local firm's records provide gold mine for social, labor historians
the history of the University of Virginia's growth in the 20th
century is the history of another Charlottesville, one that does
not revolve around faculty and students. It's the story of the
town's working class, "a group of people heretofore invisible,"
U.Va. history professor Nelson Lichtenstein said recently.
Lichtenstein, U.Va. history professor, saves company records
from Frank Ix & Sons.
broader picture of the local blue-collar history may emerge from
the records of the Frank Ix & Sons textile firm, which Lichtenstein
moved quickly to preserve after the company declared bankruptcy
and sold its Charlottesville factory in late December. Ultimately,
the 60 boxes of material that he and graduate student Larry Richards
wheeled out of the eerily empty plant could provide invaluable
glimpses into the lives of generations of Central Virginia workers.
around here, it's an amazingly dense portrait of the working class,"
Lichtenstein said. "The life of probably 10,000 Central Virginians
went through this plant. You can get a feel for the texture of
working-class life in Charlottesville."
Ix files contain much more than time cards and payroll records,
he said. Federal requirements led to extensive record-keeping
on the racial makeup of the Ix workforce. There are files on the
company-built worker housing. There are medical and educational
records of its employees. The company newsletter regularly profiled
exemplary workers. (The University Library and Ix are still negotiating
the terms of the company's gift, and Lichtenstein expects that
there will be restrictions included to protect the confidentiality
of the company's employees.)
social history, the records also provide a detailed portrait of
what appears to be a prototypical American textile firm, including
sales promotion efforts, technological innovations, hiring and
firing practices, competitive conditions in the industry, land
and building acquisitions, and labor relations.
research has generally focused on the U.S. auto industry, but
he says study of the textile sector is increasing among historians.
"Really, the textile industry is just as important, if not
more important. Understanding this industry is important in and
of itself, and also because it has some lessons about the global
Ix & Sons has a classic profile among American textile firms.
It was founded in 1919 in Union City, N.J. by a German immigrant,
Frank Ix, and depended largely upon a skilled workforce.
innovations led to less of a need for skilled labor, and in 1928
the factory moved to Charlottesville, where the cost of doing
business was much lower. "In those days, the wage differential
between the North and South was the greatest since the Civil War,"
Ix & Sons became Charlottesville's largest manufacturing concern,
a position it held for many years until it was eclipsed by Sperry
Marine, now Litton Marine Systems. During World War II, Ix manufactured
parachutes to slow the descent of bombs until the planes that
dropped them could safely steal away. Afterward, it began manufacturing
synthetics, especially a product called "gray yarn,"
unfinished material that was shipped elsewhere. "They were
booming in the '40s, the post-war era," Lichtenstein said.
At its height, the Ix plant employed about 1,400 workers.
unions made three unsuccessful attempts at organizing the Ix plant.
Most recently, a 1980 union vote failed by a nearly two-to-one
who is writing his dissertation on Southern workers' resistance
to labor unions, will be the first student to benefit from the
"gold mine." He had been looking for a textile mill
to study, and thought he might have to travel to North Carolina
to find one.
got my Southern textile mill right here," he said. "We
have very complete records of that particular  campaign."
that time, Ix & Sons was already beginning to decline from its
post-war heyday. Ultimately, it was done in by the same factor
that led it to leave New Jersey in 1928: cheaper labor, now found
overseas, that prevented it from being competitive.
he heard of the company's bankruptcy, Lichtenstein called its
current owner, Charles Ix, grandson of the founder, and inquired
about the records. "Bankrupt companies leave the best manuscript
trail, because in most instances managers have neither the will,
time, nor legal need to cull their records," Lichtenstein
explained in a letter to U.Va. administrators requesting $2,000
in emergency funds to save the files.
Ix was willing to donate the records, but stressed that time was
of the essence. The building was to be turned over to its new
owners by April, and needed to be emptied long before then.
The University Library agreed to store 60 boxes in Special Collections,
and by mid-January, Lichtensten and Richards were hauling them
away. "We could have filled up thousands of boxes,"
Lichtenstein said. "The art of being an archivist is choosing."
the plant was strange, he said, noting that he occasionally took
his students there when the factory was in full, noisy operation.
Now the giant looms are silent, and only a few people remain to
clean up and assist those who come to take away the surplus machinery.
"It was depressing and impressive at the same time,"