Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Cotton-Spinning South and North

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IN The Popular Science Monthly for January, 1890, appeared an article from the pen of Mr. Edward Atkinson, under the title The Future Situs of the Cotton Manufacture of the United States. In this essay Mr. Atkinson writes of what he understands to a remarkable degree, but I am confident that in some particulars there is a more favorable outlook for cotton manufacturing in the South than he is aware of.

First, as to the matter of sufficient humidity in the air, which, as he truly says, is so essential to success, especially in the manufacture of the finer numbers of yarn. An old gray-headed carder once told me that in his early experience in Scotland he was very much annoyed by the refusal of the drawing-frame slivers to fall into the eight, ten, and twelve inch cans supplied for their reception. This was before the invention of the pressing rollers, which force the slivers down where they should go. In his vexation one day, having a belt-awl in his hand, he raised his arm and plunged the awl into the bottom of a thin steam-pipe which passed overhead. A jet of steam rushed out right down upon the refractory-sliver, and, to his astonishment, down it went right into the can.

I have myself seen these same disobedient slivers fly all around a man's neck and shoulders and adhere there, to the great disgruntlement of foreman and hands. At the same old mill, above Columbus, the second if not the first mill built in the State of Georgia, the machinery was second-hand, brought from some Northern State. The spindles (fliers) were very ancient. Sometimes when they had a fair chance in fine weather they did pretty well, and at other times they would vex a saint. The very moment the sun sank behind the crest of the Alabama hills, however, there commenced an improvement in the action of these old spindles. Soon the room was in order; the boys and girls who attended the frames had a little time to "clean up," and their task was a light one for the rest of the evening. It seemed to me that the change was due to the humidity of the air inside, when the dampness of the falls right at the side of the mill was saved from evaporation by the withdrawal of the hot and drying sun-rays.

Mr. Atkinson writes wisely and well upon the subject of comparative humidity in different sections, and only alludes to means of artificial correction. Does it not seem probable that, with an efficient hygrometric testing apparatus, and with steam always at command capable of being admitted to a part or the whole of a department, the condition of the inside air, in this respect, may be kept almost uniform? The expense would be small, and the foreman, after being instructed, might be left to control the humidity of his room, as he is left to control its temperature. It appears to me that this consideration tends to make all manufacturing processes independent of climatic peculiarities.

Mr. Atkinson's remarks as to the coarser work of the Southern mills are all correct and go right to the root of the matter, but the inevitable changes to finer work have already commenced here, compelled, as they are at the North and East, by Southern as well as Northern competition. I was told years ago that a Northern manufacturer said that he could afford to pay ten thousand dollars per annum to get rid of the competition of one Southern mill on the same line of goods as those he was making.

Mr. Atkinson seems to have reached correct results, in his estimate of the comparative cost of raw cotton in Northern and Southern mills, but he does not allude to all the points that deserve consideration in respect to the ultimate cost of cotton in the goods. A Northern spinner recently mentioned his estimated waste at sixteen and three tenths per cent, but subsequently wrote me that he thought it was then about fourteen per cent. I think that Northern spinners usually estimate it at sixteen per cent. Even fourteen per cent seems a very large wastage from "middlings," the grade my correspondent uses; which. I attribute to his using the Gulf and Southwest cottons—from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, etc., made mostly by negro labor—in preference to cottons from the upper counties of this State (Georgia), made largely by white people—the farmers, their wives and children, who certainly handle the fleecy staple with far more care. The cotton marketed at Marietta, in Cobb County, about twenty-five miles above Atlanta, is generally beautifully white and clean. It is grown much more abundantly than before 1860, and almost always by the aid of fertilizers, which hasten the maturity of the cotton, so that the crop of that part of the country is much sooner prepared for market than in the lower counties, where it was often plowed in to make way for the new crop. The prejudice in favor of the Gulf cotton has always seemed to me to be unfounded, though I know it to prevail in Old as well as in New England, and generally in the North. These Northern spinners have often bought uplands in New Orleans, shipped from Columbus and Macon in this State. An old planter, who had also been a large cotton-buyer and a manufacturer as well, always combated this idea. When the yarn has fourteen to twenty turns of twist to the inch of length, it will certainly fulfill all the necessary conditions as to twist, as well as if the fibers were half as long again as they are. American spinners use a much higher grade of cotton for low numbers than the English spinners, to which I attribute the statement made to me by a Georgian of very high intelligence, who spent a number of years in China, and said that the Chinese greatly preferred American to English cloth, and I believe he said yarn also.

There is also, in my judgment, a very considerable advantage which the Southern spinner enjoys over his outside competitors; in that he receives his cotton in the loosely packed planter's package, measuring in depth twenty-eight to thirty-six inches, while his competitors receive the same staple from the compresses, in which the bale is squeezed down to a thickness of eight or ten inches under hundreds of tons of pressure. It must be brought into a flocculent state again before it can be carded and spun. Does it not go without saying that the loosely packed cotton in the planter's bale will require less violent tearing to restore its lightness and elasticity than that which has been packed for months under the compress with its enormous power? I have seen myself, often, cotton "in the seed" brought to the mill, weighed in two and four-horse wagons, without any baling at all, ginned in the mill, and spun at once.

Now as to some other points. Suppose that I build two mills for myself (to insure the same management exactly). Let them be exact counterparts of each other, except that the machinery of one is propelled by water at Augusta, and that of the other by steam north of the Potomac. Let both mills be required to produce the yarn from 4,000 bales of raw cotton, each weighing 480 pounds. The annual consumption will then be, in each mill, 1,920,000 pounds. With waste estimated at fourteen per cent, the quantity sent to the waste-pile will be from each mill 268,800 pounds, and each will yield the same amount of net yarn—viz., 1,657,200 pounds.

For my Augusta mill I buy a water-wheel or wheels of say 200 horse-power, and rent my power from the Augusta Canal Company. The rent charge is five and a half dollars per horse-power per annum; so that for 200 horse-power I will have to pay $1,100 for a year. My water-wheels will certainly cost less than a 200 horse-power engine, with its engine-room, boiler-house, stack, coal bunkers, etc. But let us claim no advantage in first cost of power. I start my Augusta mill by simply giving a few turns to an eighteen-inch wheel on top of my gate-shaft, and it requires no attention until the rest-time arrives about noon, when the same number of turns in the opposite direction shuts off the water and all is at rest. At Columbus, Ga., at the Eagle and Phoenix Manufacturing Company's mill No. 1, our water-wheels of 112 horsepower each made eighty-four revolutions per minute. So you perceive I get a higher first speed from water-power than I would like to exact from a steam-engine of the same power.

In this section of country it is almost true to say that the motion of the water-wheel is never impeded by ice, as it is elsewhere. Water-power is not considered by some as being as steady a power as steam. I think this must be a superstition. The water-wheel has a continuous circular motion. The steam-engine changes rectilineal into circular motion at every revolution, and if with only one cylinder, at every half revolution. How can a revolution with one or two dead points be as continuous as a circular motion without any dead points?

Next I go to start my steam mill—exactly like the other except as to power. I must hire a costly engineer, for I can not trust my fine engine and my dangerous high-pressure boilers, with all the interests dependent upon their continuous action, to a Jack Leg. I must hire firemen and coal-handlers, for I would need three, four, or five tons of coal daily, and its handling is laborious and must be paid for. Then I must buy, let us say, three tons of coal per day at a minimum for three hundred and ten days—say nine hundred tons yearly. For my water-wheel a few tons or a few cords of wood will keep me and my hands comfortable and my machinery protected. Are these differences insignificant? Suppose both my mills last twenty years, and that they both run all the time. I have to buy in the twenty years eighteen thousand tons of coal for one mill and a few cart-loads for the other. If my engineer and firemen and coal-handling cost me in all $5 per day, I must pay out for this charge $1,550 per annum, and in twenty years $31,000. So, for these two items, I have to pay in twenty years $85,000 for one mill, while the other costs me for the same items nothing. It really seems as if "a masterly inactivity" is the true policy when one considers the propriety of starting the cotton manufacture at the North with steam; but, on the contrary, a very masterly activity at Augusta, Ga., and at many other points in this favored land of "Dixie."

Our mild climate and short winter enable the operatives to make themselves comfortable at little expense for fuel and clothing. They swarm to all new mills that are inaugurated, and think they are fortunate to find work. We have few strikes here; hardly any in my experience of nearly fifty years. The relations between the employed and the employers are almost always of a kindly character. If we had twice as many mills at work to-day in the South as we now have, employé's could be found to take every position except for a time some especial departments of the work.

I have to buy 4,000 bales (1,920,000 pounds) of raw cotton for each of my mills. For the Augusta mill I pay probably fifteen cents per bale to get it from the Augusta market to my mill on the canal—say $600 in all. For my other mill I have to pay a small drayage here, and fifty-five cents per hundred pounds to get it from Macon (if bought here) to, let us say, Philadelphia; 1,920,000 pounds, at fifty-five cents per hundred pounds, costing me for freight alone $10,560 against $600 for my Augusta mill. If the same prices and the same rates should continue, my twenty years would net me an outlay for freights alone, without drayage, $211,200 against my Augusta drayage of $12,000, leaving a balance of $199,200 against my Northern steam mill as compared with my Augusta water mill; and adding the power items as above estimated, viz., $55,000 for twenty years, there has grown up a balance against steam of $254,200. It thus appears that, if both mills should endure for twenty years, I would have made a quarter of a million dollars more by staying at home than by wandering out in search of pastures new.

The account seems to be growing very large against my steam mill, but I am compelled to bring up other items against it. For instance, I buy the same quantity of cotton for each mill, and I choose to take fourteen per cent as the measure of waste in both mills, not quite believing that it should be so much. But the comparison is fair, as the amount is the same in both suppositions. Fourteen per cent of 4,000 bales is 560 bales, which I haul to my mill at Augusta at fifteen cents per bale drayage, or $84 in all, and my waste goes to the waste-pile in Augusta. But I can not send my 560 bales of waste to Philadelphia so cheaply, but must pay the same rate as on raw cotton. My 560 bales weigh 268,800 pounds, and on this I pay fifty-five cents per hundred pounds to Philadelphia, or $1,478.40. Suppose this process to continue for a twenty years' life of the mill at the same rate of freight. At the end of twenty years I will have paid out to the Transportation Company $29,500 instead of $1,680 for my Augusta waste account.

I think, with Mr. Atkinson, that some very enthusiastic Southern spinners overrate the advantage the Southern spinner has in this respect. I doubt if it will average more than one half cent[1] per pound to the Northern than to the Southern spinner; and there are some very serious considerations, such as higher rates of interest, the absence of construction and repair shops, etc., which may considerably reduce any advantage we have now in cotton price. We are also at a greater distance from the large consuming markets, but the freight charge on the finished product is lower than on the raw material.

Last spring I was asked by a spinner what I thought would be the cost of changing half his spinning capacity from sixteen and twenty to number forty yarns. This is what must come in the not very distant future; and as the South advances to forty, the North must go to sixty, eighty, etc. The product of Southern mills can be made as perfect as that of any other section. Why not? The skill may be as great here as elsewhere, except for those branches of the work which are not yet attempted, but which will come in time.

Mr. Atkinson writes disparagingly of the longer working time in Southern than in Northern mills. He probably had not heard, when he penned his essay, that the Legislature of Georgia, at its last session, fixed the working time in cotton-mills at eleven hours per day. Many working folks North are clamoring for eight hours per day. I do not think eleven hours too much for a day's work in a comfortable mill, done by young people who can not elsewhere find occupation to give them home and subsistence. I do not think it injures them any more than ten hours would, and my experience teaches me that it is better to give them in their destitution the opportunity they are so glad to embrace. The mill working-day in Pennsylvania is, I believe, of ten hours' length. Here is another point of advantage which my Augusta mill has over my Philadelphia mill. I have ten per cent more working time, and of course produce eleven pounds of yarn in Georgia, while I make only ten pounds in Philadelphia. Is it not evident that to make my Philadelphia mill equally efficient with the other, it should have ten per cent more opening and carding power, more drawing, slubbing, roving, spinning, and finishing apparatus? Some people say that ten hours make as good an output as eleven; but don't they forget that the product depends upon the spindle revolutions at last? While the spindle revolves at normal speed, the twist must perforce go into the yarn.

A mill has just commenced operation here, in the outskirts of Macon, with English cards of fifty inches diameter and forty inches wire surface, with top flats instead of rollers. They turn off a little more than twenty pounds each per hour—two hundred pounds and more per day. The card-room machinery is of English make and functions admirably. The spinning machinery is of American make and is A No. 1. The product is very large, and the demand for it so great that I was informed recently that the mill was operated until 9 p. m. Most managers prefer American machinery. I do not, for the carding department. The American Robbeth spinning-frame seems to be almost beyond any further improvement. There is no objection to it, as far as I know, except that its cost is so great compared with the English cost of the same machine. I am told that these American spindles cost this Macon Company $3.30 each, while I have among my papers proposals for the same spindle in England at eight shillings (about $1.92 each). Most of the practical and skillful foremen are men of Northern training, and have very strong predilections for the machines they have been accustomed to, and many of them are only operators of mills, not constructors or owners. One gentleman said in my hearing some years ago, "No man can make money in this country with English machinery." I reminded him (it was in 1880) that the English had built forty millions of spindles for their own mills, and probably as many more for the rest of the world, while the United States had then only about ten millions; that some of the brightest intellects of England had been engaged for more than a hundred years in the invention, the construction, the operation, and the improvement of cotton-working machinery, and that they might be supposed to have reached results at least comparable with American results. He said no more.

Is it not ridiculous that people of sense say, after so long "protection," that they can not compete in price with English machinists—especially now, when I see the statement made that American iron can be sold in England from five to six dollars per ton cheaper than the English can make it at home? The manufacturers of the North and East generally seem to be unable to conquer their prejudices in which they have been indoctrinated from their youth up. How forcibly Daniel Webster appealed to them to conquer their prejudices!

I have been informed that some people at the North anticipate a scarcity of operatives for newly inaugurated mills in the South, but the idea is new to me. In truth, so highly do I estimate the desirableness of this occupation, especially to the women and girls of these Southern States, that it has always appeared to me that this class of persons, if they understood the matter, would "cry aloud" for the repeal of the duty on imported cotton machinery; not on goods to be made in such mills, but on the machinery with which to make the goods. This duty is thirty-five per cent on the cost of the iron and forty-five per cent on the cost of the steel used in machine construction. Why should our machinists have this great prop to their business, while farmers, miners, and other workers indirectly pay the duties thus imposed? The farmers of the West pay under our system $345,000,000 annually, without any good to anybody. I quote from a remarkable treatise I read some years ago, by Alfred Mongredien, an English writer: "But this is called 'protection!' Phœbus! what a name! Protection for the very few American machine-builders, but destitution for hundreds of thousands of poor women and children who long for work but can not obtain it because the machinists are so much (protected' that would-be mill projectors can not afford the high prices demanded for machines."

Just think of sulphate of quinine! A few years ago it was sold at six dollars per ounce at wholesale. The duty was repealed, and I understand that it can be bought now at some forty-five cents per ounce. Six dollars under protection; forty-five cents with competition open to the world. So with cotton-machinery: $1.92 per spindle in England, $3.30 per spindle at home![2]

  1. As this article goes to press the Macon Telegraph quotes middlings in Macon at 10Jcents, and in Philadelphia at 117/8 cents, both on the same date—August 27th.
  2. As I conclude this paper I am handed the inclosed slip, right to the point:
    "Can not stand Southern Competition.—Baltimore, March 29th. The cotton manufacturers of Baltimore are alarmed at the progress of the South in that branch of the national industry. One of them said to-day: 'We never cared for New England competition; it never cost us a thought. We sold, and still sell, more goods in Boston than we do in Baltimore. But it is the South that is hurting us. Since the opening of the cotton-mills in Atlanta, Ga., and other places in the South, our trade has fallen off twenty-five per cent. It is a mistake to suppose that those cotton-mills are hurting the New England mills. It is Baltimore that is suffering from their competition. They have the advantage of being right at the cotton-fields; they have unlimited water-power, and they have labor as cheap as and even cheaper than we can have it here. The children they employ work seventy-two hours a week, while the law here allows children to work only sixty hours a week. Of that, however, we do not complain, as we would not care to have the children work more than sixty hours.'
    "The amount invested in cotton manufacture here is about $5,250,000, and the annual product of the mills amounts to $7,250,000. Over 5,000 hands are employed, who receive annually about $1,600,000 in wages. The cotton manufacturers of Baltimore held a meeting last night to discuss the situation."