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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Caesar Cone, January 7, 1983. Interview C-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Slow technological progress hinders the textile industry

Cone describes the gradual technological progress of the textile industry and threats to its well-being. He thinks that the textile industry consolidated later than some other industries because of its unique technological demands and because of increasing competition from other products that provide cheaper goods that do the same things, like paper towels, plastic diapers, or even air hand dryers in public restrooms.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Caesar Cone, January 7, 1983. Interview C-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Looking back over business history, it seems to me that the textile industry has been later to consolidate and has done less of it than petroleum, automobiles, steel, some of your other industries.
You've got several problems. Number one, the textile industry started off as kind of a homegrown thing—the hand loom, the spinning wheel—before technology ever came along with working with steel or things like that. You had the village blacksmith. The village blacksmith got out of the blacksmith shop and got into the steel industry. The textile industry came from the home spinning wheel and the hand loom. First we went through the water power days, before there was electric power or steam power. It was an old industry when all these other new industries came off the drawing board. That's one reason it didn't flourish in the South until we had electric power or steam power. Our rivers were small, and they didn't produce the water power. The old mills used to be run just like the grist mill. They'd have a dam, and they'd have a flume, and they'd have water power, and they'd have a wheel. The whole plant ran from that wheel through belts and pulleys. Electric power came along, and you could have individual motors on your machines. You could transmit your power by wires, and we got rid of all the belts and the pulleys. New England had big streams, big snows, big runoffs, and they could use water power and have bigger mills. That's one reason the mills in the South were just more or less glorified grist mills in the beginning, until Mr. Duke came along. First it was water power, which he transferred into electricity and transmitted by wire, and then steam power, which could be transmitted also by wire after you converted it into electricity. But the textile industry, frankly, didn't lend itself to the type of technology that you see in the steel industry, this assembly line kind of a thing. It still doesn't. It takes an individual machine to weave. Spinning has been improved to some extent, what they call open-end spinning. But it's still the same old process of taking individual fibers and combing them out in the same direction and then twisting them. That's making thread. Then you take those threads and you put them on a loom, your warp threads lengthwise and your cross threads, what we call the filling, in and out. It's the same old process as the hand loom and the hand spinning frame. It doesn't lend itself to the type of automation where you can roll out stuff. One thing that concerns us, that's killed us to some extent, but we don't know what to do about it, is the paper industry. There never used to be paper towels; textiles had all of the towel business. It had all the diaper business. There are various areas where other industries can pour stuff out. They can beat us to death. Economically, though, there's nothing we can do about it. We've got a more absorbent fabric, but it's a lot more expensive. Now, with services going up so, it's cheaper to have a disposable item than it is to have a diaper, we'll say, that you send off somewhere to have washed. It's not sensible economically to say that disposable items are cheaper than items that you can use and re-use, but it's true in this society of ours in this country. It costs so damn much to have things fixed. You take a suit of clothes at the cleaner, what it costs you.
Yes, I know. I just picked up some dry cleaning this morning.
I had an interesting example, talking about textiles. I was on the board for years out here at our airport. When we built a new terminal building in 1957—of course, they got a new one as of 1983—we put in these hand dryers in the rest rooms. Nobody can argue that the hand dryer doesn't do a very good job of drying your hands. Prior to then, years ago, we had the cloth that you pulled down. Then it came to paper towels. Stark Dillard, who's dead now, Dillard Paper Company, used to sell us a bunch of paper towels for the old airport terminal building. When they went to these blowers, he went out there to see this new building, beautiful, and went in there. He just raised hell. He said, "Hot air." And I said, "Stark, I agree with you. Evaporation is the lousiest way in the world to dry your hands. But on the other hand, just think. When you got the paper towel business away from the textile business, a paper towel's not as nice to dry your hands on as that cloth that we had out there, but it was more economic. I agree with you, but we've got a captive audience that goes into that rest room, and it's a lot cheaper for us to have this dryer, because those paper towels used to clog up the toilets and mess up, and we'd have to dispose of them." [Laughter] But that's progress, I guess.
Maybe so.
But there was a vast amount of textiles, worldwide, that went down the drain when the paper industry developed. Kotex. When I first came along, the whole women's sanitary business was textiles. That was taken over by the paper business, a hundred percent.