W. Moses Holleman: Blind Mattress Maker Ella Thompson

Born in 1897, Wilton Moses Holleman was a blind white man who started the Wilson Bedding Company in Wilson, North Carolina. He was interviewed in 1939 with the Federal Writer’s Project, an organization formed during the Great Depression Era New Deal that created jobs for unemployed writers. In his interview he discussed his struggles with disability, his lack of funds for education, and his success in business during the Great Depression era.


Early Life

Farmers, like Holleman's family, examining crops.

Holleman was born in Hertford County, North Carolina to farmers Dorsey and Olia Holleman. He and his three brothers and three sisters attended school and worked on their parent’s farm. For the winter season they cut lumber and for the other seasons they worked in the fields. Holleman didn't say whether or not he wanted to continue working on the farm when he grew up, but he did say that he didn't get the chance to choose. By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, he was completely blind. He said the doctors never came up with any conclusive reason for his blindness other than a weak nervous system--although two of his brothers struggled with vision as well. Calling himself "ambitious", Holleman decided to go to a Blind School to find a career to look forward to since he was literally in the dark.

Blindness & educational funding

Students at a Blind School cutting and bailing mop heads.

Holleman went to Blind School in the late 1910s intending to become a teacher. In addition to the curriculum a normal college student had, the school had their students go through "manual training". Though Holleman didn't say what this meant, he said it was a helpful fallback for when he had to drop out of school after only two years. Blind School was likely affordable to the wealthier disabled people, and Holleman was from a large family on a small farm and therefore had less funding available. Unfortunately, this dropout was over a decade before the Social Security Act (SSA) that President Roosevelt issued under the New Deal. According to Abrams and Parker in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, the SSA provided "programs for the blind" (para. 27) where the state would give them access to education and finances. Additionally, Irwin and McKay of the Law and Contemporary Problems journal explain that North Carolina didn’t even receive “their first quarterly allotments” (275) of disability funding until 1936. Holleman would have had the opportunity to continue his education under this funding outreach to the blind, but it happened over a decade after his attendance at Blind School. He had to rely on the “manual training” he received during his time at the Blind School instead, using those skills to start a mattress making company in Wilson, North Carolina.

Success & growth in business

A man tufting a mattress in a factory.

In 1922, a few years after dropping out of school, Holleman opened up the Wilson Bedding Co., specializing in eight types of mattresses. He didn't specify why he chose Wilson to base out of, but according to C. K. Brown of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the "proximity to a considerable source of supply" factored into choosing where to do business (154). Holleman would've wanted to choose a town near a cotton plant so he could pay less to ship materials, a potential reason for why his business continued to grow during the Great Depression.

Holleman claimed in his interview that his business was steadily growing despite local competition and the economic downturn. In fact, he expanded his factory and hired local workers. According to Dave Chase from Strategic Growth Concepts, businesses like Holleman’s grew during the Great Depression because of “better deals” (para. 3) and “advertising” (para. 5). Holleman dedicated part of his business to repairing mattresses for cheap instead of making customers buy new ones. He also hired a salesman to travel around Wilson to notify people about his business. Essentially, the Wilson Bedding Co. might have experienced growth because Holleman advertised locally and because lower prices attracted customers struggling financially.

The Federal writer's project

The Federal Writer's Project (FWP) was created under President Roosevelt's New Deal initiative. The purpose was to create jobs, teach people job skills, and to make a "contribution to the culture of the state and local communities" ("The Federal Writer's Project", para. 1). It was supposed to show what a "normal" person's life was like while simultaneously providing jobs during the Great Depression.

Interviewers were directed to write down an accurate and direct transcript of what the interviewee said. The interviewers received some basic training so that they could “maintain and improve” their writing skills and employment, but were not extensively trained (“The Federal Writer’s Project”, para. 1). Many historians believe that, despite the lack of professional training, there are still things to learn in the Life Histories. However, Leonard Rapport of The Oral History Review believed they weren't credible. He said that the interviewers might become "creative writers" (Rapport, 14), or, in other words, they might embellish or change a transcript to make it more interesting instead of staying honest to what was actually said.

Excerpt from "The Blind Mattress Maker" that's consistent with the rest of the interview.
Excerpt from "The Blind Mattress Maker" that doesn't sound like Holleman's words.

The above excerpts from “The Blind Mattress Maker” demonstrate how an interviewer could alter what an interviewee said. In the second excerpt Stanley Combs, the interviewer, wrote that Holleman used the phrases “ought not to be” and “those that are yet to come” while avidly supporting President Roosevelt. On the other hand, if you look at the first excerpt the dialogue is very different and less formal compared to these phrases which are inconsistent with the rest of the interview. It sounds more like pro-Roosevelt propaganda than Holleman’s actual words. However, this is the only part of the interview that sticks out as being influenced by someone other than Holleman, so it is possible that there are credible things to be found in Life Histories despite any “creative” agency taken—whether that be from the interviewer or the transcript editor.

Works Cited

Abrams, Douglas Carl and Randall E. Parker "Great Depression." Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006, para. 27. University of North Carolina Press, http://www.ncpedia.org/great-depression.

Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Birth Indexes, 1800-2000 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005, http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&db=NCBirthindex&h=3037413&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=UHA5&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&rhSource=1121.

Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007, http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&db=NCdeathCerts&h=1134867&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=UHA5&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&rhSource=6061.

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.

C. K. Brown. “Industrial Development in North Carolina.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 153, 1931, pp. 133–140., www.jstor.org/stable/1019114.

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.

Hill, Michael. "Federal Writers' Project." Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S.Powell, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, http://www.ncpedia.org/federal-writers-project.

Irwin, Robert B., and Evelyn C. McKay. “The Social Security Act and the Blind.” Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 3, no. 2, 1936, pp. 271–278., www.jstor.org/stable/1189396.

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.

Images Cited

Image #1: Wolcott, Marion Post. A FSA borrower's son. Oct. 1940. Lot 1509. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000036918/PP

Image #2: Mydans, Carl. Examining soil in cornfield. Aug. 1936. Lot 1483. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997002233/PP

Image #3: Boyer, Richard. Cutting and bailing mop lengths. Mar. 1944. Lot 1784. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001038572/PP

Image #4: Lee, Russell. Tufting a mattress. Nov. 1939. Lot 583. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000016217/PP

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