Interior of a furniture-maker's workspace, similar to how Otis' would've looked in 1939.
By Gardner Davis
The Federal Writers Project was an agency created under FDR's New Deal program that from 1935 to 1942 employed "newspapermen, librarians, historians, novelists, and poets" with the objective to "provide jobs for the unemployed, to rehabilitate workers by helping them to maintain and improve their skills, and to produce publications of lasting merit" that would not only contribute to, but capture the spirit and culture of the places in which they were written (Hill, para. 1). Otis Griffin, a simple cabinet-maker from North Carolina, through his life history as documented by the FWP illuminates the issues of industry, economy, and political corruption that he and many other Americans faced during the early 20th century.
Italian-American cabinetmaker working on a chair. Otis would also have made multiple kinds of furniture.
OTIS' LIFE & BEAMAN'S ISSUES
Otis Griffin was a cabinetmaker, tobacco farmer, and one subject out of many interviewed for a Federal Writer's Project compilation called These Are Our Lives. (Hill, para. 2). Ordinary people were interviewed about their lives: where they were from, what they did, and how they saw the world. A small number of the hundreds of interviews conducted were compiled into the project. Otis' "Life History," what they nicknamed these interviews, was written by James S. Beaman, a friend of his. Beaman's portrait of Otis here is rough and authentic, but the positive voice he used in its composition is undeniable. He painted his friend as special among his neighbors, saying that "all of [the] buildings" in Fernlea, "except one, are the simple homes of simple fisher folk" (Beaman, 1). Naturally, that "one" home refers to Mr. Griffin's.
Beaman's positive bias towards his friend in this interview is palpable from the way in which he described his demeanor and home - this positive bias could have affected the overall credibility of this interview, as Beaman may have been too close to the subject to provide the reader with an accurate portrayal of Griffin, an oft-noted issue with the Life Histories (Rapport 11). Otis is a cabinet-maker, he says, "and a good one according to the opinion of his neighbors" (2). It feels as if he's being favorable in his descriptions as a manner of doing his friend a favor, presenting him in a positive light for posterity.
Homesteader hoeing tobacco. Otis' tobacco growing operation could have looked something like this.
Otis' Life and Career
Born in 1880 in Kinston, North Carolina, Otis Griffin enjoyed a comfortable youth, supported by his father's drygoods business. When he was 17 years old, he moved to New Bern in search of work and lived with his brother, working in a local grocery store for five years. He went home for two years after that, working with his father, but soon got restless and "went south" for personal travels, but claimed in his interview that he couldn't find much of interest and returned home (4). After that, he moved back to New Bern in the neighborhood of Fernlea because a "big planing mill" was being built "just down the street," making it "very convenient for [Otis] in getting [his] material" (6).
Though the mill that motivated Griffin to move to Fernlea later burned down and was never rebuilt, New Bern was the perfect city for him. Prior to the Great Depression, New Bern had a reputation as a haven for artisans and craftsmen like Griffin. Throughout the antebellum period, "free and enslaved black apprentices in New Bern lived in the households of both black and white master artisans," (Bishir, 20) and New Bern was "the state's largest city" through the early 1800s (Bishir, 23). Even without a planning mill, Otis continued his trade as a cabinet-maker in New Bern.
Since the mill burnt down, Otis lived with his brother's widow in his dual home and place of business - remarking that "if I didn't own my own place and had to pay rent, I just don't know how I would get by" (7). As scary as may sound, it was the reality for most people during the Great Depression. Throughout communities in the south, "bank failures were common, and in small towns and communities opportunities for loans dried up. Small business owners were especially vulnerable. Less money in local circulation meant fewer paying customers...business owners quickly went under" (Zainaldin, para. 7).
Farmer assembling chairs outdoors, unlike Otis within his shop space.
Threats to his way of life
As an artisan, Otis Griffin chose the perfect North Carolina town in which to practice his craft. However, as a cabinetmaker, the time at which he entered his industry was a risky one. It was during the late 19th and early 20th century that the furniture manufacturing industry underwent an enormous boom in the South. This was pioneered by Thomas Wrenn when he "organized the High Point Furniture Company in 1888," which revitalized the "quiet farming community of High Point" in North Carolina by introducing a new, growing, and extremely profitable craft (Cater, 4). This "brought in a wave of suppliers and competitors to the region," and soon these companies were mass-producing high-quality and inexpensive furniture for not only the immediate area, but the whole nation (Cater, 7).
Competition from mass-produced furniture and nationwide economic depression are overwhelmingly to blame for the destitution Otis found himself in, but he placed much of the blame on politicians and men on Wall Street, saying that "there's two classes of folks I've got darn little use for: politicians and bankers. The politicians are liars, and the bankers are thieves" (7-8). He was spot on in the context of the Great Depression, as the poverty of millions of Americans was caused by rising stock prices that could not be justified by potential future earnings, prompting Wall Street men to begin "dumping shares en masse" in late 1929 (History.com staff, para. 2). Political corruption was also rampant, as "with the beginning of the New Deal party system, the 'old machine' [of corruption] did not wither away, ballot abuses persisted (particularly in the south), and accounts of...other corrupt activities...continued to surface" (Fackler & Lin, 5).
Otis and NC
In 1939, so many Americans were subjected to worse conditions of poverty than they would have ever imagined just 10 years earlier. Some artisans and tradesmen, like Otis, were lucky that they owned their homes and sold their wares. Many more millions of Americans were not. Otis Griffin is important to North Carolina history because he represents the struggle of so many Americans who were let down and abused by a system they depended upon for prosperity. Expanding industry, corrupt government officials, and a total collapse of the nation's economy did real damage to the rural population of North Carolina. Many have similar stories, but this is Otis Griffin's.
Beaman and Massengill (Interviewers): The Cabinet-Maker, Federal Writer's Project papers #3872, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Bishir, Catherine W. Crafting lives: African American artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina Press, 2013. Print.
Cater, John James. “The Rise of the Furniture Manufacturing Industry in Western North Carolina and Virginia.” Management Decision 43.6 (2005): 906–924. Web.
Fackler, Tim, and Tse-min Lin. “Political Corruption and Presidential Elections, 1929-1992.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 57, no. 4, 1995, pp. 971–993. www.jstor.org/stable/2960398.
Hill, Michael. “Federal Writers’ Project.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. 2006. NCpedia.org. Web. 1 February 2017.
History.com staff. “The Great Depression.” History.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 1 Feb. 2017.
Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review, vol. 7, 1979, pp. 6–17., www.jstor.org/stable/3675185.
Zainaldin, Jamil S. “Great Depression.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 11 May 2007. Georgiaencyclopedia.org. Web. 1 February 2017.
Collins, Marjory. New York, New York. Italian-American cabinet maker. 1943. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001016875/PP, Accessed 9 Feb 2017.
Delano, Jack. Interior of abandoned Olive Stove Works, Rochester, Pennsylvania. 1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000024749/PP, Accessed 9 Feb 2017.
Mydans, Carl. Homesteader hoeing tobacco. Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina. 1936. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998020293/PP, Accessed 3 Feb 2017.
Rothstein, Arthur. Resettled farmer who, under supervision, is making furniture. 1935. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997007170/PP, Accessed 9 Feb 2017.