English (PhD '03): A New Approach to Southern Labor and Industrial History| April 9, 2007
"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." So begins Melanie Shell-Weiss's review of English's University of Georgia Press Book, which she reviewed for H-Southern-Industry@h-net.msu.edu (March 2007). English's book is based on her 2003 William & Mary dissertation. Shell-Weiss continues: "Beginning with an overview of why the New England textile industry became a mainstay of the northeastern economy, [English] 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.... 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). 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," Shell-Weiss writes. "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...This. is a history that respects both sets of regional actors and actresses."
English "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."
Race, gender, and nativity, and changing patterns of consumption "provide a critical backdrop to this history."
Shell-Weiss's only complaint, in fact, is that she wished the book 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." Shell-Weiss calls A Common Thread 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."
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 978-0-8203-2628-3.