Articles by Joe Hursey

Paternalism and the Piedmont YWCA

October 16th, 2022

Piedmont Manufacturing Company started spinning its spindles in 1876 after construction of the first mill building by owner Henry Hammett.  Soon after completion of the first mill building, Hammett moved on to build more than just mill buildings in Piedmont, including the mill village itself for the employees working in Piedmont’s mills.   Overtime mill leaders would add to Piedmont’s landscape, numerous buildings housed and served the village and its inhabitants, including the building that would house the Young Women’s Christian Association(YWCA).

In 1879 the Union Church was built, but after 1895, congregations no longer used the church.  By 1908, with a recognized need to house young single mill workers, mill leaders had the Union Church remodeled,to become the first YWCA in South Carolina.  Two women were hired to look after the welfare of the young women who lived on the second floor of the YWCA, keeping a watchful eye on the young residents.

On the lower floor of the building, two large rooms were available for the girls to use, the sitting room with piano and a library.  The YWCA held social events, dances, and entertainment as well as educational activities in the form ofpresentationsand classes.Many of the classes taught at the YWCA were on domestic skills such as sewing, nutrition, and cooking.[1]While this may seem an extraordinaryeffort in management of young female workers, this form of paternalistic management had deep roots in textile mill industry dating back to the early 19th century.

  In 1820, Boston investors established what would be a model textile mill community in Lowell, Massachusetts.  This also happened to be the first factory in the United States.  Learning lessons from England where the British factory system represented extreme exploitation of employees and inhumane work conditions, the investors envisioned something different.  Instead of using child labor as in England for its factory, Lowell Mills employed local girls from the surrounding farms.  With a paternalistic mindset, the girls were housed in company boarding houses under the supervision of a matriarch.

Mill girls not only worked in the mills but were encouraged to attend educational lectures hosted by the mill, as well as utilize the company library.  Whether working or on their off time, the girls were closely watched monitoring their behavior.  They were prohibited from consuming alcohol, playing cards and gambling.  Their boarding house matron supervised their conduct ensuring the girls maintained proper moral behavior[2].

  Despite what sounds oppressive, the mills girls were paid well for their labor, two to three times the wages of young women who did not work in the mill.  The owners found this paternalistic oversight of the mill girls not only important for the welfare of the girls, but also forthe success of the mill factory itself.  Paternalistic traditions played an important role in the development of not only Lowell’s Mills, but also in the future development of Piedmont’s YWCA nearly 100 years later.  And yes, women mill workers were the first factory workers in America.

Author: Joe Hursey, former Historian/Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution; is currently a volunteer for the Piedmont Historical Preservation Society 

For more information on the history of Piedmont Manufacturing, the history of textiles in the upstate and in our area, or accessing our research collections, please visit Piedmont Historical Preservation Society – Discover Piedmont

You can also contact us at our Facebook page Piedmont Historical Preservation Society | Facebook

Be sure to catch more on mill history on TV Channel 4, Chronicle: Remaking the Mills

[1]Peden, Anne.  History of the YWCA.  Piedmont Historical Preservation Society, August 2022.

[2] Davidson, James, et al.  Experiencing History: Interpreting America’s Past: Volume 1: To 1877, Ninth Edition.  McGraw Hill, 2019, pp 232-233.