Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
Hidden away for decades within the Department of Textiles, Division of Home & Community Life, National Museum of American History, was an extraordinary group of nearly 1000 textile samples collected by US consuls around the world between about 1898 and about 1920. The Commerce Department transferred them to the U.S. National Museum (now NMAH), in the 1920s. The samples range in size from just a few inches square to a few feet. The information that came into the collection with each sample, from lists or scraps of paper attached by the consuls, was typed onto onionskin typing paper or cardstock and attached to the samples. These amazing bits of information open many research avenues into the theme of the 2016 Textile Society of America symposium: Land, Labor, and the Port. By examining the questions that arise from just a few examples from the Consular Collections, this paper explores the tangled threads of the global textile trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and suggests some of the many research possibilities these textiles offer to scholars. I discovered the collection within a few days of beginning work as a curator at NMAH. One portion of the consular samples is housed in a filing cabinet filled with manila envelopes containing textiles of varying sizes and 8” x 10” cards with textile samples and ancient photostats stapled to them. Tantalizing labels on the file separators: Made or found in Egypt; Made or Found in Germany; Made or found in China; Made or found in Africa.1 An envelope pulled at random from the Africa section, revealed a bolt end or wrapper of unbleached plain weave cotton, with the notation on the envelope, “From a market in Abyssinia, 1904.” The muslin was stamped in blue ink with the image of a camel. Another piece of information in blue ink – a company name: Pelzer Mfg. Co, Pelzer, S.C. And finally, a paper label also bearing the Pelzer name. [Figure 1] Now what, I wondered, was a South Carolina cotton mill doing with a camel trademark and a market in East Africa at the turn of the 20th century? My own research into Southern American cotton mills had been confined more or less to events and businesses before the Centennial and the end of Reconstruction in 1876. A quick online search turned up some basic information on the firm, and images from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. Pelzer had been established in the early 1880s, by a small group of South Carolinians. The mill was a manifestation of the post-Reconstruction South’s efforts to move the production of cotton cloth closer to the source of the raw material, and derive profit from the cotton industry, not just cotton agriculture. It was considered a show mill by many for its up to date equipment and technology. Its mill workers inhabited an extraordinarily paternalistic mill town.2 The photos were by Lewis Hine, dating to 1912, documenting child labor in the Pelzer Mill. South Carolina’s first child labor law went into effect in 1903, theoretically preventing children under the age of 12, unless they were orphans or supporting a single parent, from working in the mills, but in practice this restriction was often circumvented, in a number of ingenious ways.3 More detailed information, however, would require deeper digging.