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A captain, a child, and an elephant walk into a mill…

Posted on May 25, 2016 by in The OFI Blog

Written by Amy Jean Anderson

Amy Jean Anderson was an intern in the Home and Community Life department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In a filing cabinet labelled “Consular Materials” in the Textile Department at the National Museum of American History, is the end of a bolt of plain unbleached cotton cloth, about 40 inches wide by 18 inches in length. It is stamped with the imprint of a camel trademark and a paper label, with the name Pelzer Manufacturing. Co. of Pelzer, South Carolina. A note on the cloth states that it came from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1904, part of a collection of textile samples collected by U.S. Consular officers for the departments of Commerce and State. This collection of textiles was transferred to the Smithsonian in the 1920s. This winter, researching the Pelzer Mfg. Company has raised more questions than I’ve been able to find answers for. Through this textile sample with its peculiar markings and the Pelzer name I found a tangled web of stories: a history of child labor; the ivory trade in Central and East Africa; merchants in India and Marseille; and then bringing me back to the United States and into the piano key and billiard ball industries.

First stop: Exploring the use of child labor at Pelzer mill

Photo of the abandoned mill in South Carolina taken by Kathy Fortner Dickerson

I went first to the South Carolina Information Highway website, a page dedicated to informing visitors of South Carolina’s opportunities and history. The page discusses “Pelzer mill as cotton manufacturing company in Pelzer, South Carolina. The company was founded by Captain Ellison A. Smyth, Francis Pelzer, and William Lebby in 1880. Located along the Saluda River as a source of hydraulic power, Pelzer Company had four functioning establishments.” Additional sources revealed that the Pelzer mills set the bar production of cotton shirting for the rest of the Southern cotton industry, but what made this business so functional and lucrative?

Female children workers in front of Pelzer Mill, May 1912. Photo by Lewis Hine. Library of Congress.

With other southern states competing against Pelzer not only for American, but also international trade, cheap labor was a way to stay above the competition, thus the use of children. The Lewis Hine photographs of Pelzer’s child workers led me to congressional reports on child labor. Documents and transcripts involving Captain Smyth discussed the conditions in which the children worked, and their hours. Smyth assured investigators of his company’s fairness and the children’s health. Hine’s photographs, however, seem to show children under the age of 12 at work in those mills.

Second stop: Researching trade in Central and East Africa

Cotton sample with the Pelzer camel printed on it. Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Cotton sample with the Pelzer camel printed on it. Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

With so many hands on deck and so cheaply, Pelzer was able to produce large quantities of inexpensive cloth for sale to other countries. This sample, purchased in a market in Abyssinia, probably was for sale in the town of Addis Ababa, a major trading center between Central Africa, East Africa, and the trade routes to India, Marseilles, France, and the U.S. In this part of Africa the locals bartered elephant tusks—ivory—for Pelzer’s well-made cotton cloth to use for clothing and bedding, a trade that began in the 1880s. Another possible provenance for the camel could be Mombasa B.E.A, where the first U.S. Consulate building was located. Trade was fluid in this region. Advances in travel with the Suez Canal in Aden and the Uganda Railway, helped American cotton textiles make their way through the surrounding countries. Pelzer’s Camel trademark is something of a mystery; perhaps it was a reference to specific merchants in Abyssinia. I’ve seen a Rhino trademark (not Pelzer) on a sample from a different area perhaps referencing the culture of that region.

Ivory billiard balls. Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Ivory billiard balls. Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Third stop: Investigating the American market for ivory piano keys and billiard balls

Pelzer and other southern cotton mills traded cloth for tusks. The barter system established relationships between ivory merchants and cotton producers—names such as Allidina Visram and the Livierato Brothers, invite further research. The ivory was then brought back to companies in the Northern U.S., such as Arnold, Cheney & Co, (later to be Pratt, Read & Co.) who had a thriving business manufacturing piano keys, billiard balls, and hair combs. When Congress threatened to impose an import tariff on elephant ivory in 1913, the southern cotton mills objected, saying it would threaten their profitable trade with Africa.

One blue camel printed on a fragment of cotton cloth led me to a story rarely discussed or researched. As a history major, I spent my fair share of time learning about the southern cotton industry, but never was this side of the trade discussed. Cotton and ivory are not usually mentioned together, but from this Pelzer sample a whole world of trade was brought to light. Plain cotton cloth made by child workers in South Carolina brought raw ivory to the United States, where it created profit in the music, leisure, and beauty industries. This is only scratching the surface of my research. I can’t help wonder where it will lead me next.

Amy Anderson, the author of A Captain, a Child, and an Elephant Walk Into a Mill…

Amy Anderson, the author of A Captain, a Child, and an Elephant Walk Into a Mill…