The Effects of Industrialization on
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
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
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
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?
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
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.