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Bankrupt local firm's records provide gold mine for social, labor historians

By Dan Heuchert

Beyond 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.

Nelson Lichtenstein
Stephanie Gross
Nelson Lichtenstein, U.Va. history professor, saves company records from Frank Ix & Sons.

A 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.

"For 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."

The 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.)

Beyond 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.

Lichtenstein's 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 economy."

Frank 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.

Technological 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," Lichtenstein said.

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.

Labor unions made three unsuccessful attempts at organizing the Ix plant. Most recently, a 1980 union vote failed by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Richards, 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.

"I've got my Southern textile mill right here," he said. "We have very complete records of that particular [1980] campaign."

By 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.

When 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."

Visiting 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," he said.


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