The Life of M.C. Campbell ------- From Family to Southern Textile mills during the Great Depression ------- Charlotte Smith

In 1939, M.C Campbell was a 58-year-old woman who struggled to support her family amidst the Great Depression. Orphaned in her teens, widowed young in her marriage and needing to support her growing family, she found refuge in her work at local factory mills where her life took her from Virginia, to South Carolina and eventually North Carolina. As part of the Federal Writers’ Project, Campbell’s struggles were recorded as a life history. The interview is significant as it transcends her individual experience and allows the reader to gain greater insight into working conditions, gender issues and unemployment in American society in the 1930s.


Bringing M. C. Campbell’s story to life

Early Life

M.C. Campbell, a white woman, was born circa 1880 (1879-1881) in Rock Hill, South Carolina. M.C. grew up poor on a farm with her father, mother and ten siblings. Her father died when she was eight. Her mother also died seven years later. To help provide for her orphaned brothers and sisters, M.C. married a local barber named Millard Campbell. The couple had 10 children together, only of which 4 daughters survived. Death was unfortunately all too common in Mrs. Campbell’s early life as she was widowed when her youngest baby was only 13 months old.

Facing Financial Burden

Struggling to provide for her children, M.C. moved to Danville, Virginia to live with her older sister. There, she got a job working in a spinning room at Dan River Cotton Mill. She did not stay here for long, and shortly moved back to Rock Hill, South Carolina. She continued in the spinning business, employed at Highland Park, Mill #1. Her youngest daughter, named Carrie, was soon married and had a child. However, the couple divorced and M.C took in Carrie and her son. The life of her other 3 daughters is not known.

Women working in Textile Mills in the early 1900s.

'Glad to work'

In 1939, M.C. had worked over 20 consecutive years as a textile worker at Highland Park #5 mill. M.C. explained that she had one of her kidneys “tucked out”, suggesting the progression of kidney disease (Campbell, 2). When she was 58 years old, people believed that M.C. was too old to work. However, M.C. stated that she would keep working until it was her time to die.


Campbell's Hardships

Working conditions in Textile Mills

The southern states had the largest concentration of cotton mills in the United States. Wages for textile mills employees were reported lower than most other industries. This was a major concern for Campbell in her Life History, providing exact details:“1600 spindles and get $12.80 if I make full payroll” (Campbell, 7). Furthermore, “the ultimate importance of wage rates resides in the command of good and services which they could afford” (Douty, 3). The textile workers’ low wages significantly impacted their way of life. Many workers, such as Campbell, were forced to work multiple jobs just to provide for their families because the wages failed to cover simple living necessities.

Women Striking in 1913 for better working conditions in the textile industry.

Textile companies justified paying lower wages as they claimed to provide living amenities to their employees such as child care. However, according to Campbell, this was not case. Additionally, companies declared to practice “open-door policies” where employees could talk easily to the management. However, the industry did not adhere to such policies. Southern textile companies had grown to suppress the Unions and ignore employee rights such as working hours (de Vyver, 1). In M. C. Campbell’s life history, she mentions the 1913 strike. She recalled that “When they started the stretchout down there a lot of 'em joined the union and struck, but I don't believe in onions in the South because the people won't stick together” (Campbell, 7).

Women and Unemployment

Unemployment was rampage during the Great Depression, as seen by Carrie’s ability to find work: “She has tried every place to get work bat can't find none. She sold furniture polish as long as the man was in town bat that didn't last long” (Campbell, 5). Money was scare and North Carolina residents relied heavily upon the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) that was implemented to provide cash relief for states and local governments. Between the years 1933 and 1935, the FERA “provided relief payments to about 300,000 North Carolinians per month” (Abrams, para 11).

The effects of unemployment in the city.

Moreover, reading the life story demonstrated the repercussions that unemployment can have on a family. Not only impacting Carrie individually, it took its toll on M. C’s personal life as she had to provide for her youngest daughter and grandson. As seen through Campbell story, women had to balance their emerging economically role as well as 'take care' of the family, as a result of absence of men, both from death and divorce. As a result, women entered the workforce at an astonishing rate due to employers “willing to hire women at reduced wages”. (Ware, 44).


History in our Hands

The Federal Writers' Project

The Life History project, as part of the Federal Writer’s Project, was an attempt to record the daily lives of “regular” Americans. Under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the program was developed as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to support American writers. Individuals interviewed were of various profession, from farmers to waitresses as the project attempted to uphold an objective view that would be “faithful representations of living persons” (Couch, ix).

An example of the interviews style used by the Federal Writers' Project.

Problems with the Life Histories

The writers were instructed to remain objective, yet comment on intimate issues such as the person’s attitude, cleanliness and use of time (Couch, 420-421). However, it is important to remember that the interviewer and the interviewee were possibly not from the same social class. The majority of interviewers in the Federal Writers Project were of a white middle class background, whereas the interviewees varied greatly in race, profession and class. According to Williams, in the case of difference in social class, the “respondent feels pressure to answer in the direction he believes will conform to the opinions or expectations of the interviewer” creating a bias or misleading data (Williams, 1).


Works Cited

Brown and Northrop (interviewers): Glad to Work, Folder 308 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Douty, H. M. “Wage Rates and Hours of Labor in North Carolina Industry”. Southern Economic Journal (pre-1986) 3.2 (1936): 175. ProQuest. 27 Jan. 2017.

De Vyver, Frank Traver. “Southern Textile Mills Revisited” Southern Economic Journal (pre-1986) 4.4 (1938): 466. ProQuest. 28 Jan. 2017

Ware, Susan. Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Print.

Abrams, Douglas Carl, and Randall E. Parker. "The Great Depression in North Carolina." NCpedia. University of North Carolina Press, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 30 Jan. 2017

Williams, J. Allen. “Interviewer Role Performance: A Further Note on Bias in the Information Interview.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 1968, pp. 287–294.


Images Cited

Image #1. Lee, Russell. General View of Machines Where Cotton Thread Is Wound onto Spools from Spindles. 1939. Laurel Mills, Laurel, Mississippi. Photogrammar.

Image #2. Folder 306: "Glad to work". Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill. personal phot0 by author. 2017.

Image #3. Wickes Hine, Lewis. "Interior of Magnolia Cotton Mills spinning room". Magnolia, Mississippi. March 1911

Image #4. "Men and women weaving at the White Oak Mill" Greensboro, NC, 1909. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Image #5-7. Garment Strikers in New York, c. 1913. The New York Times. Artstor.

Image #8. Great Depression, 1930. ‘Young women sells apples’. Chicago Herald. Artstor.

Image #9. 'Soup, coffee and doughnuts for the Unemployed operated by Al Capone'. 1931. Chicago Herald. Artstor.

Image #10. Writers protesting cuts to the Federal Writers' Project. 1939. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Artstor.

Image #11. Palmer, Alfred T. Mr. Harrington Interviews Miss Souter. 1940. Los Angeles, California. Photogrammar.

Created By
Charlotte Smith

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