Industry, Commerce, and Labor

Industry in Virginia had its beginning in 1608 with the establishment of a glass factory at Jamestown. The next year settlers were producing not only glass ornaments for the Indian trade but also nets and seines, pitch, tar, and soap ashes. By 1609 artisans were turning out timber products of various sorts, and in 1611 the colonists began the manufacture of bricks. Though John Rolfe's introduction of tobacco culture in 1612 retarded industrial development, the London Company sent to Virginia in 1619 workmen skilled in many crafts and 'out of Sussex about forty; all framed to Iron-workes. At Falling Creek that year a foundry was established that achieved 'a very great forwardness' before all its workers were killed in 1622 by the Indians.

Shipbuilding, off to a creditable start soon thereafter, was interrupted by several Navigation Acts passed by a jealous England. Salt, manufactured on the eastern shore as early as 1620, was being exported to Massachusetts by 1633. Silk worm culture and the making of textiles had an early beginning; and basic necessities were soon produced in all settlements. English statutes in restraint of trade, however, and the evolution of plantation rather than community economy combined to curb industrial progress in Virginia. The small farmer instituted a subsistence program in the production of clothes, food, and implements; and the large planter exchanged his tobacco for imported luxuries. Nevertheless, in the later years of the seventeenth century Virginians had established several flour and grist mills that served areas beyond their immediate neighborhoods. In 1692, under the encouragement of Governor Andros, weaving and fulling mills began operation.

Virginia's first industrial community sprang up around Governor Alexander Spotswood's foundry, established at Germanna, in 1718. Soon other iron works were flourishing in the Tidewater and the land beyond the mountains. During the Revolution arms and ammunition were manufactured in Virginia, and in 1817 the Bellona Arsenal, which had been founded near Richmond in 1810, began to supply ordnance for the Federal Government.

For 50 years after the Revolution, however, the industrial graph of Virginia shows no upward trend. During this period many Virginians entertained strong prejudices against factories or corporations of any kind. They preferred the plantation and the freedom of farm life to the factory and its 'accompanying evils.' Freeholder and freeman were synonymous to the liberty-loving Virginian, and it was thought that diversion of people to manufactures would undermine her civil institutions. Factory employees were thought to lack the economic independence, the moral fiber, and the physical aggressiveness required to defend political liberty.

Between 1820 and 1840 the attitude in Virginia toward factories became more friendly. In 1827 the legislature was asked to encourage cotton manufacture and to ascertain whether Negro labor could be employed in that industry. One year later the Petersburg Virginian published an essay favoring the establishment of a cotton factory in Petersburg. In 1836 two cotton mills, with 400 spindles, 1170 looms, a machine shop, and a sizing house, were erected at Appomattox. In encouraging the development of cotton manufacturing in Virginia during that early period, the advocates of factories emphasized the advantages of a cheap labor supply. Figures exist showing that a man's wage was $2.75 per week in Virginia, while it was $7 in Massachusetts; that a woman's wage was $1-58 per week in Virginia, while it was $2.60 in New Hampshire. By 1839 there were three cotton mills in the State, with numbers of spindles ranging from 5,000 to 25,000, and five having 5,000 spindles or fewer.

During the War between the States several new factories were built hastily to meet the needs of the Confederacy. By 1863 there were 66 tanneries, 16 spinning mills, 14 flour mills, 5 iron works, 9 coal mines, 9 salt works, and 1 paper mill operating in Virginia. Many of these factories were destroyed before the close of the war.

After the war, Virginia, like the rest of the South, had to pass through a period of economic reconstruction. Conditions had improved greatly, however, by 1860, when the volume of industry in Virginia was greater than ever before. Richmond had resumed its position as an important flour-milling center. Iron smelting, cotton manufacture, tanning and leather-making, tobacco processing, and other forms of manufacture were making real progress. During this period the State was already being affected by mill owners' fruitful migration southward in search of cheap labor.

Industrial development in Virginia has been pronounced since 1900. Although the State is still classified as agricultural, a large proportion of its people is supported by industrial wages. In 1937 its manufacturing industries employed 132,643 wage earners, as compared with 66,233 in 1899.

During the same period the total annual wages paid to industrial workers increased from $20,273,889 to $112,773,796; the annual value of manufactured products increased from $108,644,150 to $908,222,316. The primary horsepower installed in Virginia manufactures increased from 136,696 in 1899 to 646,251 in 1929.

A rich supply of raw materials, adequate fuel and water power resources, a mild climate, a plentiful supply of labor, and good transportation facilities have helped to attract new industries. At present industries are more diversified in Virginia than in any other Southern state. No single type is predominant, and this variety promotes stability in employment and wages. The recent tendency to decentralize manufactories has also helped Virginia, since several outstanding Northern industries have established branches in the State. Most of the factories in Virginia produce consumer goods, including food products, shoes, clothing, hosiery, rayon, silk goods, cotton goods, and tobacco products. In 1929 approximately 56 per cent of Virginia's industrial workers were employed in the production of consumer goods, as compared with 47 per cent for the country as a whole. According to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, the increase in employment in the State since 1932 has resulted chiefly from the development of consumer-goods industries, which employed 65 per cent of Virginia's industrial workers in 1937. Almost tow-thirds of the wage earners added to industrial pay rolls since 1932 have been employed in consumer-goods industries. The predominance of light over heavy industries in Virginia is due largely to the character of natural resources that include neither iron ore nor types of coal suitable for smelting and to the character of the available labor, offering a larger supply of semiskilled and unskilled worker than of skilled. On the basis of the value of the product, the most important industry in Virginia is tobacco, including the manufacture of cigarettes, cigars, pipe, and plug tobacco, and snuff, with cigarettes and cigars in the lead. In the production of cigarettes Virginia is second only to North Carolina, having produced about 53,000,000,000 in the year ending July 1937--more than one-fourth the National output. This manufacture is concentrated in Richmond, although there are a few factories elsewhere. In 1937 this industry, with a product in Virginia valued at $279,329,749, employed nearly 5,000 workers earning an aggregate wage of $5,092,146. Of the total output of Virginia industry in 1937, valued at $908,222,316, the tobacco industry as a whole accounted for $303,381,676 or 33.4 per cent. The value added by manufacture was $72,019,292 or 21.4 per cent of the value added to the product of all Virginia industry. Nearly 9,ooo workers were engaged in the tobacco industry and were paid $8,743,377 in wages in 1937. These figures contrast sharply with those for 1909, when 7,882 workers were paid $2,162,000 by the tobacco industry in Virginia, and the product was valued at $25,385,000. The growth of Virginia, and Richmond in particular, as a center of tobacco manufacture has been due in large part to the proximity of an ample supply of semiskilled labor to the source of the raw material-the tobacco fields. Policies of the State government, especially favorable to local industry in regard to taxation, have been an important factor.

The textile industry made considerable progress during the first quarter of the present century. While Virginia has most of the advantages for textile manufacture enjoyed by other Southern States, the industry has not developed here too rapidly or as much out of proportion to other industries as in some other areas. The number of workers employed by this industry rose from 9 per cent of all industrial wage earners in Virginia in 1909 to 22 per cent in 1935--In 1937 there were more than 130 textile mills in Virginia. These included 10 cotton mills, 29 knitting mills, 17 woolen mills, 17 silk mills, 3 jute mills, and 3 dyeing and finishing plants. Employment in men's clothing factories increased 286 per cent from 1909 to 1929, and 54 per cent more by 1935; silk and rayon manufacture, exclusive of rayon yarn, increased 17.5 per cent and 69 per cent during the same periods; and knit goods 82 per cent and 29 per cent. The manufacture of furniture has made rapid progress in Virginia in the past 30 years. Among the Southern States the Old Dominion is now second only to North Carolina in furniture production. Employment in this industry increased 759 per cent between 1909, when it accounted for only 1 per cent of the State total, and 1937, when it accounted for nearly 7 per cent. The United States Census of Manufactures for 1937 listed 49 furniture plants in Virginia, employing 8,504 workers, paying annually wages of $6,601,638, and turning out products valued at $30,016,087.

Though not new in Virginia, the chemical industry has recently taken on new vitality. The manufacture of fertilizers has long been considerable in Virginia. In recent years, however, it has increased in importance because of a greater demand. In 1937, the 49 plants listed by the United States census employed 2,460 wage earners, paid annually wages amounting to 81,474,587, and manufactured products valued at $20,495,097. Chemical factories in Virginia produce, in addition to fertilizers, soda ash, caustic soda, bicarbonate of soda, cellulose, rayon, fixed nitrogen, and a number of heavy chemicals. The plant of the Solvay Process Company of Hopewell, successor to the Atmospheric Nitrogen Corporation, is said to be the largest nitrogen plant in the world.

In a brief period the manufacture of rayon yarn has become an important factor in the State's industrial development. Virginia mills producing rayon and allied products employed 10,637 workers in 1937, paid annual wages of $112,999,444, and produced goods with a total annual value of $55,897,047. Among the factors that have brought about the rapid expansion of the rayon industry in Virginia have been a water supply with a low dissolved iron content and a none too high priced labor supply. The fact that one large company, when its employees struck for better working conditions, closed its plant permanently and moved its machinery to South America indicates the importance placed upon docile labor.

The development of transportation facilities in Virginia has been responsible for the growth here of industries producing and repairing transportation equipment. In 1937 railroad repair shops in Virginia gave employment to more than 9,000 workers and paid total wages of more than $13,500,000. Shipbuilding, another important Virginia industry, employed in 1937 about 11,000 workers, paid an annual wage bill of about $20,000,000, and turned out products valued at almost $41,000,000. This industry-both in private hands and in the Norfolk Navy Yard is concentrated in the Hampton Roads area, having been attracted here largely by the commerce and deepwater facility of this great port. Virginia has also a large number of other industries of importance. Food products of various kinds, including both fish and vegetable canneries; paper and printing; leather and its products; and machinery, contribute to the State's income. In addition, much capital is invested in the mineral industries, chief among which are the mining and processing of coal, clay, limestone, and sand and gravel. Most of the titanium produced in North America comes from Virginia; and the State is the largest producer of soapstone. Cement manufacture is also important. The annual valuation of the raw materials mined and quarried ranges in normal years from $35,000,000 to $50,000,000. Between 300 and 400 different mines and quarries are in operation from year to year.

Virginia has maintained a happy balance between industry and agriculture. Because its industries are diversified, stability of employment is fostered, and workers are given some freedom in selecting a trade. Diversification, moreover, has its advantages in times of general business depression, since during such periods all industries are not affected alike.

Virginia has been more fortunate than most other Southern States, however, in that several of the industries that have located within its boundaries have been in the high-wage class. Many lowest-wage industries have passed over Virginia because more favorable conditions for their operations could be found farther southward. Nevertheless, a considerable number of low-wage industries have come to the State. This situation is fostered and encouraged by the offer by many localities of free factory sites, tax exemptions for a number of years, free rent, and other subsidies. Many of the firms accepting these offers are marginal firms, which seek to prolong their existence by low production costs. Most of them employ a large proportion of women workers and seek to take advantage of the low labor standards that can be found in Virginia. Such concerns have been found to be an economic and social liability to the State. It is now generally recognized that permanent industrial progress in Virginia can be secured only through the encouragement of industries that can offer continuous employment and that can afford to pay such wages as will enable workers to enjoy a decent standard of living.


Since early Colonial times commerce has played an important part in the economic development of Virginia. For a long time after the first settlers reached Virginia, the tidal waterways and rivers afforded the most satisfactory means of transportation in the eastern part of the colony. English ships, loaded with manufactures of various kinds, visited the wharves of the many plantations along the rivers to exchange their wares for Virginia's chief product, tobacco. These waters are still used by bay and river vessels, but their traffic is small in comparison with the rail traffic in the State. Virginia's real commercial development has been to a large degree the result of the railroad, which made possible connection of Tidewater ports with the regions west of the mountains. Much of Virginia's foreign and domestic trade passes through the ports of Hampton Roads. Eight trunk-line railroads have their terminals in this area, and deliver to the docks products of the South, the Middle West, and the North. As a shipping center and railroad terminal the Hampton Roads area has grown to be the third-largest commercial center along the Atlantic seaboard, and its facilities have played a significant part in making Virginia an industrial center. Most of the exports of the Hampton Roads ports are products from Virginia and the States near by. The value of exports through the customs district of Virginia in 1935, as reported by the United States Department of Commerce, was $122,580,000. Leaf tobacco and cigarettes accounted for $102,601,000 of the total. Seventy per cent of all the leaf tobacco exported from the United States in 1935 passed through Hampton Roads. Most of the leaf tobacco sent through the Hampton Roads ports is the bright flue-cured leaf of Virginia and North Carolina. In addition to tobacco exports, the records show that cotton piece goods, cotton linters, lumber, coal, tanning extracts, iron and steel scrap, steel sheets, and chemicals are important items in the export trade of Hampton Roads, both in value and in volume.

Virginia's exports greatly exceed its imports. Imports into the customs district of Virginia in 1935 were valued at $29,188,000, or less than one fourth the value of exports. The most important products imported into the State were molasses, cotton and burlap, cigarette tobacco, bananas, ores, inedible oils, and crude gypsum.

The coastwise trade of the Hampton Roads area in 1935 totaled 16,600,000 tons, made up of 14,900,000 outbound and 1,700,000 inbound. Coal accounted for 14,000,000 tons of the outgoing cargo. Other commodities in the coastwise movement of products into and out of Virginia ports were cotton piece goods, petroleum products, leaf and manufactured tobacco, peanuts, lumber, and vegetables.

Virginia's water-borne commerce constitutes only a small part of her total trade. In 1935 there were 2,123 wholesale establishments in the State, with a total net sales return of $502,951,000. At the same time there were 26,757 retail stores, with net sales of $471,329,000. The annual sales per store amounted to $22,759, and the sales per capita were $246.42.


Notwithstanding the existence of several large cities, Virginia's labor supply resides preponderantly in small towns and rural districts. The population of the State in 1930 was 2,421,851. Of this number 785,537--or 32.4 per cent-lived in urban centers, and 1,636,34--or 67.6 per cent lived in rural sections. Although between 1920 and 1930 the number of towns and cities with populations of 2,500 or more increased from 38 to 45, the percentage of people living in urban communities increased by only 3.2 per cent. Thus, while the industrial development of the State is steadily drawing people from farms to urban centers, Virginia is still predominantly rural; and there are still thousands of people in rural districts who constitute a potential labor supply for new factories. Many of the industries recently established in Virginia are drawing upon this labor reserve.

A large rayon company chose a site with the expectation of drawing most of its personnel from a city near by. At the end of the first year, however, it was found that only 11 per cent of its workers lived in that city, while 89 per cent came from the rural area within a radius of 25 miles from the plant. According to the census of 1930, only 23,820 people-less than 1 per cent of Virginia's population-were foreign born. Industrial expansion in Virginia began just as the great era of immigration into America was coming to an end, and the bulk of it has taken place since the World War, when immigration practically ceased. The rural reserve of native labor has further discouraged immigration into the State.

In 1930 nearly one-fourth, or 650,165, of the total population of the State was Negro. In 1935 there were 37,568 Negro workers employed in manufacturing plants in Virginia. There is no evidence, however, that Negro workers have come into competition with white workers except in the unskilled trades. For instance, in the tobacco industry, Negro labor is employed almost entirely in rehandling tobacco. In this branch of the tobacco industry 4,130 Negro females and 2,892 Negro males were employed in 1935, while only 182 white males and no white females were similarly occupied. On the other hand, in the manufacture of cigarettes 2,655 white females and 1,439 white males were employed, as compared with 809 Negro females and 965 Negro males. A large number of Negro male and female workers were employed in the manufacture of food and kindred products, and almost 6,000 Negro males were employed in the wood products industries. Most of the consumer-goods industries give employment to a large number of women workers. These and other light industries with modern machines have attracted women tenders into many industries formerly closed to them. The Virginia State Planning Board found that from 1909 to 1929 the total number of persons employed by Virginia industries increased 13.4 per cent, but that the gains in the number of women employed accounted for go per cent of the total. Employment of males during the same period did not keep pace with the growth of population, while female employment increased more than five times as fast as did the number of people in the State. The lower wage scale prevailing for women has contributed to this increase. The annual report of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry in 1935showed 43,365 female workers employed by industries in Virginia. Of these, 12,256 were Negroes. Ninety-five per cent of nearly 50,000 female industrial workers in Virginia in 1937 were engaged in the production of consumer goods, particularly in the manufacture of tobacco, food products, and textiles.

Studies made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor show that, while the wages paid by employers in Virginia are higher on the whole than those paid in other Southern States, they are only about two-thirds as high as those paid in the North. In 1930 the average full-time weekly wage of employees in the cotton goods industry in Virginia was $15.43, for a work week of 54.7 hours, as compared with $20.92 for an average work week of 51 hours in six Northern States. In 1932 Virginia workers in the hosiery industry received an average fulltime weekly wage of $14.04 for 54.6 hours, as compared with $22-94 in Massachusetts for 48.2 hours, $23.52 in New Jersey for 47.7 hours, and $24.92 in New York for 48.1 hours. In the manufacture of underwear Virginia workers received $12.43 for an average work week of 49.7 hours, as compared with $19.39 in Massachusetts for 48 hours, and $18.89 in Pennsylvania for 52.9 hours. In the furniture industry the difference in wages was even greater. In 1931 workers in furniture plants in Virginia received an average full-time wage of $12.98 for a work week of 55 hours; in Illinois similar workers were paid $24-45 for 51 hours, in Massachusetts $28 for 48.4 hours, and in New York $24-01 for 51.4 hours.

No authoritative study has been made of the relative efficiency of workers in the North and those in Virginia and other Southern States. It is certainly true, however, that Virginia workers generally reflect the influence of a predominantly rural rather than urban environment. Not only do they come from folk, especially in the mountain sections, that have been inclined to be satisfied with standards lower than obtain in more mature industrial areas, but also they have yet to develop fully the traditions of craftsmanship and skill characteristic of an older and more instinctively urban, industrial society. Slow to organize in Virginia and still far behind the National average, labor unions, nevertheless, have helped to protect Virginia workers, to offset the disadvantage of a labor supply in excess of the demand, and to lessen exploitation of rather docile unskilled and semiskilled industrial employees. Although the present labor movement had its real beginning in Virginia in the period 1885-90, the first local union in the State was organized four years before the War between the States. Early in the antebellum period there had been loose associations of workmen, embryonic trade unions, and even unsuccessful strikes at intervals, as when the white puddlers and rollers at the Tredegar rolling mill in Richmond struck on a Sunday in May almost 100 years ago. The first organization was a local of the Typographical Union, chartered in Petersburg in 1857. This local, with a membership of 16 in 1858, was disbanded two years later, but two other local unions, in Richmond and Alexandria, were chartered in 1865, as the union idea slowly gathered force in Virginia, In 1886, when the Knights of Labor held their National convention in Richmond, there were 20 local unions in the State, with a membership estimated at more than 1,367. The Knights of Labor, having just experienced a phenomenal growth, had swelled from 100,000 members to 700,000 throughout the country during the previous year and was then the largest labor organization on American soil. In Virginia whites and Negroes had entirely separate local and district assemblies. When a group of non-Southern delegates to the convention made an issue of racial segregation, a storm of reaction was aroused in Richmond and the South generally. This controversy became the most widely advertised aspect of the convention and, by hurting the Knights of Labor, which then symbolized the labor movement, acted as a severe setback for labor organization in Virginia. Unionization went forward, however, and at the turn of the century the need for better organization led to the establishment of the Virginia Federation of Labor as well as of central labor unions in most Virginia cities. Most active during the war years, the latter have dwindled since then. By 1914, when there were 102,820 industrial workers in Virginia, there were 244 active local unions with a membership estimated at 14,367. The peak of unionization was reached in 1920, when there were 46,796 workers in 446 locals--about 40 per cent of the industrial wage earners in Virginia. Seven years later the figures had dropped to 334 locals and 21,413 members--about 19 per cent of all those employed in Virginia industry--but had risen again by 1930 to 370 locals and 29,543 members. Organized strikes occurred with irregular frequency and only partial success. In 1918 there were 37, while in 1922, the year of the great railroad strike, there were only five. The three strikes of 1930 included the unsuccessful strike of the workers in the textile mills of Danville. The failure of this union effort, the most outstanding in the history of the labor movement in Virginia, retarded further organization of textile workers in the South generally. The labor union scene was altered sharply in 1937, when the American Federation of Labor, with which the great majority of locals were affiliated, was split by the emergence of the Congress of (then Committee for) Industrial Organization. The A.F. of L., having had a membership that year of about 30,000 or about 24 per cent of all industrial workers in the State, lost nearly 15,000 upon the withdrawal of the mine workers, who formed the backbone of the C.I.O. Added to the secessionists were about 5,000 workers, especially in the tobacco and textile industries, newly organized by C.I.O. forces. By May 1938 the C.I.O. had reached a membership in Virginia of nearly 29,000.

The effect of the activities of this new and more militant labor organization, along industrial rather than craft lines, was to stimulate unionization of labor throughout Virginia. The C.I.O. welcomed into its membership women and Negroes, who have been organized as never before, although they still-women particularly-form an extreme minority in Virginia's labor movement as a whole. Most unions now admit Negroes on an equal footing with whites, but there are few mixed locals. Particularly, a wave of strikes--18 in all--in 1938 dramatized the labor situation and led to a substantial growth of both labor groups. In May 1939 the C.I.O. could report a membership above 31,000, and the A.F. of L. one above 35,000.

Today, unionization in Virginia lags behind the National average but is about equal to the Southern norm. Considering the primarily agricultural economy of the State and the opposition with which attempts at organization have been met, the size of the movement is truly remarkable.

One of the most important problems connected with the industrial growth in Virginia has been the protection of the health, welfare, and life of workers in manufacturing establishments. The experience of older industrialized States has shown that adequately to protect such workers it is desirable that social legislation keep pace with industrial progress. More has been done for the protection of workers in Virginia than in many other Southern States. Almost from the beginning of her industrial growth, Virginia has had a law for the protection of children against hazards of the factory system. A law enacted in 1889 for the protection of women and children in industry provided that no child under 12 years of age should be employed in manufacturing industries and prohibited night work for children under 14 in manufacturing, mechanical, and mining operations. The law also limited the hours of work to 10 in 24. This early law has been amended from time to time, and at present Virginia's child labor law provides that no child under 14 years of age may work in a factory, and none less than 16 may work without a school certificate showing physical fitness and evidence of age. Children under 16 are not permitted to work more than 6 days or more than 44 hours weekly or more than 8 hours a day. Night work for children is prohibited.

One phase of Virginia's labor problem relates to the protection of women in industry. Virginia's hours law for women was not changed to any important extent in 37 years. In 1938, however, the legislature amended the law and reduced the maximum daily hours of women from 10 to 9 and added a weekly limit of 48 with a number of exemptions. The Federal Wages and Hours Law, applicable to both men and women in those industries defined as interstate, has focused thought upon the need of a State law giving protection to men as well as to women. A few other laws that have been enacted for the regulation of working conditions and for the protection of the health of women workers are below the average standard of similar laws in more highly industrialized States.

Virginia has a good workmen's compensation law. Under its provisions the responsibility of employers is definitely fixed and compensation is provided for workers injured in the course of industrial employment. The law applies to all concerns within the State employing ii or more workers. Such employers must insure the payment of compensation in a company approved by the State Corporation Commission, or must insure themselves in such manner as to satisfy the Industrial Commission of their ability to fulfil such obligations.

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