Friday, August 6, 2010


Funny, isn't it, how what was meant to be a derogatory label can become a badge of honor? So it is with "linthead." The "lint" in linthead refers to the ubiquitous cotton dust and fibers that floated through textile mills back in the day, sticking to clothing, hair, and, as we now know, lungs. In the heyday of the Carolina textile boom, lots of folks found themselves unable to sustain their rural, small-farm lifestyle, and so they flocked to cotton mills looking for work. Linthead emerged as a term of derision, a label to put those predominantly white farmers turned mill hands in their place, to differentiate them from the more well to do commercial farmers, businessmen and established town folk, people who never ventured into the oily, dusty heart of a cotton mill...unless they owned it!

Over time, mill hands banded together, becoming oversized families, helping each other survive the tumultuous economic climate of the first decades of the twentieth century, coupled as it often was with harsh labor practices and violent resistance to unionization. In company-owned villages and towns, textile workers carved out lives for themselves, using their farming, fishing, and hunting skills when they could to compensate for low wages, paid in company script, and high prices at the company store.

In this world, where men, women, and children pooled their labor and resources to survive, being a linthead came to mean being part of the family. This is the world of my grandfather, Slim, and grandmother, Flossie (pictured above with her siblings). My father left the mill in search of more gainful employment, thankfully finding it, but he never left the mill village into which he was born. Though the mill has long since closed its doors, he still lives there, a half-mile from where he grew up, now living in the house he helped build for his parents, the house from which Slim walked to work every day for many, many years. This is where Slim worked (courtesy the local historical society):

Though I never worked in the spinning mill pictured above, or any other cotton mill, my roots run deep in the red clay soil of the Carolina piedmont on which the old building still sits. As my hair grows gray, there are times when I think I almost see the slight wisps of cotton that must surely be lurking there, defying time and distance and logic. And so I claim the label meant to demean my grandfather, recognizing my heritage. I have enough diplomas to wallpaper a room, but they will never fully cover the rough walls of the mill village house in which I lived as a child...and why on earth would I want them to?


The Bug said...

This is a great tribute to your roots - and of course I think you're a great writer :)

I guess my grandparents were lintheads too - never really thought of it that way, but Mom's parent's worked in the mills in Brookford their whole lives. Unlike you, however, I am a first generation non-linthead - my mom also worked in those same mills throughout my childhood. Production, heels & toes - all part of what I thought the work world WAS back then. It scared me - so I chose the much easier world of business.

Argent said...

You write very engagingly and with obvious love for your subject. It's hard for us to imagine these days what conditions were like back then. I guess things have mostly changed for the better, although I suspect that the sense of community, of everyone helping everyone else out is somewhat on the wane in our busy 24/7 world. I'm going to enjoy this blog I think.

Carolina Linthead said...

My first visitors! Thanks for stopping by, and I only had to bribe *one* of you :-) I'm not sure how often I will post, but I do have lots to say, and I've been a poet a lot longer than I've been an historian.

Argent, historians of the cotton mill era in the South struggle over the issues you mention. Times were very hard, but the sense of community was very strong, and it is difficult to give equal emphasis. Some authors romanticize the kinship ties and strong communities while ignoring the blatant exploitation of working families by industrialists, others take the opposite approach. I think a balanced approach helps one to understand just why community was so strong: it had to be for those mill families to survive!

Suz said...

Your writing is truly engaging
and the history made it all the more intersting
never knew that term before...
and I loved the sentiment at the end
truly the heart of a writer beats within you

sage said...

I'm not sure where I first heard the term, for I didn't grow up in the textile part of NC--my family had been tobacco farmers (my mother's father raised tobacco, but my father's left the farm to become a plumber and later ran his own business. But the textile roots are there in the South, especially along the Southern Railway. At one time, I was living in Hickory and became interested in the Gastonia labor wars of the late 1920s--the Loray Mills--interesting history.

A human kind of human said...

I arrived on your blog via The Bug's blog and I guess I am here to stay. A warning though: I am a poor follower as I do not often leave comments, but be assured, when you write, I read. Oh yes, and welcome to Blogger!