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Review of English, _A Common Thread_ [includes Alabama]

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: History of Southern Industrialization [mailto:H-SOUTHERN-INDUSTRY@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of Steven A. Reich Sent: Saturday, April 07, 2007 7:56 AM
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: History of Southern Industrialization
      [mailto:H-SOUTHERN-INDUSTRY@...] On Behalf Of Steven A. Reich
      Sent: Saturday, April 07, 2007 7:56 AM
      Subject: H-Southern-Industry: Shell-Weiss Reviews English, _A Common


      Published by H-Southern-Industry@... (March 2007)

      Beth English. _A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in
      the Textile Industry_. Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century
      South Series. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2006. x +
      236 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-Southern-Industry by Melanie Shell-Weiss, Department of
      History, The Johns Hopkins University

      Moving Capital and Labor in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century America:
      New Approaches to Southern Labor and Industrial History

      As her title so aptly suggests, Beth English's _A Common Thread: Labor,
      Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry_ weaves together
      the histories of labor, politics, and industrial development in a way
      that is both compelling and insightful. Beginning with an overview of
      why the New England textile industry became a mainstay of the
      northeastern economy, she moves swiftly to hone her sights on the town
      of Chicopee, Massachusetts. Home to the Dwight Manufacturing Company, a
      major textile producer, Chicopee industrialized early. Dwight family
      monies, with support from wealthy Boston friends and acquaintances,
      built up railroads and opened canal lines. They also erected a host of
      kindred plants and facilities across the city. By the 1850s, Chicopee
      had become one of Massachusetts's leading industrial centers.

      But none of these economic developments occurred in isolation from the
      larger social and political context. State policies across New England
      focused on limiting child labor, which many factory owners perceived as
      "hostile" to industrial development. Reduction in available raw
      materials during the Civil War took its toll on northern manufacturers,
      too. As the South worked to rebuild in the 1870s, new community, state,
      and regional incentives, coupled with a targeted marketing campaign,
      soon drew capital southward. For the Dwight family, this meant Alabama
      City, Alabama. "Northern people will meet with no jealousies or
      indignities," one Alabama-based publication promised. "The animosities
      of the war are all buried and forgotten ... man is esteemed according to
      his moral, intellectual and industrial worth--not for his political
      sentiments" (p. 42). Coupled with an attractive set of facts and figures
      about the state, these advertisements proved one powerful enticement.

      Decisions by state legislatures, however, secured the match. "Why, then,
      did the Dwight Company build its branch factory in Alabama, the only
      southern state with recently passed hours and age restriction
      legislation, rather than in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia?"
      English asks. "What swayed the Dwight Company's decision ...were actions
      taken by the Alabama legislature in 1894" (pp. 48-49). That year Alabama
      became the first state to repeal its child labor laws. And it did so at
      the urging of officials from the Dwight mills. In 1895, Dwight Mills
      began construction of their first mills in Alabama City. By 1927, the
      company had closed its Massachusetts operations altogether.

      On its surface this chain of events will surprise neither historians of
      labor nor those of twentieth-century industrial development. But as with
      so many things, the devil is in the details. It is here that English's
      analysis and research really shines. The book is beautifully written.
      The prose is concise with not a single word wasted, moving the narrative
      along at a good clip. It is also this narrative that makes the book both
      compelling and pathbreaking.

      Historians have long pointed to the relocation of capital southward,
      with the textile industry as one of the most studied examples. But
      English focuses on the "why" and sets the industry itself as her frame.
      This allows her to equally straddle North and South, and the push-pull
      factors that shape the movement of capital between the two. At the same
      time the Dwight family was building their first plant in Chicopee,
      southerners like South Carolina's William Gregg were calling for major
      transformations to the South's economic base. By prioritizing events on
      both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, English thus avoids the pitfalls of
      other works that pair enterprising and money-hungry northern
      industrialists with a demolished South that is only too happy to comply.
      This is a history that respects both sets of regional actors and

      English also pays careful attention to context. It is not just the
      actions of company owners and state legislators that she examines, but
      the efforts of labor organizers and choices made by everyday men and
      women within these communities. Child labor laws emerge as a central
      part of this history. This in itself sets English's book apart from the
      many others in this field. She demonstrates well how the choice of union
      organizers to focus their efforts in the northeast, even as the textile
      industry was moving south, only accelerated this movement and allowed
      long-standing patterns of low wages, long hours, and mass employment of
      children to proliferate well into the twentieth century. Her research
      throughout is impeccable, drawn from sources that span several state
      archives and historical societies, local public libraries, the American
      Textile History Museum, Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State
      University, Southern Historical Collection at the University of North
      Carolina, as well as National Archives branches in both Washington, D.C.
      and Atlanta. Like her historical subjects, English's research spans
      North and South, as well as national, state, and local settings.

      Shifting consumption patterns also get their due. As hemlines rise, the
      demand for fabric goes down. Changing tastes also dictate what is
      produced, be it heavy wool, cotton, muslin, silks, or high-tech
      materials like polyester. While some New England plants began looking
      toward diversification in the 1890s, technology--and the expense of
      updating machinery--remained a decisive factor for manufacturers as
      well. As English so aptly puts it, "The ability of Massachusetts textile
      mills to remain viable despite state-mandated age and hours standards
      shifted from being an intraregional to an interregional concern" (p.

      Race, gender, and nativity, meanwhile, provide a critical backdrop to
      this history. Arguments about who is best suited to do this type of work
      surround the movement of capital southward. Among the many advantages
      claimed by southern boosters was the prevalence of large volumes of
      native-born, white workers. African American workers were excluded from
      consideration early on because they were considered "unfit" for this
      type of work. For capitalists, the reliance on family wages among poor
      southerners was equally attractive. As English clearly shows, debates
      over child labor were complex and nuanced. On the one hand, the labor of
      children was essential to family economic stability. On the other, few
      middle-class reformers or even state legislators saw it as either
      desirable or the sort of thing they wanted to advertise as being among
      the state of Alabama's industrial advantages. Dwight Mills thus became a
      particular target of reformers. Because it was headquartered in
      Massachusetts, reformers could point their fingers north rather than
      risk undermining an already fragile situation at home. From her
      narrative emerges a complex picture of how work is defined along lines
      of ethnicity and gender, and how interregional tensions shaped the
      ensuing political and social debates.

      If I have a single complaint with this work it is that I enjoyed it so
      much and found it so compelling that I wish that it were longer. As
      English notes in her introduction, the late nineteenth- and early
      twentieth-century migration of the textile industry to the Piedmont and
      states like Alabama was but the first step in a process that soon
      extended even farther south, to the Caribbean and Latin America, and
      ultimately around the globe. Her nuanced and clearly written analysis
      illuminates the factors that shaped this migration, as well as its
      effect on local communities. She opens her book with a quote from Kofi
      Annan. Her "conclusion" is less a final word than a way forward. "As the
      scope of corporate operations has shifted over time from local to
      regional, from regional to national, and from national to international,
      so have the difficulties that workers face in effecting change," English
      writes. "[A] better awareness of the capital mobility processes that
      have occurred in the past offers invaluable clues to the pitfalls to
      avoid and to the strategies that may promise success in the future" (pp.

      English should also be credited for avoiding academic jargon and the
      trappings of words like "transnational" and "globalization," which have
      become popular but overused. Her attention to description and
      terminology is acute and in every way strengthens this very solid work.
      By avoiding these more trendy terms, English makes a powerful case: the
      movement of capital is not just a post-1960 phenomenon, but it owes its
      roots to these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century developments.

      For all of these reasons, _A Common Thread_ is a must-read for
      historians and scholars of contemporary labor and industrial
      development. Exceptionally well written, this book's fast-paced
      narrative and compelling style will appeal equally to undergraduate and
      graduate students. There is not a doubt in my mind that this work
      deserves a place on the shelves of historians of labor and working-class
      history, the U.S. South, women's and gender history, business and
      economic development alike.

      Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
      the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
      educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
      author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
      H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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