What is Tobacco Bag Stringing?
Much needed income was earned by sewing drawstrings into small cotton tobacco bags in the Southern tobacco areas during the Great Depression. (UNC University Library)
[The following articles & photos contributed by Jerry Dagenhart]
The Stringers of Alexander County
Finances strung together through Cottage Industries
In the late 19th and Early 20th centuries many Alexander County residents supplemented their incomes through cottage industries. Women young and old spun thread and yarn for hire on their spinning wheels. Both women and men wove cloth , counterpanes, blankets and even rag rugs on huge barn looms. Men and women wove baskets from the abundant raw materials in the county such as oak splits, honeysuckle, willow and other materials.
Young men and boys cut and supplied fire wood, wove chair bottoms from oak and maple and rush. My Grandfather Lloyd Bowman charged a mere 10 cents per chair bottom during the depression.
Farmers gathered their produce and drove as far away as Salisbury to sell their farm goods to city dwellers. Entire families cut and prepared Railroad ties,and still others were employed in wild crafting gathering ginseng, bloodroot, sassafras, cherry bark and other abundant wild herbs and selling them to the local country stores who in turn sold them to distributors.
One such cottage industry that has almost been forgotten was stringing tobacco bags. The local agents for the Tobacco industry would distribute hundreds of tiny cotton bags,Spools of yellow coarse thread,and needles and the families would in turn sew the the draw strings into the bags so that once returned to the factories tobacco could be put in them and the bags would then be drawn shut by the string. This was of course in the days of hand rolled cigarettes. Families had to string thousands of bags by lamp and fire light, after their other daily chores were complete, in order to earn the meager sums paid by the factories through the distribution agents.
Several NC counties have well preserved records of the Stringers and Wilkes county even has WPA photos of many that were employed in the industry. Sadly all that remains of Alexander Counties participation is a letter from Luther Dyson pleading on behalf of the some 500 stringing families of Alexander county whose income was about to be discontinued.
ALEXANDER COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE
September 6, 1938
Mr. O. L. Crabtree
Dear Mr. Crabtree:
I have been informed that the stringing of bags in the county may be discontinued. We have approximately 500 stringers that received $10,000.00 annually. The majority of these workers are small farmers, and depend largely on this money for their income. I feel if this would be discontinued a majority of these families would be forced to apply to the Welfare Department for aid. We now have a tremendous case load in this county, and it will be impossible for us to render assistance to these stringers.
I personally know what the stringing of bags means to these people, for having been reared in the country I can very well remember how when I was a child my own people depended upon the stringing of bags for food and clothes.
I am sure that anything that can be done to keep this little business running will be greatly appreciated by all concerned.
Very truly yours,
(Signed) Luther Dyson
Luther Dyson, Superintendent
Department of Public Welfare,
Luther Dyson was my Grandmother's first cousin and he was referring to his parents Joseph Columbus (Lum)and Missourie Pennell Dyson who were his folks. (Photo below)
My great-grandparents, William Jefferson (Jeff) and Mary Jane Barlow Dyson resided on the Acre Rock Farm on Polk Street and were also stringers.
[Left to Right]
Jeff & Mary Jane Dyson - Lum & Missourie Dyson Lum Dyson - Jeff Dyson
Mary Jane Barlow Dyson kept three of the bags representative of the three different sizes her family strung, and when the work was discontinued the left over spools of yellow thread was used to tack comforters and quilts.
If one considers that perhaps the entire households of brothers Lum and Jeff Dyson were employed in this industry when Luther wrote the letter, that still only accounts for a small percentage of the 500 stringers in the county in 1938.
It is my hope that this article will help bring the names of the Stringers of Alexander county and their stories to light. I plan to research what records may exist in the Welfare department and the records of the WPA and the tobacco companies.
If you know a family that was employed in this industry or the names of the local distributors for Alexander county please contact me at the address below. Let's not lose this part of our shared heritage.
219 Anderson Hwy
Cumberland VA 23040
Tobacco Stringers in Winston-Salem with ties to Alexander County
My great-grandmother Sarah Katherine Malone Norris d.1944 (and probably her daughter, my grandmother Iona Graham Norris Dorit d. 1986) were very definitely tobacco bag stringers.
They lived in Durham, NC and strung bags for Duke's Mixture, a very popular smoking tobacco. I have a large bed spread that my great-grandmother started for me the day I was born (9 April 1935) and is crocheted entirely with tobacco bag strings. It must weigh 15-20 pounds. She died in 1944, but I remember her well. My grandmother told me how much they were paid for the piece work but I can't recall how much.
The Duke's Mixture people would come by the house with bundles of bags and large rolls of string. Later, they would come by for the finished bags and pay the women in cash. I vaguely remember the process, which lasted until the early 40s, I believe, when a bag-stringing machine was developed.
Charlie Weaver, Winston-Salem, NC
Charlie's ties to Alexander Co:
There were 2 Larkin Kerley's in Alexander Co about the same time. My Larkin was in the 1850 Alexander census. The other one died in 1841 and is buried in Alexander Co. Any info on my Larkin would be greatly appreciated. Also, any info on John Marley Jones who was also in Alexander.
Cemeteries | Military
Alexander Co GenWeb | Alexander Co Records
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