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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Murphy Yomen Sigmon, July 27, 1979. Interview H-0142. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Cotton mill work branded workers with low social status

Sigmon compares three of North Carolina's most important industries: furniture-making, cotton milling, and hosiery making. Cotton mill work was the least desirable, especially before minimum-wage laws equalized compensation somewhat. Cotton mill workers were visibly poor, Sigmon remembers, easily identifiable because of their poor-quality clothing. Locals called them "cotton mill trash."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Murphy Yomen Sigmon, July 27, 1979. Interview H-0142. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

PATTY DILLEY:
How did the pay compare between working furniture at Hutton Bourbonais and working in a cotton mill?
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
In some categories it paid about equal. The upholsterers and stuff like that, they make good money. But that's where you're skilled. But textiles, it come up after the eight-hour law come in, tremendously. It growed more than other things did; it caught up, eventually.
PATTY DILLEY:
It caught up to the furniture.
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
Yes. They make about as good now as they do in furniture factories, cotton mills.
PATTY DILLEY:
Was furniture considered a better job than working in a cotton mill?
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
Oh, yes, back then it was. And hosiery mills paid lots better, too, than the cotton mill did until the eight-hour law come in and they set the minimum wage. And then it started climbing. But the hosiery mills and the furniture factories, woodworking plants, was paying more than the minimum wage was when the eight-hour law come in. Yes, you could go to town and tell they were cotton mill workers that worked in the cotton mill.
PATTY DILLEY:
Why?
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
Well, they didn't have enough money to buy decent clothes, and they'd just wear their old work clothes to town and didn't have too many to change. They might have one change to go to church on Sunday or something like that, a good pair of pants or a suit. Maybe it was handed down from somebody else. They kept that to go to church with, and if they'd go to town, they'd just go in their work clothes, cotton on them and everything.
PATTY DILLEY:
From working in the …
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
Yes, working in the mill. But after the eight-hour law come in and they got to making more money, they got coming out. By 1940, if you'd go to town, you couldn't tell who was working at the cotton mill and who wasn't, then. They caught up and was making more money, and it was a better living, and they could buy better clothes. But cotton mill people had it rough back in the early twenties and teens.
PATTY DILLEY:
Did people in town consider them a lower class of people?
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
Yes, they did. People that had better jobs wouldn't associate hardly with cotton mill people. They called them cotton mill trash. [laughter]
PATTY DILLEY:
Did you call them that?
MURPHY YOMEN SIGMON:
No, I worked in the cotton mill. My people worked in the cotton mill. But they come out. There was more change in the cotton mill than there was in any other industry, as far as coming out. Now people in cotton mills go dressed to work a heck of a sight better than they did on Sunday way back there. They had it rough.