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Daniel Augustus Tompkins, 1851-1914
Cotton Mill, Commercial Features. A Text-Book for the Use of Textile Schools and Investors. With Tables Showing Cost of Machinery and Equipments for Mills Making Cotton Yarns and Plain Cotton Cloths
Charlotte, N.C.: Published by the Author, 1899.


Daniel Augustus Tompkins (12 October 1851-18 October 1914), engineer, industrialist, and publisher, was one of the most influential crusaders in the "Cotton Mill Campaign" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The campaign embodied "New South" principles, which held that industrialization was the economic and social salvation of the postbellum South. Tompkins, born on a farm in South Carolina, escaped the turmoil of the postwar South by moving north in 1869 to study civil engineering. In 1883 Tompkins moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Southern representative for the Westinghouse Machine Company, a principle supplier and installer of steam engines to the areas growing textile industry.

Upon his arrival, Tompkins found Charlotte "extremely dull . . .[but] disposed to improve," (Glass, 32) and the ambitious young man quickly determined to contribute to this improvement. Tompkins established his own engineering and design firm and became an investor in, and eventually an owner of, dozens of mills. Tompkins's greatest contribution to the "Cotton Mill Campaign," however, was as a publisher, educator, and author. In 1892, he purchased the Charlotte Observer and transformed it into a voice for conservative Democracy. For the rest of the decade, Tompkins, along with Raleigh News and Observer publisher Josephus Daniels, rallied against what they saw as the evils of populism and "Negro rule." In the late 1890s, Tompkins also led the movement to establish the School of Textiles at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College.

Tompkins, with the help of ghostwriters, also published trade journal articles and longer textbooks on mill design, machinery, textile marketing, and mill-village housing; these works became almost sacred texts to mill owners and managers for the next thirty years. The most popular of these was Cotton Mill Commercial Features (1899), which was likely produced by E.W. Thompson, a ghostwriter and one of Tompkins's engineers.

While the title of this item suggests a technical manual on cotton mills, the work actually provides a wealth of information on a wide range of agricultural and economic topics. The table of contents and index are detailed, and there are many statistical tables, photographs, and diagrams. Modern readers will find the work to be not only a detailed historical reference, but also a prime example of Cotton Mill Campaign propaganda. The text as well as the numerous tables, illustrations, and photographs schooled textile students, mill owners, and mill managers on the history of cotton production in the South from early cotton gins ( p. 4) through the most cutting-edge techniques. The book presents the latest textile machinery and mill building designs and promotes the most efficient business and accounting practices as well as the best ways to manage employees. Tompkins expounds on everything from fire prevention measures and the preferred thickness of mill floors (p. 164) to company by-law guidelines and the character and race of mill hands (p. 108). He also speaks in detail about road building and transportations issues.

Among Tompkins's most notable illustrations are his detailed plans for inexpensive and attractive company-built housing for mill workers. Tompkins's standardized houses could be built for between $250 (p. 114) and $600 (p. 124) each, depending on size, and still offer workers comfort and a country-living feel. A typical mill house could be rented for about $5.00 per month, whereas similar non-company quarters could cost four times as much.

Near the end of the book, Tompkins provides statistical data on American mill production and resources as well biographical information about prominent Southern textile manufacturers, including Francis Fries, E.M. Holt, John W. Leak, John M. Morehead, H.P. Hammett, and William Gregg, whose work Essays on Domestic Industry, or An Inquiry into the Expediency of Establishing Cotton Manufactures in South Carolina is reprinted in the appendix.

For proof of the influence of Tompkins's vision, one need only look at most any town or city in the North Carolina Piedmont. In fact, the plethora of mill villages outside of cities can be linked to Tompkins's advice that it was best to put a factory one to four miles away from a city and let the company build and own the houses the workers live in. In old business districts, Tompkins-approved mill buildings (p. 34) can still be seen standing next to railroad tracks, with their proud brick frames, tall windows, imposing smokestacks, and ornate cornice flourishes.

Works Consulted: Glass, Brent D.The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History, Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1992; Winston, George Taylor, A Builder of the New South; Being the Story of the Life Work of Daniel Augustus Tompkins, Garden City: Doubleday, 1920.

Michael Sistrom

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