Wednesday, March 23, 2011

2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship Project Update

Apparel Manufacturing Plants

The significance of the textile industry in Georgia is evident. It dominated the state’s manufacturing economy for more than half a century. The industry benefited from the state’s transition from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy, moving into portions of the state that had a large potential labor pool. The effects on the society at large were immense making arguments for the preservation of these structures based on their social significance valid. Many textile mills also have a certain aesthetic appeal, making preservation based on pure aesthesis and character understandable. There is also a certain level of cultural awareness for many people about textile mills, and what they symbolized. The argument for the preservation of apparel manufacturing plants is slightly more clouded.(Apparel plants refers to buildings involved in the cutting and sewing of apparel)

One issue that needs to be addressed is how a discussion of apparel plants relates to textile mills. Above I mentioned the social impacts of the textile industry as a major argument for their preservation. There has always been a small segment of Georgia’s manufacturing economy involved in manufacturing apparel. With hundreds of textile mills making the necessary fabric in Georgia, apparel manufacturing fit nicely into the state’s textile complex. Apparel manufacturing until the mid-1950s lagged far behind textile mills in Georgia, in terms of total employment. In 1950 Georgia’s textile mills employed approximately 35 percent of all manufacturing employees whereas apparel plants employed only about 8 percent. A decade later, in 1960, textiles employed about 26 percent of Georgia’s manufacturing jobs (a decline of 10 percentage points), and apparel manufacturers employed about 13 percent of Georgia’s manufacturing jobs (an increase of about 5 percentage points). Apparel manufacturers made gains by pushing into areas, like the west Georgia and north Georgia regions that still had a significant labor pool. Apparel manufacturing is even more labor intensive than textile mills and generally paid lower wages, making areas that have a large potential workforce attractive to apparel manufacturers. Apparel manufacturing locating in an area was significant, if somewhat less pronounced than the entrance of textile mills in an area, as these areas generally had little to no industry before the arrival of apparel manufacturing. Apparel manufacturing was in reality doing in the 1950s and the 1960s what textile mills had done half a century before. There were differences. Apparel “villages” were not built and plants did not generally require thousands of workers like textile mills. Apparel plants were generally small, with many hiring extremely small workforces. When apparel plants closed, however, their closure could affect a community as traumatically as the closure of a major textile mill.

Above: Photographer facing northeast, Photograph of Sewell Manufacturing’s apparel plant in Bowdon, GA, This windowless plant was built in the late 1960s and housed cutting. The plant still conducts cutting today, but on a much smaller scale/ Photograph in possession of author, taken 3/17/11

Architecturally, apparel plants followed similar trends to textile mills.(See Above) Apparel plants built in the first half of the twentieth century where similar to textile mills, having brick veneers and broad window bays. In the 1950s and 1960s apparel plants look striking similar to mill additions and new mill construction. Technological improvements allowed textile mill structures to take on a very utilitarian look, similar in many ways to apparel manufacturing plants. Most plants and mills built in the 1950s or 1960s were windowless, or had few windows, were brick veneered, with non bearing concrete block walls, and interior steel framing. The preservation of these vernacular structures is rarely a priority. Although many of these structures are less than fifty years old, some are approaching the fifty year benchmark for National Register Nomination, which with the societal impacts of the apparel plants, makes a strong case for the preservation of these structures. Post-World War II mill additions and apparel manufacturing plants, although not always the most striking structures had a distinct and undeniable effect on the communities in which they were located, especially apparent today after many are no more. Additionally both textile industry and apparel industry share a similar story of rapid decline, making these once important industries shadows of their former selves.

Steven Eubanks is a graduate student at West Georgia University and recipient of the 2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship. The Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship provides financial assistance for projects that acquaint undergraduate and graduate students, and young professionals with preservation programs and practices.

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