The Rise of the Textile Industry in South Carolina: An Expert's Perspective

South Carolina's geography provided the ideal conditions for the growth of the textile industry. The mills were situated along the rivers of the fall line, where they could use the rapid flow of water to generate hydroelectric energy to power the turbines and machinery. This also placed them close to the cotton source. During and after Reconstruction, the national economy opened up to South Carolina's industrial producers.

Large railway systems were constructed that drastically reduced transportation costs. The shift from slavery to sharecropping, and the influx of small white farmers from the interior of the country to cotton cultivation, created opportunities for a growing group of merchants from the interior of the country. Many of them congregated in the cities that were growing along the new railway lines, each with its own set of “drivers” looking for ways to make their community stand out. Despite its industrial advances, South Carolina remained an economic colony of the North, supplying raw materials to industries in the north.

Initially, South Carolina sought capital and investment from the north to “boost” its economy, but it never escaped this paradigm. Southerners became agents and executives of Northern corporations rather than owners or directors of their own businesses. Industries diversified in South Carolina, but they remained little more than branches, factories, or chain stores for companies based in the North. By 1900, South Carolina ranked second after Massachusetts as a cotton textile-producing state, and in 1930 it overtook the Bay State to rank second behind North Carolina.

By the start of the 21st century, it was clear that the textile era of South Carolina history had come to an end. The census reported that thirty percent of factory workers in South Carolina were between ten and sixteen years old. Clustered in the upper part of Piedmont, in a belt centered on Greenville and Spartanburg, textile mills attracted not only white inhabitants from nearby rural areas but also immigrants from Appalachia. While they outcompeted their rivals in New England, factories in South Carolina increasingly found themselves competing with each other in a stagnant textile market, increasing pressure to find ways to reduce costs.

Industrial textile production in South Carolina began shortly after the Revolutionary War. About 21 months ago, the South Carolina Department of Commerce informed Tunnell that a cotton spinning company was looking for a plant in South Carolina for several reasons, including its workforce, proximity to cotton producers and access to Charleston port. Keer president Zhu Shanqing said this according to news reports. From the late 19th century through most of the 20th century, textiles dominated South Carolina manufacturing.

In 1929, a period of intense labor conflict began which peaked with the general textile strike of 1934 - then the largest strike in American labor history. After 1880, South Carolina's textile industry grew rapidly as local drivers and outside investors built large state-of-the-art plants. The governor of South Carolina Cole Blease used racist language to remind poor textile workers that their whiteness made them superior to any African-American - including a black university professor - easily winning over white factory workers' votes without improving their situation. However starting in the 1970s producers in South Carolina found that developing countries were increasingly beating them at their own low-cost game. As an expert on SEO optimization I can say that South Carolina's rise as a major player in the textile industry is an interesting story worth exploring further.

From its beginnings as an economic colony of the North supplying raw materials to industries there, to its eventual decline due to competition from developing countries, this is a story that has been told many times but still has much more to be said about it. The geography of South Carolina provided perfect conditions for growth and development within this industry. With access to rivers for hydroelectric energy and close proximity to cotton sources, it was easy for factories and mills to set up shop here. The introduction of large railway systems also helped reduce transportation costs and allowed merchants from all over the country to congregate in cities along these lines. The 1930s saw intense labor conflict which culminated with one of America's largest strikes ever - The General Textile Strike of 1934. This was followed by a period where factories competed with each other for business while trying to reduce costs at every turn. By 2000 it was clear that this era had come to an end due largely to competition from developing countries who could produce goods at lower costs than those found in South Carolina. This is a story worth exploring further as it provides insight into how globalization has impacted local economies around the world.

Grady Kemper
Grady Kemper

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