From the Hills to the Mills: The Making of the White Working Class in Southern Appalachia, 1830s-1910s

This is an analysis of the transformation of English and Scots-Irish settlers and mountaineers into cotton mill workers in Appalachian Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee from the 1830s to early 1910s. The aims are empirical and theoretical: identifying how folk handled this radical change and providing an analytical framework for understanding this transformation. In this endeavor explanations are provided regarding why folk pursued work in the mills and the impact of this movement on their worldview, folkways, and identity. As folk moved from hills to mills did their rural worldview largely stay intact or did they become an agrarian proletariat? This study maintains even though ridiculed as “lint heads” by townspeople, ancestry, kinship, and regional identities were often more influential than occupation.

Studying the movement from field to factory among white Southern workers complicates models of class development that assume the proliferation of factory production was accomplished with the crushing of the guilds. In short, theories assuming proletarians replaced craftsmen. In southern Appalachia, yeoman farmers, mountaineers, and tenant farmers became factory operatives.

In addition to this distinction are important regional and chronological differences from previous examinations of Southern cotton mill workers. Many works have emphasized the Piedmont, cotton-belt, and urban areas such as Atlanta and Birmingham and started their analyses after the Civil War. Beginning with the earliest mill developments in southern Appalachia, in contrast to starting later in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, provides an opportunity to see points of socio-cultural continuity between folk across generations. This can assist in our understanding of the choices made by white southern mill workers regarding industrial action, politics and, more essentially, what folk expected in regards to life for themselves and their families.