W. Moses Holleman: Blind Mattress Maker Ella Thompson

Wilton Moses Holleman was a blind white man who started the Wilson Bedding Company in Wilson, North Carolina. His interview in 1939, around age 42, with the Federal Writer's Project, a group created by the New Deal, is discussed below, examining his struggles with disability and his success in business during the Great Depression era.


Early Life

Farmers examining soil in a cornfield.

Holleman was born in 1897 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. As for his future, Holleman didn't say what career he wanted, whether that be working on the family farm or something else, 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 too. Calling himself "ambitious", Holleman said he decided to go to Blind School to find something to look forward to since he was literally in the dark.

Blind School & social security

Students at a Blind School cutting and bailing mop heads.

Holleman went to Blind School intending to become a teacher, but the school had their students go through "manual training". Though he didn't say what that meant, he said it was a helpful fallback when his plans changed. He attended school for two years before he ran out of funds and had to drop out around the late 1910s. His drop out was premature to the Social Security Act (SSA) that President Roosevelt issues under the New Deal. According to Abrams and Parker in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, the SSA provided "stage programs for the blind" (para. 27) where the state would help them with access to education and finances. However, Irwin and McKay of the Law and Contemporary Problems journal, North Carolina didn't receive "their first quarterly allotments" (275) until 1936. So, basically, Holleman could've continued his education under the SSA outreach to the blind, but that happened over a decade after his schooling so he had to rely on his own training--using his new skills to become a mattress maker.

Mattresses & the Great Depression

A man tufting a mattress in a factory.

Holleman opened up the Wilson Bedding Co. in 1922, 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). Essentially, Holleman would've wanted to choose a town near a cotton plant so he could pay less to ship materials.

He also briefly talked about local competition, but he claimed that his business was steadily growing (the interview being in 1939) during the Great Depression. In fact, he'd expanded his factory and hired locals. According to Dave Chase from Strategic Growth Concepts, one explanation for growth during a downturn was that "better deals came out stronger after the Depression ended" (para. 3). Holleman dedicated part of the business to repairing mattresses for cheap instead of making customers buy new ones. Additionally, he "advertis[ed]" ("How brands thrived...", para. 5) with a salesman that he hired to go around Wilson. Holleman experienced growth because his salesman reached out to the local, small town community and because lower prices attracted customers in economic struggle.

what is 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). In shorter terms, the project itself was supposed to show what a "normal" person's life was like while simultaneously providing jobs during the Great Depression.

Potential Failings of the Life histories

Many historians believe that, despite potential inaccuracy, 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.

In "The Blind Mattress Maker", its written that Holleman praises Roosevelt by verbally using the words "ought not to be" and "those that are yet to come". Holleman was well educated and doing well in business, but this portion of the interview has a different sentence structure than the rest of the interview. It sounds more like pro-Roosevelt propaganda than Holleman's actual words. However, this is one of the only parts of the interview that sticks out being influenced by someone else--whether that be the interviewer, Stanley Comb, or the 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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