Wilton Moses Holleman: Blind Mattress Maker Ella Thompson

W. Moses Holleman (1897-1963) was a blind white man who owned the Wilson Bedding Co. in Wilson, Wilson County, North Carolina. In the following biography, based on his interview in 1939 with the Federal Writer's Project, Holleman's disability struggles and business successes during the Great Depression era will be discussed.


Early Life

Wilton Moses Holleman was born in 1897 in Hertford County, North Carolina to a farming family. He had two parents, Dorsey and Maggie, as well as three brothers and three sisters, all of whom worked at home and then attended school. The Hollemans cut lumber in the winter and farmed the fields the other seasons.

W. M. Holleman was born in 1897 to a farming family from Ashoke, North Carolina, over 60 miles from his eventual residence in Wilson, North Carolina.


By the time Holleman was fifteen or sixteen, he was completely blind. He attended Blind School but was only able to go for two years before he ran out of funds. While he had planned on becoming a teacher for the blind, the manual labor taught to all students at his university ended up being a helpful fallback. According to the Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, due to deforestation—such as Holleman’s father cutting lumber in the winter to make money—a lot of farmers during this era went to the city to find “dependable wages” (para. 5). Holleman’s training in manual labor provided an opportunity to work outside of the countryside.

By the time Holleman was 15 or 16, he was completely blind.

Wilson Bedding Co.

Holleman opened up his mattress company in 1922 in Five Points, Wilson, North Carolina. His business made eight different types of mattresses. As of 1939, the company was slowly growing even though Holleman didn't experience any increase in salary as the price of upkeep increased. He hired a salesman to advertise locally and a man whose job was specifically to make mattress repairs. Holleman said that a repaired mattress was cheaper than a new one and therefore a selling point of his business.

Holleman made eight kinds of mattresses; his interviewer, Stanley Combs, said Holleman could feel a mattress and know what kind it was.

Keeping up with Current Events

Holleman attended The Missionary Baptist Church as a way to keep up with current events by talking to people in the congregation. According to the Journal of Church & State, a lot of Baptist communities were very supportive of Roosevelt because the President reached out to the clergy to get their opinion about the New Deal (para. 6). Holleman later says that he would vote for Roosevelt again, so that influence could have potentially come from his church community. Another way he got news was by having his friends read him newspapers or listening to the radio. He wished he were more involved in politics or civics clubs and believed that people should vote for a ticket and not a candidate.

Holleman regularly attended his local baptist church because of both his religion and the news he would get from others in the congregation.

Social Issues

The New Deal and Blindness

Holleman was a blind man who started and rancreated his own company. The Social Security Act, issued by President Roosevelt, "had small components...providing welfare for blind people" (Longmore, 910). However, Holleman said that his business had grown enough to where they were "affected by Social Security" and that sometimes it was difficult to "make the grade" of Social Security. He didn't appear to experience these supposed benefits. In Longmore's piece he also talked about how leaders of the disability movement during the era were calling for "an end to both public and private job discrimination" (914). Holleman's manual labor training and general education from the Blind School seemed to have helped him in this regard. He did not specifically mention any way in which he was discriminated against because of his blindness and he was reportedly very dedicated to quality, but the supposed quality of his work and his dedication to his business must have made up for any potential opposition..

The Blind School that Holleman attended taught students manual labor.

The Great Depression and Growth

While the Great Depression was largely categorized by nationwide struggle, Holleman's business continued to grow throughout the 1930s. At the time of the interview he reported that while the growth had been slow, he did see it and had been able to hire a few more employees and add an additional building to his mattress factory. One explanation for this is that, according to an article by Dave Chase, companies that provided "better deals came out stronger after the Depression ended" (para. 3). Rather than only offering new mattresses to customers, Holleman dedicated part of his business to repairing mattresses: re-stuffing, re-padding, re-sewing. This was a cheaper option than buying new and likely a better alternative to residents of small town North Carolina. Holleman also did a lot of "advertising" (Chase, para. 5) by sending out a salesman in the "territory", meaning that people all around Wilson County were likely to hear of his business rather than waiting for customers to come to him.

Holleman repaired mattresses instead of only selling brand new ones, offering a cheaper option to customers in an economic downturn.

The Life History Itself

Interviewers for the Federal Writers Project were meant make accounts of regular people’s everyday lives, Life Histories, to better represent normal people. One concern for the accuracy of these interviews were that "people certified by the relief agencies as writers" might become more like "creative writers" than interviewers (Rapport, 14). In other words, they might embellish the article or change in a way to make it more interesting. This isn’t necessarily honest to what the actual day to day life in the country was like.

President Roosevelt

Moses Holleman is referred to as "Gabby Bassett" within this interview.

Holleman spends a paragraph praising the President. For instance, it's written that Holleman says "a person ought not to be judged by the little mistakes he makes but by the better things he accomplishes and the good he does for those that are yet to come" (Combs). Sentiments for Roosevelt might have been high because of an improving economy, but what is written here sounds less like words from Holleman and more like pro-Roosevelt propaganda.

"Eternal Destruction"

This is the very last paragraph of the entire interview, the rest of which is much lighter rather than philosophical.

In this paragraph Holleman talks a lot about Christianity and how he believes Christianity should be practiced. It seems reasonable to an extent, but then the final line of the paragraph is "if we fail it is eternal destruction" (Combs). This seems a little dark for Holleman's go-getter attitude throughout the rest of the interview. To an extent it would seem like Holleman could be quoting services he has attended, but on the other hand it's a bizarre place to end a lighter themed interview. Both instances were small parts of this but they demonstrate how interviewers influenced the validity of first-hand accounts.

Works Cited

Billington, Monroe and Clark, Cal. "Baptist preachers and the New Deal." Journal of Church & State, vol. 33, no. 2, Spring 1991, pp 255. Journal of Church & State, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?sid=56374ffb-ce42-4629-8a9e-8fbd75d9643b%40sessionmgr120&vid=59&hid=129&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=9605010097&db=aph

Bishop, RoAnn. "Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression." Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, Fall 2010, para. 33. North Carolina Museum of History, http://www.ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression

Boyer, Richard. Cutting and bailing mop lengths. Mar. 1944. Lot 1784. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001038572/PP

Chase, Dave. "How brands thrived during the Great Depression." iMedia Connection, n.d., para. 3-5. Strategic Growth Concepts, http://www.strategicgrowthconcepts.com/marketing/marketing-information-articles/How-Brands-Thrived-During-the-Great-Depression_AE62.html

Combs, Stanley (interviewer): The Blind Mattress Maker, Folder 327 in the Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Lee, Russell. Laying cover over mattress. Nov. 1939. Lot 583. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000016161/PP

Lee, Russell. Sewing cover of mattress. Nov. 1939. Lot 583. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000016152/PP

Longmore, Paul and Goldberger, Paul. "The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: A Case Study in the New Disability History." The Journal of American History, vol. 87, no. 3, 2000, pp. 888-922. www.jstor.org/stable/2675276

Mydans, Carl. Examining soil in cornfield. Aug. 1936. Lot 1483. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997002233/PP

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 6-19. Oxford University Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675185

Vachon, John. Listening to sermon at city mission. Apr. 1940. Lot 1188. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000041178/PP

Wolcott, Marion Post. A FSA borrower's son. Oct. 1940. Lot 1509. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000036918/PP

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