Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill- Early Years
The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill was founded in 1881 by Jacob Elsas, Isaac May, Morris Adler and Julius Dryfus. These four partners owned a bag factory in downtown Atlanta which began operations in the 1870’s. Over the course of the 1870’s the bag factory outgrew its downtown location and its owners looked for a new location to expand their operation.
The site that they obtained was located on the then outskirts of Atlanta. The present day location of the Stacks at Fulton Cotton Mill was on land that had been used by the Atlanta Mining and Rolling Mill. The site was chosen by Elsas and his partners due to its proximity to the railroad, and its access to an underground branch of the Yellow River. In addition, the undeveloped land surrounding the mill site could be used as space for worker housing.
The workers in this mill came from the surrounding Piedmont region, with many workers having had experience in other mills prior to coming to Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. When workers arrived in Atlanta they took advantage of the ability of not living in company housing provided by the Cotton Mill. The maximum percentage of workers living in company housing is estimated at around 60 percent in 1900. This choice in housing allowed workers a small escape from the paternalistic corporate policies that were typical of many Mill Complexes in the South at this time.
While there was some small escape from company control through housing choice, the Cotton Mill and the Company dominated life in Cabbagetown. The Cotton Mill worked hand in glove with various social service organizations in the community, making sure that workers remembered who their munificent benefactors were. The structure of the Cotton Mill Complex dominates the landscape, towering over the surrounding neighborhood. The Cotton Mill was the reason for the existence of the neighborhood, as well as the reason for its continued existence. Almost all the structures in Cabbagetown owed their existence to the economic output of the Cotton Mill.
Work at the Cotton Mill was arduous. In the 1880s, when Fulton Bag first opened, mill workers worked on average 72 hours a week. By 1886 workers at Fulton Bag had negotiated a 69 hour work week, working three more hours a week than they had initially requested. By 1912 workers were working a 60 hour work week. While the number of work hours per week had fallen, the Cotton Mill was still a dangerous and unpleasant physical work environment. Mill workers recall the lack of ventilation and the suffocating nature of the lint-filled air. In 1912, the Atlanta Constitution published a story detailing the gruesome account of how a 60 year old employee had his arm ripped from its socket when his hand got caught in a picker machine.
During the early 20th century there was a shift in the wage system at the mill. Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill transitioned to a piecework wage system, which paid workers for the number of goods produced rather than hours worked. The consequence of this piecework wage system was that workers could not predict a set weekly wage. Additionally, the Cotton Mill had a system of fines that further reinforced the wage instability as a result of the piecework wage system. The stated goal of the fines was to improve efficiency, but instead they created resentment of management by the workers. Workers found themselves arbitrarily fined by management for machinery or equipment that broke, products deemed substandard by management, and laxity on the job. The feeling amongst the workers was that these fines were unfair and often workers felt that they were fined for things beyond their direct control such as equipment failure. These fines led to resentment between the workers and the mill’s management and ownership.
In addition to the changing pay structure, Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill tightened its rules and became more vigilant in enforcing their fine system. In October of 1913, 200 workers from Mill 2, mostly male, walked out over disputes between the loom fixers and management. The discontent stemmed from William Fowler being fired by management for an argument with Ernest Metzger, a representative of mill management. While this strike was short lived, and did not achieve its goals the repercussions on those involved would further widen the gulf between labor and management.
In the 1910’s the United Textile Workers, as well as other unions looked to establish a foothold in Southern industry. After the October 1913 strike Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill penalized employees who had joined a labor union. By May of 1914 only one quarter of worker activists who participated in the October strike were still employed by Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill.