Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Beginning of Proximity Mill and Cone Mills Corporation

Spinning Room, Proximity Mill, early 1900's

Finishing Room at Proximity Mill, circa 1920

Aerial View of Proximity Mill, early 1930's

Cone Mills was founded by Moses and Caesar Cone. They were the two eldest sons of a Baltimore wholesale grocery merchant, Herman Cone, who had immigrated to the United States from Bavaria in the 1840s, changing his name from Kahn to what he considered a more American spelling. In their teens, Cone's sons worked with him in his store. By 1876, the business had expanded to include tobacco and leather goods, and Moses and Caesar had begun to travel the American southeast, taking orders from merchants for their father's goods.

In their travels, the brothers had an opportunity to observe the textile industry of the south. Beginning in the late 1880s, the Cones made investments in three Southern cotton mills: the C. E. Graham Manufacturing Company of Asheville, North Carolina, the Salisbury Cotton Mills, and the Minneola Manufacturing Company. All three of these factories used outmoded equipment to produce coarse, low quality plaids and sheeting. The fabrics enjoyed a vogue as a result of their low cost, yet in competition with the products of more modern Northern mills, they sold slowly.

Convinced that there was a glut of coarse plaids on the market, the Cone brothers convinced their own business partners, as well as other Southern mill owners, to diversify their offerings. The Cones assigned brand names to key products, and published guarantees of quality. With these steps, sales began to rise. By 1890, the Cones had convinced 38 of the roughly 50 southern mill owners that they could benefit from hiring a selling agency to market their products. Faced with declining profits in their grocery business, Moses and Caesar, along with their father and another brother, Julius, liquidated H. Cone & Sons, in order to form the Cone Export & Commission Company in 1890. The enterprise was known facetiously by its competitors as the “plaid trust.” The brothers signed five-year contracts with the mill owners to market their goods, at a five percent commission.

With fundraising for the new business complete, Moses Cone went to New York in 1891 to set up an office. Although as a southerner he met with some hostility, he soon was able to establish his place in the business community, and the company was able to move to Worth Street, in the heart of the textile industry. Soon, the Cones were able to sell more fabric than they could provide, as mill owners left their selling syndicate.

The Cone brothers vowed to go into the fabric production business themselves. Their plans to build two mills, one for denim and one for flannel, were delayed by a financial panic in 1893, but within two years, the Cones had moved ahead, constructing a denim mill on land they owned in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the plant was near its supply of raw materials, the cotton fields of the South, the Cones named their new factory the Proximity Cotton Mill, and set up a holding company for this plant and the others in which they held an interest called the Proximity Manufacturing Company. In 1896, the first lengths of fabric rolled off the big looms at Proximity. Caesar Cone felt that denim, a sturdy fabric for use in work clothes, would be in constant demand as the United States expanded and industrialized.

 Keep in mind the last photo, the aerial view of Proximity taken in the 1930's. Tomorrow I'll have aerials from the 1950's and the 2000's. I think you'll find the change amazing.


Carolina said...

Can't wait ;-)

frayedattheedge said...

An interesting and informative post. I'm looking forward to the next photos!

dinahmow said...

'way back, in primary school, I had to write a project on the "Cotton Trade" (part of the industrial revolution lesson;other kids got slavery and shipping!)and I remember reading about a "good" mill owner who provided housing and education for his workers. Probably Mr. Cone, though I forget!

Karen said...

Carolina and Anne: I'm glad you're enjoying this little jaunt down memory lane (although not my memory; I'm not quite that old).

Dinah: Most southern textile mill companies were this way; they felt that it tied their workers to the mill and kept the unions out.