by Ilene J. Cornwell
“I got my first job when I was thirteen years old, working from six in the morning ‘til six at night. . .six days a week, making fifty cents a day,” recalled Josie Coleman (1901-1986), during an oral history interview in 1972. She was referring to the summer of 1914, when she left her family’s double-log home in Spring Hill, Tennessee, to work in Nashville. Her father Jessie, a farmer supporting ten children younger than Josephine, drove the girl and her shawl-wrapped belongings the thirty-five miles to the city in a mule-drawn wagon.
The previous few years had been unfortunate ones for the Colemans and other Tennessee farmers. Texas fever, a disease caused by micro-organisms transmitted by tick bites, had invaded the state and killed or quarantined most livestock. That calamity, compounded by the summer drought of 1914 and Maury County’s epidemic of hog cholera that affected the crops and hogs raised by the Colemans, had brought the farm to a standstill. Thus, when Josie’s uncle, preacher Joshua Nellums, reported in glowing terms on the ready market for labor in industrialized Nashville, first-born Josie decided that Nashville was the place to be. She could lodge with her aunt and uncle on Tenth Avenue North after she secured a job at one of the many factories and mills in the city.
At that time, Nashville already was established as a thriving commercial center. Flour had been the city’s chief product since 1899, when Royal Flour Mill was established. Royal adopted the innovative marketing practice of Ford Flour Company, offering five- and ten-cent sacks of flour to consumers instead of the usual barrel quantities. Homemakers immediately embraced the practice and established Royal Flour (later Martha White) as the area leader in flour sales. The brisk lumber trade had made Nashville the leading hardwood center of the South, and numerous factories—including Warioto Cotton Mills, Jamison Spring and Mattress Company, Tennessee Manufacturing Company, May Hosiery Mill, and Hartsford Hosiery Mill—offered steady employment to anyone willing to work.
Josie Coleman was more than willing to work; she was eager. Her first job was at Hartsford Hosiery Mill on Twelfth Avenue North at Harrison Street. She and “lots of other young girls” and women worked for fifty cents a day, six days a week, feeding the machinery that turned out long-length ribbed stockings for boys and girls. She threaded loops of cotton and wool on the large needles of a pre-set pattern or form; the needles created “everything. . .the toe, ribbing, and ends.” Then she had to transfer the stocking to a footer for finishing. The stockings of white yarn were later dyed black, a hue obtained by sulphuric dyes. This process was performed away from the processing factory, since the dye was extremely toxic. “And that dye really did smell,” Josie laughed. “It was a combination like rotten eggs and spoiled food. . .I don’t see how those folks stirring the dye vats stood that job!”
Josie remained at Hartsford for four years. “I paid fifty cents board to my Uncle Josh, kept a precious fifty cents for streetcar fare during the week, carried a tin pail with my lunch each day, and sent two dollars to my folks in Spring Hill,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “I felt I was making big money!” During that time, her father sold the Spring Hill farm and brought the family to Nashville, buying a residence in the 1700 block of Fourth Avenue North. Josie moved in with the family and obtained a job with the H. G. Hill Flour Mill on Van Buren Street. At the seasoned age of sixteen, she acquired a “better paying job” with the Tennessee Manufacturing Company on Eighth Avenue North. She began by sewing sacks of starched calico cotton used for packaging flour and meal. “Ladies really loved those sacks,” she laughed. “When they were empty, the sacks were washed and the stitches cut out so that curtains and clothes could be made from them. I’ve wondered if the ‘free’ fabric ladies got when they bought flour wasn’t more important than the product!”
During the ten years Josie Coleman worked for Tennessee Manufacturing / Werthan Bag, she married and had her first child. Motherhood prompted her to leave the work force in 1928. Looking back on those years, she observed philosophically, “Maybe the years have made me forget a lot of the hurtful things, but fifty cents a day was good money in 1914, especially for a kid right off a Spring Hill farm. I was paid hard cash for my work, and it bought a lot for the whole family. Getting paid money to work gave me a good feeling, and I liked it. . .I have no regrets.”
The Werthan Bag building on Eighth Avenue North is the largest surviving nineteenth-century factory in the Middle Tennessee area. The first of the buildings was constructed in 1871 by the Tennessee Manufacturing Company, and the mill began operation early in 1872, according to W. W. Clayton’s History of Davidson County, Tennessee (p.222). Plant additions were made in the 1880s. Werthan Bag Corporation bought the plant in the early 1900s and continued to offer steady employment for the flood of workers forced off rural farms by drought and livestock diseases. (Werthan Bag Company photograph courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives. Children's photograph from NHN collection.)