, by noting legislative efforts to limit hours and by claiming that the incomes, housing, and diets of Southern mill migrants were comparatively better than what their relatives on the farm or their counterparts in New England mills experienced. In addition, Thompson argues that in the mill village, residents "begin a new life." Formerly lonesome farmers,"they find excitement, and their starved social natures are gratified," while the watchful eye of the mill owner and the abiding influence of the church kept immorality to a minimum. (p. 164)

Thompson's text also evaluates the potential of African Americans to work in the textile mills and to run their own businesses. (See pp. 248-268). Though skeptical, Thompson was more open to the prospect of black labor than most white observers, such as Tompkins or Mitchell. Thompson was willing to allow for the possibility of black mill hands. Tompkins' ideal world, on the other hand, blended Old South slavery with New South industry, so that African Americans would toil in the cotton fields, while white mill operatives ran the factory.

Thompson also considers the controversial issue of child labor, predicting that the problem would soon be solved through legislation and the declining demand for child workers. In the meantime, he defends the practice by linking it to rural tradition, claiming that the children's work was not onerous while simultaneously blaming mill parents for perpetuating the practice.

Thompson acknowledges that a new "class consciousness" was beginning to develop among workers at the turn of the century. He concludes, however, that despite the sporadic attempts at unionizing and striking, labor strife was a challenge for the future rather than a current problem. In the past, the familial feelings between owners and operatives helped resolve grievances. To Thompson, the most important reason that "the justice of the local distribution of wealth is seldom questioned" is that mill operatives "have seen the capitalist apparently create wealth unknown before . . . Their own wages buy comforts and luxuries unknown on the farms, and these outweigh to them the advantages of country life." (p. 210) Thompson warns, however, that as the mills continue to modernize after 1906, the bond between owner and operator likely would weaken and the workers' complacency diminish.

In general, Thompson concludes that North Carolina would continue to feel the impact of the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, especially as there were still many citizens who refused to accept or even acknowledge the change.

Works Consulted: Wilson, Clyde, "Thompson, Holland McTyeire" Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, William Powell ed., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Michael Sistrom

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