While population in North Carolina increased more than 100 percent between 1880 and 1930, the number of wage earners employed in manufacturing increased more than 1,000 percent. About 66 percent of all wage earners in manufacturing in 1935 were employed in four industries: tobacco, furniture, lumber and the various textile divisions (cotton, knitgoods, silk, rayon, wool, dyeing, and finishing). Like the tobacco and furniture industries, cotton manufacturing is concentrated in the Piedmont….
North Carolina did not participate largely in either the culture or the manufacture of tobacco before the War between the States. The foundation of an extensive tobacco culture was laid by the notable discovery in Caswell County in 1852 that a sweeter and brighter leaf could be raised in porous and sandy soil. The new “bright tobacco” proved admirably adapted for a new tobacco product, the cigarette, as well as for other manufactured forms of the “weed.”
Durham was a creation of the tobacco industry. By 1884 there were eight smoking-tobacco factories in the town, in addition to one cigar factory and one plug-tobacco factory. It was here that Washington Duke and his sons forged to a position of leadership in the industry. Their triumph was assured when, on April 30, 1884, they installed the Bonsack cigarette machine, with a capacity of 120,000 cigarettes per 10-hour day.
The centers of tobacco manufacture in North Carolina are Durham, Winston-Salem, and Reidsville….
The first furniture factory in North Carolina, and probably in the South, was established at Mebane in 1881. By 1900 more than 1,700 wage earners were employed in the 44 establishments reporting to the census of manufactures. In 1935, there were 118 establishments in the state, and 13,640 wage earners were employed. By 1937 North Carolina ranked first among the States in the production of wooden dining room and bedroom furniture, and second in the manufacture of wooden kitchen furniture.
Although the naval-stores industry began to decline about 1880, the production of lumber shortly thereafter assumed significant proportions. North Carolina pine first appeared in the New York market in 1886. The exhaustion of the white pine forests of the Great Lakes Region and the construction of railroads in the coastal region of the South stimulated the growth of the southern lumber industry. The industry in the State reached its peak about 1909. In that year, and again in 1914, North Carolina ranked fourth among the States in lumber production….
North Carolina industry has been manned almost wholly by local workers and by workers from the surrounding Southern states. From 1880 to the present time the farms have provided a steady stream of men, women, and children to perform the tasks created by industry. Although rates of remuneration in industry have been generally low, hours of labor long, and working and living conditions often unsatisfactory, tens of thousands of workers have preferred to leave a struggle on the farm for employment in the mill.
The lumber and furniture industries employ only men, but cotton textiles, hosiery, and tobacco have used women and children. In 1929, more than 44 percent of the wage earners in manufacturing in the State were women. As late as 1909, more than 27 percent of the wage earners in the hosiery industry were under 16 years of age; in cotton textiles, nearly 19 percent; in tobacco, about 17 percent. After 1909 the employment of children in manufacturing declined. The child labor law of 1919 forbade employment of workers under 14 years of age, and the statute of 1937 prohibited the employment of workers under 16 years of age.-=-
From North Carolina: a guide to the Old North State, a Federal Writers’ Project book published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1937. The Federal Writers’ Project of North Carolina was started in October 1935 in Asheville. District offices were established later in seven other cities of the state. The book is online at: