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History of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills

By Christine de Catanzaro

The beginnings of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill can be traced to Atlanta in 1868, when Jacob Elsas, an immigrant of German Jewish descent who had recently arrived in Atlanta from Cincinnati , began work in the city in the rag, paper, and hide business. Elsas soon recognized the need of his and other area businesses for cloth and paper containers to house their goods. Within two or three years Elsas had switched to the new business of manufacturing cloth and paper bags and had joined forces with fellow German Jewish immigrant Isaac May. In January 1872, the new company became known as Elsas, May and Company. Located in the former Atlanta slave market house, the company expanded during the 1870s; by the end of the decade, the firm consisted of a bleachery, print shop, and bag mill, and it employed between 100 and 160 workers, including women and children.

After receiving financial backing from Cincinnati banker Lewis Seasongood, the company began construction of a new complex of buildings on the south side of the Georgia Railroad line, east of downtown. By 1881 the company had become known as the Fulton Cotton Spinning Company, adding a bag factory to the new site in 1882. By the end of the 1880s the partnership between Jacob Elsas and Isaac May had discontinued. One part of the company evolved into the Elsas, May Paper Company and the other, led by Jacob Elsas and incorporated in 1889, became the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Company.

Within a few years Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Company had outgrown the capacity of the existing buildings, resulting in the construction of a second mill on the Atlanta site in 1895, with more than 40,000 spindles. A third mill added 50,000 additional spindles by 1907. In addition, a neighboring village with housing for the mill workers was well established by the turn of the twentieth century. Bag plants in New Orleans and St. Louis were bought during the 1890s, and mills in New York and Dallas began operation in the early years of the twentieth century. Additional plants in Minneapolis and Kansas City were established during and after World War I, and a plant in Denver was added in 1945, at the end of World War II. Expansion of the Atlanta plant also continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century: Offices, two picker buildings, and several warehouses were constructed during these years, and the Jacob Elsas Clinic and Nursery was established in the early 1940s.

Despite the early prosperity of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, the company was troubled by periods of labor unrest. A wage dispute resulted in a two-day strike in November 1885. A second brief strike occurred in August 1897, when white workers protested the hiring of black women. The 1897 strike was settled after five days. A lengthier strike took place in 1914-1915, triggered by management's disapproval of the growing efforts among the workers to join the United Textile Workers. Besides the issue of unionization, the strikers demanded an increase in wages, a 54-hour work week, and a decrease in the use of child labor. The strike gained national notoriety when it drew the attention of the newly formed U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, who sent representatives to Atlanta to gather testimonies in March 1915. The strike ultimately failed in May of that year.

Many of Jacob Elsas' large family assumed management roles in Atlanta as well as in the other locations of the company. After his retirement at age 70, Jacob turned over the Presidency of the firm to his son Oscar in 1914. Sons Victor, Adolph, and Eugene worked in New Orleans , New York , and Dallas , respectively. Another son, Benjamin, succeeded Oscar as President in 1924. In 1942 a grandson, Norman Elsas, assumed the Presidency of the firm, followed by a second grandson, William Elsas, who served briefly as President in 1950. Following William's sudden death, Clarence Elsas, also a grandson, took over the Presidency in 1951. Clarence Elsas served as President until 1956, and again held the position from 1960 to 1968.

Jacob Elsas played an instrumental role in the founding of the Georgia Institute of Technology. He became one of the early customers of the Georgia Tech shops, and he enrolled his son Oscar at the school for two years. Other family members, including Jacob's grandson William, also attended Tech. Elsas' activities also extended to philanthropy, particularly in the support of the Grand Opera House, the Hebrew Orphan's Home, and Grady Hospital in Atlanta . The elder Elsas died in 1931.

Changes in packaging after World War II sparked changes within the company. Products such as multiwall paper bags, canvas goods, osnaburgs and barrier materials replaced some of the old products, to respond to the new market opportunities presented in the postwar era. In 1956, Eastern and Midwestern investors bought controlling interest in the company, the nine bag manufacturing companies were sold, and in 1960 the parent company became Fulton Industries Inc. The Atlanta mill, which remained known as Fulton Cotton Mill, continued in operation under the management of Elsas family members until 1968. In that year Fulton Industries Inc. was sold to Allied Products Corporation. Fulton Cotton Mill's last President, Meno Schoenbach, served in that position from 1971 until 1978, the year the Atlanta mill finally closed its doors.

In 1997 Aederhold Properties redeveloped the historic Fulton Cotton Mill in Atlanta into a mixed-income community of 182 loft apartments.


History by a Graveyard : The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Records

By Robert C. McMath, Jr.

 PDF version (includes photographs)

Passengers headed east from downtown Atlanta , Georgia , on the rapid rail line are, without knowing it, retracing the arch of the city's nineteenth century industrial crescent. Following the curve of the main railroad corridor, the MARTA train glides past Oakland Cemetery, where lie buried many of the city's illustrious citizens-among them novelist Margaret Mitchell, golfer Bobby Jones and industrialist Jacob Elsas. Just beyond Oakland Cemetery is another graveyard of sorts, the massive red brick remains of the textile complex which Jacob Elsas built, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills.

The sprawling complex of turn-of-the-century mill buildings, flanked by frame houses which once comprised a mill village known as Cabbagetown, stands vacant and in disrepair. Most MARTA passengers would be surprised to know that less than two decades ago Fulton Bag employed two thousand workers and every week consumed one thousand bales of cotton and produced two million yards of textile goods. For almost a century Fulton Bag was one of Atlanta 's largest industrial firms. Now it shows no more signs of life than Oakland Cemetery.

Sometimes archivists and industrial historians must, like undertakers, practice their craft just after a death has occurred-a mill closing or the takeover of a family-owned business by a conglomerate. It was in just such a situation that my colleague Jim Brittain and I began our association with Fulton Bag. In the late 1970s, soon after the mill closed, we used it as a research site for a class in industrial archeology. Along with our students we toured the mill complex, guided by a former president of the firm (agrandson of Jacob Elsas) and the company's last plant engineer, who was employed by the successor firm to keep an eye on the property. Visual inspection of the buildings and machinery, interviews, examination of public records, and research in the small collection of Fulton Bag records at Emory University provided the students with material for papers on the technological, economic and labor history of the mill. However, no one seemed to know where the bulk of the company records were, although filing cabinets of some description had been seen in a dark basement of the mill.

In 1985, when the mill property was about to be sold again, an official of the firm which had bought the company from the Elsas family called me to say that the company was interested in donating Fulton Bag records to the Georgia Institute of Technology. Although Georgia Tech had only a small archival facility, university officials agreed to accept the papers, process them for scholarly use, and use that collection as the foundation of a larger archival program focusing on industrial and technological history.

When our crew of librarians and historians arrived at the mill to pick up the papers, officials proudly showed us to the former executive offices where bound ledger volumes were neatly stacked. After loading these business records (257 volumes in all), we asked about the other materials which we had seen earlier in the basement. Our guide expressed surprise at our interest, but said we were welcome to whatever was down there. We retrieved a large set of architectural and engineering drawings, five file cabinets full of personnel cards, and an assortment of other materials. Not until the materials were out of the basement and in temporary storage at Georgia Tech did we fully comprehend their significance. Despite some serious gaps, the Fulton Bag papers provide an unusual and in some regards unique view of life inside a southern textile mill and mill community.

The business records are themselves unusually rich by southern standards, though scores of such collections have survived for northern mills. Concentrated in the period between the 1890s and the 1930s, they include payroll records, ledgers and journals, accident reports and property inventories. While most of the records pertain to the Atlanta facility, there are some records for the company's branch plants in New Orleans , Brooklyn, St. Louis , Minneapolis , Denver and Dallas.

The architectural and engineering drawings are unusual among surviving mill records. Though not yet catalogued, there are approximately twelve hundred drawings, including elevations, floor plans and mechanical and electrical systems-which, taken together, document the evolution of the mill complex and power systems.

The personnel records are, so far as I know, unique among the collections of southern mill records under archival control, consisting of approximately fifty thousand personnel cards, and covering the period from 1915. Similar to the cards for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire, used by Tamara Hareven,(1) the Fulton Bag personnel records provide a wealth of data on employment and family history for each worker, along with medical and other personal information. We have plans for converting all of the personnel cards to machine-readable form, but for the foreseeable future scholarly use of these records will be restricted so as to maintain confidentiality.

The Fulton Bag records include very little in the way of executive correspondence. However, the one cache of executive material that did find its way into the archive is the most remarkable sub-set of the collection: approximately five linear feet of correspondence to and from Oscar Elsas, president of the firm between 1913 and 1923. Approximately two thirds of the material relates to the strike at Fulton Bag in 1914-15 and to other aspects of labor relations in the period 1913-15. The balance of the material relates to labor relations at Fulton Bag's Atlanta mill and its branch houses in Dallas, New Orleans, New York and St. Louis in the period 1918-23.

During 1913-15 Elsas carried on extensive correspondence with other mill presidents, trade association officials, editors of textile journals, Atlanta governmental and civic leaders, and private security agencies concerning the strike and other aspects of labor relations. During and after the strike Elsas contracted with security companies to place agents in the mill and the surrounding community to pose as workers and infiltrate the union. During and even after the strike, operatives reported to Elsas on a daily basis concerning the mood of the workers, union organizing activities and working conditions and technical problems in the various departments of the mill. Some of the reports bear penciled notations in Oscar Elsas' hand on actions to be taken as a result of the reports.

As with any other historical source, one must approach these operatives' reports with a healthy skepticism. The operatives did, after all, have their own agenda which no doubt colored their reporting. But, when used with care, these documents provide a rare look inside a major strike, and provide new insights into a situation that was both volatile and complex.

In part, Elsas resorted to using labor spies because he did not trust city officials or the Atlanta police, nor did he believe that the commercial elite of the city were sympathetic to him. Many leading Atlantans were then involved in a social gospel organization, the Men and Religion Forward Movement, which was intent on reforming factory working conditions, and which contained, in Elsas' view, an anti-Semitic streak.

Furthermore, the Fulton Bag strike coincided with an outbreak of mass hysteria in Georgia surrounding the trial, conviction and lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager, for allegedly murdering a teenaged employee, Mary Phagan. Cabbagetown was a center of anti-Frank sentiment, and some of that animus was transferred to members of the Elsas family because they too were Jewish and, perhaps, because workers connected the labor practices of Fulton Bag with the system of industrial efficiency which Frank had been installing at the pencil factory.

The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Papers reveal intimate details of the lives of both workers and owner-more intimate, no doubt, than either would wish to have revealed. But these are the kinds of records from which an honest reconstruction of southern textile history can be drawn. Unfortunately, for every Fulton Bag story there are many other archival stories with an unhappy ending--records lost, or destroyed or rotting in an unknown location. The family-owned mills which sprang up in the decades between the 1880s and 1910s are either closing or being swallowed up by conglomerates with no interest in the preservation of someone else's history.

We are now at a point in the preservation of the documentary and artifactual remains of post-Civil War southern industrialization which is analogous to the preservation in the 1920s and 1930s of records of antebellum plantations and Afro-American slavery. This part of our heritage will be preserved soon or not at all. If we wish the dry bones of southern industrial and labor history to rise up and take on flesh and blood, the time to act is now.


Robert C. McMath, Jr., is a professor of history at Georgia Institute of Technology and is author or coauthor of five books, including Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers' Alliance: HD1485.F24 M3 1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1975) and Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech, 1885-1985 T171.G59 E54 1985 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985). He is presently working on two books: a social history of American Populism (to be published by Hill and Wang); and a book about William Raoul, who grew up in Atlanta's high society before the turn of the century, set out to become a mechanical engineer, held a variety of industrial management jobs, and ended up being converted to socialism and moving to Greenwich Village (to be published by Louisiana State University Press).

(1) See Hareven and Randolvh Langenbach, Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City: HD9879 .A5 H37 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); and Hareven, Family Time and Industrial Time: The Relationship between the Family and Work in a New England Industrial Community: HD6956 .T42 U65 1993 (Cambridge University Press, 1982).