The Life of Ed Rutledge by Minna Banawan

Ed Rutledge was a young man, hit by the Great Depression in his youth. His hardships eventually led him to learn knitting, as the country climbed out of the Depression, and he joined a fast-growing textile industry. His story is one of hundreds recorded by the writers employed with the Federal Writer's Project (FWP), as part of a program in the New Deal known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (Wikipedia).

"The mail must go through. Lineup of Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers during the flood at Cairo, Illinois." A WPA building in Illinois.

The FWP employed thousands of people during the Depression. Every state had an FWP chapter that employed people of various levels of talent in need of work (Hirsch 2). The purpose of the writers in the FWP was to record the lives of the everyday, average citizen. This allowed for history to be recorded in a fairer, more even way. While a wonderful idea in theory, in practice, the FWP left a little to be desired. Many of the writers worked in the areas where they were from, which lead to them interviewing people they already knew (Hirsch 2). This, of course, implicates bias, and calls into question the reliability of a good number of the life histories. Another criticism on reliability is how the life histories were recorded. Writers did not record verbatim during the interview, either by hand or by tape recorder. Rather, they took brief notes and recreated the interview later. This method can breed several problems, as human memory is not the most reliable source of information.

Criticisms aside, the FWP has a huge wealth of phenomenal stories and lives recorded in it. One such story is that of Ed's, briefly mentioned earlier, recorded in 1938. In order to maintain his privacy, Ed's name was changed from Rutledge to Smalley in the life history.

Ed Rutledge was born in 1912, making him 26 at the time of the interview. He was married, with one small daughter, and he was a knitter.

Ed's mother passed away when he was twelve, and being an only child and in school, Ed was unable to help his father on the farm very much. When Ed was close to finishing school, Ed's father developed health problems, and thus had to hire a hand to help him, refusing to let Ed quit school to help him. This worked out well, but due to both medical expenses and the hired man, they fell into debt.

Once Ed's father passed away, and all the debt was settled, Ed did not have much left, so he decided to rent the farm out to someone. He proceeded to save up to pay the mortgage, but the house burned down December 1929, and Ed let the land go.

This led to some of the longest several months of Ed's life. He traveled around for weeks with various, ever-changing travel companions, searching for a job. He traveled the breadth and width of the Southern states, but had no luck until he reached Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ed was one of millions of people unemployed during the Depression. Being that he was young as well, he was even less likely to find a job (Garraty 134). The effects of the Depression and of unemployment during the Depression were certainly unevenly spread. While his skin color gave him a slight advantage, Ed had no trade or specific skills that would have helped him out of his situation. Unemployment had jumped 17-20% between the years of 1929 and 1933, and he was one of the unfortunate people trapped in that statistic.

Ed eventually found a job working as a grease monkey fixing cars in Greensboro, NC. By September of that year, 1930, he had about $90 saved. One day, while fixing a flat tire for a man, he became exposed to the textile industry and knitting.

"Washington, D.C. Mechanic refilling a car with oil after draining the crankcase" Ed used to work as a "grease monkey", a slang phrase for a mechanic or someone who works with either cars or other machinery.

That man was a knitter, and he informed Ed that the Burlington mills were training people. The training period was unpaid and three months long. Ed decided he had enough saved up, and began training to be a knitter. At the time of the interview, he was still a knitter.

"Textile mill working all night in New Bedford, Massachusetts" When Ed first began working as a knitter after training, he was put on the night shift.

Ed explained to the interviewer the fast-growing industry of textiles and hosiery. While many of the textile industry was unstable, seeing growth after World War I but being otherwise shaky, the Burlington Mills saw tremendous growth during and after the Depression (Wright 2). Many workers remembered the Burlington Mills fondly, specifically citing the high pay, the consistent and stable work, and the welcome environment (Wright 3). It's no surprise then, that Ed had the same feelings towards his work and industry. He followed along closely with the growth of the company he worked for, which would become well-known for decades.

Works Cited

Information Sources

Abner, John H.: The Knitter, Folder 294 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Federal Writers Project.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Nov. 2016, Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.

Garraty, John A. "Unemployment during the great depression." Labor History 17.2 (1976): 133-159.

Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Wright, Annette C. "Strategy and Structure in the Textile Industry: Spencer Love and Burlington Mills, 1923-1962." Business History Review, vol. 69, no. 1, 1995., pp. 42 ProQuest Central,

Photography Sources

Collier, John. Washington, D.C. Mechanic refilling a car with oil after draining the crankcase. 1942. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar.

Collins, Marjory. Washington, D.C. Salvage drive, Victory Program. Books and old lantern stored in District wholesale junk company warehouse. 1942. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar.

Delano, Jack. Textile mill working all night in New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1941. Library of Congress,. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar.

Lee, Russell. The mail must go through. Lineup of Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers during the flood at Cairo, Illinois. 1937. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar.


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