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Cannon Mills and Kannapolis

Persistent Paternalism in a Textile Town

Timothy W. Vanderburg

Publication Year: 2013

Cannon Mills was once the country’s largest manufacturer of household textiles, and in many ways it exemplified the textile industry and paternalism in the postbellum South. At the same time, however, its particular brand of paternalism was much stronger and more enduring than elsewhere, and it remained in place long after most of the industry had transitioned to modern, bureaucratic management.
     In Cannon Mills and Kannapolis, Tim Vanderburg critically examines the rise of the Cannon Mills textile company and the North Carolina community that grew up around it. Beginning with the founding of the company and the establishment of its mill town by James W. Cannon, the author draws on a wealth of primary sources to show how, under Cannon’s paternalism, workers developed a collective identity and for generations accepted the limits this paternalism placed on their freedom. After exploring the growth and maturation of Cannon Mills against the backdrop of World War I and its aftermath, Vanderburg examines the impact of the Great Depression and World War II and then analyzes the postwar market forces that, along with federal policies and unionization, set in motion the industry’s shift from a paternalistic model to bureaucratic authority. The final section of the book traces the decline of paternalism and the eventual decline of Cannon Mills when the death of the founder’s son, Charles Cannon, led to three successive sales of the company. Pillowtex, its final owner, filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in 2003.
    Vanderburg uses Cannon Mills’s intriguing history to help answer some of the larger questions involving industry and paternalism in the postbellum South. Complete with maps and historic photographs, this authoritative, highly readable account of one company and the town it created adds a captivating layer of complexity to our understanding of southern capitalism.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-10

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p. x-x

My interest in Cannon Mills as a research subject began in the early 1990s during work for my master?s degree. The current work, however, developed from my doctoral dissertation, which was directed by Dr. Richard V. Damms at Mississippi State University. As my major professor, Dr. Damms skill-fully guided me through the creation of the dissertation on Cannon Mills ...

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pp. xi-xvi

Cannon Mills Company exemplified the southern textile firm. From its cre-ation in the late 1880s until the mid-1980s, Cannon Mills operated as a pater-nalistic company controlled by a small group of insiders. James W. Cannon and his associates on the board of directors ran the firm from its creation until 1921, when Cannon?s son, Charles, took over. Charles Cannon led the firm ...

Part 1. The Founding of Cannon Mills and Kannapolis: Paternalism Established

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1. James William Cannon: Early Influences and the Emergence of a New South Industrialist

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pp. 3-14

James William Cannon, a business leader who represented the spirit of the New South, brought industrial progress to Piedmont North Carolina. Along with other such leaders, Cannon worked to rebuild the South after the Civil War. These leaders believed in a diversified economy but felt the South had distinct advantages in the textile industry. By building mills near cotton ...

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2. The Founding of Kannapolis: Expansion and Paternalism

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pp. 15-22

To facilitate expansion of his towel manufacturing, James Cannon sent Concord real estate agent John K. Patterson to Glass, North Carolina, to purchase six hundred acres of land. Glass was a small community north of Concord along the Southern Railway line that consisted of a general store owned by John Peter Triece, a post office, and a rail depot. Patterson secured ...

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3. Cannon Mills, Kannapolis, and Blacks: A Reflection of Racial Attitudes in the South

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pp. 23-34

The exclusion of blacks in the paternalistic structure at Cannon Mills reflected broader attitudes regarding race in the South. Literature, recent events, and science seemed to confirm the view held by most white southern-ers that blacks were inferior to whites and not suited for industrial work. The writings of North Carolina author Thomas Dixon Jr. reinforced this racial ...

Part II. The Growth and Maturity of Cannon Mills and Kannapolis Paternalism Solidifies Amid Challenges

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4. A Time of Upheaval: Progressivism and World War

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pp. 37-46

The period from 1908 to 1921 was a time of change and upheaval for the Cannon Manufacturing Company. Cannon?s textile company expanded operations and firmly established itself as the premier towel manufacturer in the world. Simultaneously, the firm battled progressive child legislation and dealt with the problems and opportunities of World War I. Industrial peace ...

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5. Postwar Downturn, Labor Unrest, and New Management

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pp. 47-58

Soon after the armistice, demand for textiles declined as the government canceled contracts. The War Industries Board announced that when pos-sible, the government would not cancel contracts, and that certain criteria would be considered before orders were canceled. These included the effects of the cancelation on the industry, labor, the community, and the textile firm. ...

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6. New Leadership, Market Decline, and Consolidation

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pp. 59-78

James William Cannon selected his youngest son, Charles Albert Cannon, as heir to his textile empire. Charles was born in Concord, North Carolina, on November 29, 1892. He attended public school there and the Fishburne Military Academy in Virginia. After secondary school, Charles enrolled in Davidson College, an elite Presbyterian college in neighboring Mecklenburg ...

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7. Paternalism Expanded: Charles Cannon and Welfare Work

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pp. 79-84

With Cannon Manufacturing Company under the leadership of Charles Cannon, the firm expanded its welfare work. Labor historian Stuart Brandes defined welfare work, or welfare capitalism, as ?any service provided for the comfort or improvement of employees which was neither a necessity of the industry nor required by law.?1 Brandes believed that industrialists initiated ...

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8. The Great Depression, the New Deal, and Cannon Mills

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pp. 85-102

With the stock market crash of October 1929, a general and prolonged economic depression settled on the nation. The Great Depression brought worsening conditions for the textile industry. Demand for textile products dropped and more mills reported losses. Four hundred and twenty firms lost money in 1929; 686 did so in 1930. Total industry losses for the same period ...

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9. Cannon Mills in World War II

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pp. 103-112

World War II brought profitability to the textile industry. Even before the United States became directly involved in the fighting, the industry ben-efited from the conflict. American military preparedness and Lend-Lease solved the problem of overproduction more effectively than any New Deal Textile mill activity increased greatly between 1938 and 1940. Based on ...

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10. Cannon Mills and Postwar America: Market Maturity and the Loss of Brand Loyalty

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pp. 113-122

Charles Cannon entered the postwar years with guarded optimism about the business climate. Sales had increased from $44,532,000 in 1939 to $79,386,000 in 1945, with net profits growing from $4,355,000 to $10,153,000.1 At the start of the war, the textile manufacturer had controlled 70 percent of the towel market in the United States and had built strong brand recognition and ...

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11. Cannon Mills and Operation Dixie

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pp. 123-142

In the summer of 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched its ambitious drive to unionize the South. The CIO modeled Operation Dixie, as the southern campaign became known, on the organizing pattern it had employed successfully in the North. This strategy concentrated efforts on the main industry in an area and targeted the premier or bellwether company ...

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12. The Danger of Larger Forces: War, Imports, and Government Policies

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pp. 143-156

As Operation Dixie came to an end, the textile industry turned its atten-tion to a more pressing issue: providing textile products for America?s war effort in Korea. The textile industry had been working with the government to prepare for such a conflict for some time. A plan to ?convert [the industry] to large scale war production immediately,? in the light of growing Cold ...

Part III. The Decline of Cannon Mills and Paternalism

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13. Cannon Mills in the 1960s: The Paternalistic Firm in a Modern World

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pp. 159-174

Textile manufacturers entered the new decade with apprehension. Domestic textile manufacturers still wanted relief from foreign textile imports. Cheap imports from Hong Kong, in addition to Japan, now worried industry lead-ers. In January 1960, the United States and Hong Kong failed to agree on voluntary import quotas, but the Eisenhower administration refused to ...

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14. The Civil Rights Movement, Federal Interference and the Weakening of Paternalism

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pp. 175-184

The civil rights movement eventually had a major impact on Cannon Mills. President Kennedy demonstrated his support for civil rights in the workplace in 1961 by signing Executive Order 10925, which forbad discrimination in hiring and promotion for firms that worked on government contracts. This order became more important as the United States became more involved ...

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15. Cannon Mills after Charles Cannon: New Leadership, Union Vote, and the Continuation of Paternalism

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pp. 185-194

While sharing most of the paternalistic beliefs that Cannon had held, Don Holt, the new chairman of the board, was less authoritarian. ?The difference between Mr. Cannon and myself is, if he wanted to cross the street, he?d cross it when and where he saw fit,? Holt said in an interview with Forbes. ?I?d go down to the stop light and wait until it turned green.?1 In addition, ...

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16. David Murdock, Modern Management, and the Demise of Paternalism

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pp. 195-200

Immediately, David Murdock made major changes in the operation of the tex-tile firm.1 He reorganized Cannon management. Stolz resigned as chairman and Murdock became chairman and chief executive officer. Mississippian Harold M. Messmer Jr. came to Cannon with Murdock and became the firm?s president and chief operating officer. Much of the rest of the reshuf-...

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17. Fieldcrest Cannon, Pillowtex, Bankruptcy and the Return of David Murdock

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pp. 201-212

Market conditions, competition, the aftershock of the Murdock period, and bad industrial relations plagued the company?s new management. Fieldcrest Cannon struggled with profitability. In 1987, the firm lost $3,660,000 on sales of $1.4 billion. Profits increased the next year to $11,776,000 and to $23,434,000 in 1989. The encouraging trend did not continue into 1990, how-...

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pp. 213-216

Paternalism emerged as part of the textile industry in the South after the Civil War. As mills were built away from existing towns, mill owners had to provide everything for their workers. In return, the owners expected hard work, obedience, and loyalty from their work force. Reciprocity formed an integral part of the paternalistic structure of the mill community, as it had ...


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pp. 217-264


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pp. 265-272


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pp. 273-280

E-ISBN-13: 9781621900276
E-ISBN-10: 1621900274
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572339729
Print-ISBN-10: 1572339721

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 14 photos, 6 tables
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: First Edition.

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Subject Headings

  • Kannapolis (N.C.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Paternalism -- North Carolina -- Kannapolis.
  • Cannon Mills Company -- History.
  • Textile industry -- North Carolina -- Kannapolis -- History.
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