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The Effects of Industrialization on Southern Society
By: Emily Boatright, Price Middle School, Atlanta, Georgia


Asaph Perry came from a long line of farmers. However, when he "came of age," Asaph went in a different direction, moving to "the city" to become a salesman, barber, and grocer. Southern society was changing, and Asaph's story, in some ways, reflects this change. His movement from the farm to the city raises some interesting questions about Asaph and the larger changes underway in the South. Why did Asaph move away from the farming tradition of his family? What conditions existed that allowed Asaph to make this transition? How did industrialization change southern society?

 

Industrialization in the South created a new social structure that would have major implications on the notion of white unity during the post-Reconstruction period. The Civil War destroyed the old systems of the South. The financial structure virtually collapsed, along with the social hierarchy. The old social structure placed the planter class at the top, with other whites, including yeomen farmers and merchants, in the middle, and slaves at the bottom. The economic systems of the South no longer relied solely on the plantation system, as railroads and industry made their way into this region. This economic change forced a shift in the social structure, splitting up the once united white southerners and adding class to the characteristics that both defined and divided society.

 

At the heart of the new Southern industry was the reliance on one crop, King Cotton, and the collapse of the plantation system. Cotton prices skyrocketed following the Civil War, and most those involved in agriculture abandoned self-sufficiency farming for cotton. The end of slavery forced a reorganization of the agriculture system, namely abandoning the large-scale plantation system for sharecropping and tenant farmers. Often, lacking the necessary funds to purchase goods, farmers began relying on credit to get their season started. The inability to pay back this debt forced some of the small farmers out of agriculture and into new careers.

 

Meanwhile, the end of war brought increased demands for store-bought goods, primarily because of the shift to the one crop system. Farmers now needed to get their food, clothing, and other goods from somewhere. Towns and commerce sprang up quickly throughout the South, though the town population would not exceed 25 percent of the total population until after World War II. The growth of towns took place primarily in the Piedmont region, as this region was recently opened up by new railroad tracks. Merchants were not new to the South, but their place in its society was. The growth of towns and the reliance on imported goods elevated the position of merchants in Southern society.

 

In addition to the growth of the retail for household staples, the textile industry began to boom in many of these new Southern towns, primarily developing along the interior railroad system. Money and expertise in textiles were desperately needed and often lacking. Wise investments, particularly in cotton, meant that some southerners did have wealth at the end of the war. Along with Northern investment, some of wealth generate from cotton was invested in new Southern cotton mills. Cotton mills rapidly began to generate significant wealth in the South. The newly prestigious mill owning merchant group wanted to insure their position and power in the towns as cotton mills began to dot the landscape.

 

These new mills also needed workers. While some mill owners experimented with using immigrant and black freedmen as mill workers, poor whites ultimately came to be the primary source of labor for southern mills. Whites were not seen as a threat to the existing social order, and employing them quieted concerns about the possible social effects of industrialization. These white workers were mostly former yeomen farmers, those classified as "poor white trash," and mountaineers, though all would eventually carry the title of "mill people." New white mill workers entered the mills for their own reasons, but generally it was to escape rural poverty.

 

Industrialization in the South encouraged the development of new white social classes. A new middle class of "town people," composed mostly of newly wealthy merchants and mill owners, were mostly concerned with developing towns and industry. The working class was made up of "mill people," property-less whites with had no ties to the community. These two groups would each develop strong group consciousness, born partially from the fact that they lived in separate, homogeneous communities. The assumption of "white unity" that had existed through the Civil War and Reconstruction could no longer be taken for granted. The isolation of each group along with the dissolution of white unity created tension between these groups, eventually pitting them against one another.

 

The primary concern of the town people was civic development. The town people became increasingly distrustful of the nomadic mill people, who had little ties to the community. They looked down on the mill people because they lacked formal education, often referring to them as ignorant. Mill people, particularly those from the mountains, were often seen by town people as lawless and the source of crime that had begun to enter the towns.

 

Mill people typically retained the individual spirit they had prior to entering the mills and were not culturally suited for the system's strict regulation. They especially did not like the authority of the mill system, which told them what to do and when to do it for during both their work and leisure time. Labor organization among mill workers was difficult because the mill people held to the spirit of individualism and were mostly unwilling to give it up for the collective good. The mill people still believed in white superiority, including their own, but their position in society left them little better off than those they discriminated against.

 

Some in the middle class looked at the conditions of the mills, including the heat, child labor, and dusty air, and worried about their social and moral affects on the town. The middle class worried that the intermingling of the sexes in the mills would lead to moral decay. The millwork was mechanical, leaving no room for reasoned thought. This lack of reasoned thought highlighted the bigger social problem, specifically the fact that future voters were totally uneducated.

 

The solution of the town people was to seek greater control over the working class through Progressive-type reforms. These reform efforts were not out of concern for the working class, but rather their concern for their society. Through these measures, the middle class attempted to gain control over the mill people, specifically through child labor laws and compulsory school attendance. Education was a tool used to bring future mill generations into the town society. Child labor laws were needed to get the children out of the mills and into the classroom.

 

School served a dual purpose. First schools occupied the free time of mill children and keep them from causing trouble in the town. Schools could also break family ties, narrowing the gap between town and mill society by integrating mill people into town society. The educators were middle class who essentially told mill children that their way of life was wrong. Work was seen as a fun alternative to school, thus necessitating the child labor laws.

 

This divide between the working class and middle class still exists today. While teachers still come primarily from the middle class, the number of working class students in public schools is increasing. Today public education guides future generation toward economic success, provides them with a breadth and depth of content knowledge, and serves to transmit the values of the dominant society. But should education be used to socialize children, or should the sole role of teachers be to teach content knowledge and facilitate learning and thinking?


Resources

Carlton, David L. 1982. Mill and Town in South Carolina: 1880-1920. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

 

Doyle, Don H. 1990. New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

 

Weeres, Joseph G. and John Riveria. 1995. “Diversity and the Institutional Transformation of Public Education.” Stanley William Rothstein (ed.), Class, Culture, and Race in American Schools: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.