Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cone Mills: 1950's and 60's

Proximity Mill circa 1940's

In November 1951, Cone made its largest organizational shift to date, selling stock to the public for the first time. In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, the company's shares were valued at $28.58. In the wake of the company's debut as a publicly traded enterprise, Cone moved to further consolidate its similar operations, and to diversify its activities to protect itself against weakness in demand for any one product. In 1952, the company purchased the Union Bleachery in Greenville, South Carolina. In doing so, Cone gained the first license for the "Sanforizing" process granted in the United States.

Despite the fact that denim pants were beginning to be worn by teenagers as fashion statements, as opposed to being worn exclusively by manual laborers, the demand for denim began to drop in the mid-1950s, causing Cone to look to development in its other areas of business for growth. The company began to emphasize its dyeing, printing, and finishing operations. Its flagship Proximity Cotton Mills was converted from the manufacture of denim, which was no longer in high demand, to the production of poplins, twills, and corduroy.

In 1957, Cone purchased three converting companies, and also moved further into the synthetics field, forming Spinco fabrics for blended and synthetic goods. Increasingly, the company found its market share threatened by products from other nations, where labor costs were lower. In response to this threat, in the following year, Cone stepped up its marketing efforts, and streamlined its manufacturing operations further, forming a finishing division to coordinate its various activities in that field. In addition, Cone inaugurated a Research and Development Department, to facilitate innovation in textile production. Overall, despite these efforts, the company's financial results throughout the 1950s were somewhat uneven.

In the 1960s, Cone began to diversify its operations further. In the first year of the decade, the company branched out into the decorative fabrics field, purchasing a controlling interest in John Wolf Textiles, which marketed fabrics for use in home furnishings. In the following year, Cone strengthened its presence in the furniture industry by organizing Olympic Products, which made polyurethane foam cushions and other foam products. This marked the company's first step outside the textile industry. In addition to this expansion in its activities, Cone broadened its geographical scope in 1961, buying an 11 percent interest in Fabrica Argentina de Alpargatas, which manufactured fabric, shoes, and other consumer goods in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.

As a result of cotton pricing structures imposed by the federal government, Cone found itself losing its competitive edge in pricing for all-cotton fabrics to foreign producers. To combat this trend, the company began to increase the amount of synthetic fibers that it used in the fabrics it wove. These synthetic blends resulted in the introduction of stretch fabrics in 1962, and permanent press fabrics in 1964. In the following year, the company made a major shift in emphasis from all-cotton products to those made from a mix of cotton and synthetic fibers. These fabrics, which were used for newly fashionable casual and leisure-wear clothes, brought a higher price than simple cotton. Cone eventually offered more than 170 different blended cotton and synthetic products.

By the end of the decade, however, Cone had also seen a resurgence in the demand for its first product, denim, as jeans became a staple among the baby boom generation, evolving from functional work clothes to a fashion item. The extent of denim's domination of the youth fashion market was demonstrated in 1969, when Cone's denim warehouse at its White Oak plant was flooded after a torrential downpour fell on Greensboro. Faced with the task of washing and dying vast amounts of fabric, the company decided, at the suggestion of one of its marketing employees, to run the damaged fabric through a bleach solution while restoring it, to randomly remove its indigo dye. The resulting product, dubbed "pinto wash" denim, touched off a fashion fad. As further evidence of denim's popularity, Cone's Proximity Cotton Mills were converted back to their original function, the manufacture of denim, in 1970, to meet the rising demand. In addition, the company was producing a growing quantity of corduroy, as this fabric became a popular fashion item.

Proximity Mill. Looking towards the retention pond.

Proximity Mill. Looking towards Fairview Street


frayedattheedge said...

Thanks for another fascinating post about fabrics!!

flwrjane said...

Have loved reading the history of these mils and I imagine the town by extension.

But now I'm wondering where you are?
Hopefully off dong something fabulous? In any event hope all is well.

xo jane

Karen said...

Anne and Jane: I guess I should have posted something earlier when the computer crashed on me. I'm extremely limited as to what I can do here at work, certainly no blogging and uploading of pictures.

I'll be up and running by Friday. More pictures and stories of the mill and then on to other interesting pictures of North Carolina.