Around the Press in 80 Books: Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Executive Editor Rand Dotson writes about Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920.

UntitledWhen LSU Press published David Carlton’s Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920, the fields of urban history, labor history, and progressive reform in the South were all long overdue for scholarly examination. In the years since, each of these topics have received considerable attention from historians, nearly all of whom cite Carlton’s 1982 work. Mill and Town is now a classic title on our backlist, and one that continues to influence scholars three decades after its publication.

Carlton’s study examines the rise of textile mills in South Carolina in the years between Reconstruction and World War I, focusing primarily on the emergence of social and political divisions between mill workers and middle-class residents. Mill employees, most of whom were previously rural farmers, arrived in town with cultural beliefs and lifestyles that newly rising middle-classes found abhorrent as well as threatening to their conception of proper social order. Many workers, for example, resented attempts to impose sanitation regulations on their homes and neighborhoods. They were also suspicious of authorities’ attempts to quash incidents of personal violence or racial turmoil. As a result, urban reformers moved to “uplift” mill workers and their families with an array of tactics, including child labor and medical inspection ordinances as well as compulsory public education and vaccination rules. Reformers also did what they could to eliminate behaviors associated with the rural countryside, such as settling disputes with violence or provoking racial discord.

Mill workers attempted to resist reforms in every way possible and for a time found a powerful spokesperson and ally in Cole Blease, the reactionary governor of the state, who sided with poor whites in their battles against progressive reform. Blease, an avowed racist, also endorsed lynching as the best means to deal with perceived black lawlessness. To mill workers and their families, Blease represented their last best hope to keep alive to a dying social order in which white men, no matter their class, were independent and equal. Middle-class reformers were both bewildered by Blease’s rise and terrified of the prospect of social chaos that he and his followers might unleash. In the end, they defeated Blease and proved unstoppable in their quest to modernize their towns in ways that both produced social order and solidified their place in it.

The cultural and social battles analyzed in Mill and Town in South Carolina shed light on history that up until its publication had gone largely overlooked. Today, dozens of similar studies are available that examine how this narrative played out in other southern states, which is perhaps the greatest indication of the importance of Carlton’s book.

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