In Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, Cathy N. Davidson writes:
“When the last worker passed through the doors of White Furniture Company in May of 1993, hardly anyone beyond the city limits of Mebane, North Carolina, noticed. In national terms, it made little difference that 203 men and women were out of work or that a venerable, family-owned firm (the ‘South’s oldest maker of fine furniture’) had been sold to a conglomerate and now was being shut down. After all, what happened to White’s is hardly unique. In the 1990s, in every walk of life and on all social levels, Americans have had to learn a new vocabulary of economic anxiety – layoff, outsourcing, buyout, off-shoring, downsizing, closing. The statistics are mind-numbing: 70,000 people laid off from General Motors in 1991; 50,000 workers from Sears and 63,000 from IBM in 1993; 40,000 from AT&T in 1996. In these times, why should we care about the closing of one furniture factory in a small southern town?”
Davidson’s text accompanies Bill Bamberger’s photographs, which document the closing of this small American factory and capture the artisans, many of whom were masters of their craft. White’s Furniture Company operated by assembly line, though many of the details were executed by hand. The company was small, almost unknown, but to people in the know, White’s was regarded as one of the highest quality furniture crafters in America. Though Closing was published in 1999, nearly fifteen years ago, the trend of downsizing and outsourcing has continued, and our American factories have all but disappeared. Production, as we well know, has mostly been shipped overseas.
Bamberger’s images are primarily black and white and follow the closing of the factory, from shots of the workers making furniture, to the day they learned the factory was closing, the signing of severance papers, and finally, the hauntingly empty factory floor after all the machinery had been auctioned off. Each chapter highlights an individual who worked at White’s Furniture Company, some of them for over 4 decades.
White’s was sold by its shareholders, mostly family members afraid of losing their inheritance as business waned without hope of improvement. But, even though jobs weren’t outsourced, the result of the closing is all too familiar for many communities. Too many jobs have been lost. Too many artisans have been forced into retirement.
As we gain momentum with A. Chanin, our line of machine-made garments and manufacturing facility, we’ve accepted applications from many sewers who worked for Tee Jays in the 1980s and early 1990s. Foreign competition proved too great for the Shoals garment industry to compete. The disappearance of jobs meant the closing of plants that were, for many, a home away from home. This resonates deeply when looking through the pages of Closing.
Interviews with the former employees at White’s Furniture Company reveal a deep-seated pride for the work they did. They made tangible things. At the end of each day, they left the factory with a sense of accomplishment and purpose. It seems as though we have lost quite a bit of that purpose and pride in our country, not only by losing the jobs that once fed it, but also the opportunity to make things, to use one’s hands, and to develop a skilled and needed craft.
The above image depicts the factory floor at White’s Furniture Company, after the machines had been sold and the factory closed. Its starkness reminds us of our own factory, just before the sewing machines we’ll use to produce our machine-sewn garments arrived. While we won’t pretend to have all the answers, or to be heroes in this light, we do hope that we might bring back just a little of what’s been lost from closed American factories.
Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, by Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson, is published by W.W. Norton & Company.