Title: Speech to the National Cotton Manufacturers’ Association
Date: April 6, 1925
Location: Washington, DC
Context: Coolidge delivers a speech before America’s cotton manufacturers on the growth of the textile industry and government’s protection of home industry.
If one were casting about for an industry whose story would most nearly summarize human progress in the art, industry, science, and commerce that has gone to make up civilization, I am not sure that he could do better than investigate the industry which is here represented. It would begin with our first forefathers pleating together their first rude garments, and it would keep step unfailingly with development from the day of fig leaves to the latest creation of the loom. Man may have originated in the tropical areas, but it was the invention of clothes that made it possible for him to live in those more rigorous climates that have proved most encouraging to his progress.
Thomas Carlyle, in his “Sartor Resartus,” a book altogether too little known and read in these days, projected a profound philosophy of human relationships from a study of human relationships from a study of the clothing of mankind. So I am sure it will be pardonable if I set forth in this presence some observations about the place held in our industrial and economic structure by the industry which furnishes the modern materials wherewith the most of mankind are clothed.
A new Carlyle who should be seeking facts concerning the history of clothes would learn that among the treasures of the ancient and medieval Indies were the beautiful and delicate fabrics hand-wrought from the fibres of cotton. For many generations these were the most prized products of the weaver’s craft. The desire for them, more as articles of luxury and adornment than for everyday use, was one of the incentives which led bold navigators into those high adventures that added new continents to the world.
Today, thanks to that instinct for industrial short cuts which has made part of the Western world a wilderness of machinery, most of the finer textiles are produced in the Western countries, while India imports most of its enormous requirements of cotton fabrics. That one detail may be taken as epitomizing the story of several generations of economic revolution on a world scale. The path of progress has followed the development of the cotton industry.
Within the cycle of this world-wide revolution smaller and more intense revolutions have been constantly in progress. There are sound and accepted historians who date the beginning of the modern phase of the industrial epoch from the invention of power-driven machinery for texting making. How rapid have been some of these changes within your industry is suggested by an experience of my own a few evenings ago.
In the course of some researches preliminary to these remarks I found myself needing a somewhat more accurate definition of a certain trade term, no doubt thoroughly familiar to all of you, than I was able to command. The word was “rayon.” But when I pulled down the alleged “unabridged” dictionary on my desk I searched in vain for it. I finally found it in a technical handbook, from which I confirmed my earlier impression that it meant something that you gentlemen would fully understand. It means, in short, artificial silk, in the making of which cotton is extensively used.
The story of rayon strikingly illustrates the rapid changes which constantly affect the textile industries. Production of artificial silk on a commercial scale was not attempted until after the beginning of the present century. It was not established in this country until 1910. Yet, in the last fifteen years the industry has grown so rapidly that now the world production is around a hundred million pounds annually, of which more than one-third is made in the United States alone.
Our production is just about twice that of any other country. Yet, even at this, there are still more imports. At the same time, the United States is the largest manufacturer of silk and the largest consumer of raw silk. The enormous consuming capacity of the American market is indicated by the fact that our imports of raw silk increased from 33,000,000 pounds to over 40,000,000 pounds from 1918 to 1923.
That is, in the very years in which the artificial silk industry was accomplishing its huge expansion the real silk industry was still able to grow at an astonishing rate. And yet, despite the rise of artificial silk, and notwithstanding this increase in real silk, we find that this country produced in 1923 more cotton fabrics than in any earlier year, and 23 per cent, more than in the year 1921.
If the textile industry is as good a business barometer as is generally believed, this record indicates that the American community has a consuming capacity, the ability to buy and to enjoy the things it wants far beyond any other people in the world. The American home market is the most wonderful commercial development in all human experience.
The American genius for mass production, coupled with our great and varied natural resources and considered in relation to the unparalleled requirements of our home market, constitutes the assurance of a continuing industrial advancement the end of which we can neither estimate nor foresee.
Before the World War it was impossible to get such a vision of these possibilities as we now possess. Nowhere are there such opportunities for production on a huge scale, with its attendant economies, as here. Whether his business be to make automobiles by the hundreds or fabrics by the million yards, each day the manufacturer who had first claim upon this foremost market place of the world is bound to start with a vast advantage over all competitors.
In consideration of that advantage he is under obligation to give to his customers the benefit of his lower costs of production, of the savings which he can achieve by reason of producing on a scale unparalleled anywhere else. From our national beginning it has been an almost uniform policy to conserve to the American producer the right of first opportunity in the home market.
The towering stature of our industrial structure as we see it today is the best, is indeed the complete vindication of this policy. The fact that our buying and consuming capacity is so great proves that, despite some inequities, we have on the whole maintained fairer distribution of the proceeds of industry than has been possible in less favored communities. We are reaching a very fair approximation of democracy in industry.
The pride of quality and craftsmanship has always been maintained to a notable degree throughout most of the textile industry. It necessarily denotes the payment of as liberal wages as the business can justify, and thereby the establishment of a great community of skilled and intelligent workers. Such a community is always the greatest single resource of an industrial society. Industrial prosperity depends almost entirely on men and women of skill.
Both as a public policy looking to broad social results and as a business program with the view to industrial stability and the creation of high repute for products, the wisdom of this attitude is certain of vindication in its results. Establishment of the best working conditions, a proper limitation of the hours of labor, the prohibition of improper demands upon the strength and the health of women and children—all these are parts of a truly intelligent business and social program which never has failed of final justification.
There has been at some times and in some quarters a disposition to criticize the American policy of conserving first opportunity in our home market for our own products. We can hardly expect that such a program would be popular with those who find themselves placed at a disadvantage in the greatest market in the world, which is the American market. But those who would charge us with selfishness in thus giving first thought to home interests would do well to consider whether their own policies in this regard are more liberal than ours.
We have established here the practice of absolute free trade throughout a great continental area of forty-eight States, besides other possessions. It is the most widely extended application of that policy that will be found anywhere. Within this domain we have an extent and variety of natural resources far beyond those of any other country. Yet from our national beginnings we have sought no advantage by reason of this primacy of natural resources. Whoever wanted them was free to come here and buy our raw materials at exactly the same price as our own people. Such staples as copper, cotton and petroleum might have been made the basis on which to build great national monopolies. Yet they have been as freely available to the industries of other countries as to our own. Under our Constitution our export trade is free of duty.
At times, when I have heard criticism of our industrial policies, I have been tempted to wonder how many other peoples, endowed with the same natural wealth, the same possibilities of maintaining something like monopoly, would have been as generous with the rest of mankind as the Americans have been. Not a few among us have even been inclined to fear lest our liberality in this regard might at length leave us at a disadvantage in comparison with countries more willing to exploit their opportunities for monopoly, or less liberal with their natural resources.
Our production and manufacture of cotton afford a ready illustration. Normally, this country produces about two-thirds of the cotton crop of the world, and of our production we export commonly from 55 to 60 per cent. Our market is absolutely free to the buyers of the world. They may come here for our raw cotton, take it home, turn it into fabrics, and, if they are clever enough, which they often are, sell it back to us. Not only do they have this privilege, but to an impressive extent they have availed of it. We import nearly half as many yards of cotton cloth annually as we export.
Moreover, our exports, particularly of fine goods, have increased rapidly in recent years. From 1909 to 1914 imports averaged only 54,000,000 yards annually, while in 1923 they reached 219,000,000 yards. If called upon to defend our American industrial policy against critics, either domestic or foreign, we may well contrast this absolute freedom in our distribution of raw materials with discriminatory systems practiced by some other countries.
If anybody desires information about export taxes, export bounties, valorization projects, discriminatory taxation and the like, and how these increase the cost of articles which we have to import, he may well study the policies which various countries apply to such staples as coffee, nitrates, potash, tin, pulp wood, cocoa, sisal, quinine and more than a few others. Each country has that right. We do not dispute it. But while our policy of tariff protection is in line with the well-nigh universal rule of the world, our policy of absolute freedom in the export of raw materials or primary products is one of notable and exceptional liberality.
I do not refer to these matters with any intent of criticizing the countries whose methods differ from our own. We freely concede their right to determine their economic procedures with a view to what they believe their own best interests. But it is only fair that we should keep in mind all the justifications for policies of our own which have sometimes been unfairly criticized.
This is the broad outlook, the wide foundation, on which appears to rest an expanding and prosperous industry. It will of course meet with local and temporary conditions which, for the time being, may make it better or worse.
The experience of the textile industry has repeatedly illustrated the fact that apparently whimsical changes of fashion or taste are liable to produce the most complicating effects upon industries. Probably you have all heard the story of the textile manufacturer who, observing at a Continental race track that the most fashionable women wore the shortest skirts, promptly cabled home to his manager to prepare for a shrinkage in demand for their products.
A thoroughly matter-of-fact young man, who is an expert in one of the Government departments dealing with textiles, tells me that twenty years ago it took nearly ten yards of gingham to make a woman a dress, whereas she now manages to be thoroughly in fashion on three and one-half yards. From the same authority I learn that in 1914 approximately sixty-six yards of these fabrics were required per capita in this country, while five years later, in 1919, only fifty-four yards were demanded. He attributed this impressive reduction chiefly to the changed styles in women’s garments.
From what I have already said, I judge that this condition is due in part to the fact that less cotton and more silk began to adorn womankind.
I once heard a manufacturer say that if the ladies could be induced to standardize and stabilize their fashions as the men have done, half the worries and uncertainties of the textile industries would be eliminated at once. Doubtless such a result would be a boon to you who are engaged in the industry: but I scarcely need say that I see no method of bringing it about. The uncertainty and change of fashion may be difficult for you, but it no doubt relieves monotony and adds to the spice of life.
To these uncertainties of market there have been added uncertainties of raw cotton supply. This has been one result of the boll weevil. It is now more than thirty years since the weevil crossed our borders from Mexico. Within that period the pest has ranged over nearly our entire cotton-producing area. Its ravages have been responsible for a great reduction in the yield of cotton per acre, and a general rise in the price.
Many proposals have been put forward for exterminating the weevil, among which it seems probable that the most effective would be to starve it out of existence by absolutely discontinuing the growth of cotton year by year in successive zones. But there are great practical difficulties. The program would require the cooperation of the States throughout the cotton belt and of the cotton raisers in them.
A suggestion was made to a convention of the cotton-growing interests three or four years ago that the foundation for such cooperation might be laid if the cotton States would enter into a treaty among themselves pledging cooperation in executing it. There are several examples of such interstate treaties for the accomplishment of ends which could not be attained by the States acting separately. I believe the suggestion has much of practical value, and that if the cotton States should act upon it they would find the National Government prepared to give all possible assistance and encouragement to the program.
The importance of our cotton-growing industry will not easily be over-estimated. While the value of the cotton crop is now placed below that of hay and of corn among the agricultural staples. It is by far the greatest single item of our export trade. Last year we sold abroad more than $950,000,000 worth of raw cotton. The assurance of a favorable trade balance lies in our exports of cotton.
On the manufacturing side the cotton industry is rated sixth among our great manufactures. It employs about 500,000 wage earners and turns out products valued around $2,000,000,000 annually. Of the 159,000,000 cotton spindles in the world, 56,000,000 are in Great Britain, while the United States, with 38,000,000, occupies second place. Owing, however, to the difference between the British and American fabrics, our spindles consume about twice as much raw cotton as do those of Great Britain.
Although there has been something of depression in certain branches of the industry, a broad view suggests no serious occasion of concern about its outlook. Our imports of cotton fabrics have increased largely in recent years, but our exports have also grown extensively. In 1924 we sold abroad nearly 500,000,000 yards of these goods, or nearly 20 per cent. more than in pre-war years. Considering the widespread demoralization in world markets since the war, such a showing cannot reasonably be regarded as discouraging.
Probably there is no industry in which conditions affecting international trade and finance are more constantly and definitely reflected than in this one. There was a measure of overproduction in cotton goods in 1923, from which the industry has not entirely recovered yet. The excessive output of that year left a considerable surplus to be consumed thereafter. But with the gradual improvement of conditions throughout the world, as the war recedes further from us, we are entitled to view with increasing assurance the outlook for business in all directions, including, of course, the great textile industry.
It is scarcely necessary to state the attitude which I desire to see the National Government assume toward all business in general and the textile industry in particular. It is that of sympathy and cooperation from every lawful effort to promote our commercial prosperity and our economic well-being,
Modern industry with its great combinations and great aggregations of both capital and employes has necessarily brought many new problems for solution in our effort to work out a righteous human relationship. These new conditions made necessary new rules of conduct. Many of these have already become well established and are believed to have been productive of good. But there still exists a considerable area, sometimes designated as a twilight zone, in which the proper standard of action is as yet undetermined.
The Government necessarily looks to the management of industry as mainly responsible for the conduct of industry. There ought to be a most candid understanding between the Government and all industrial effort. Due to the keenness of competition and the urgent desire for success, it is necessary to maintain the most constant watchfulness on the part of the Government to insure the enforcement of the law. But on the part of the management there should likewise be the same vigilance to insure the observance of the law.
We shall never reach an ideal condition in our industrial life until the laws are voluntarily observed by our citizens without the constant and wasteful interposition of Government and court action. You men who are responsible for an industry ought to make unlawful and improper practices in that industry thoroughly unfashionable. It may seem expensive to change improper practices, but they will have to be changed in the end, and the sooner it is done the less expensive it will be.
Industry has come thoroughly to recognize its responsibility toward its employes. The Government approves of and shares in that responsibility. It regards the welfare of the wage-earners with the utmost solicitude. It has come to be recognized almost universally that only upon justice to the wage earners of the nation can there be reared any lasting prosperity. America is unwilling to nourish any system under which the rewards of human effort are not equitably distributed among all those engaged in any industry.
The great agencies of the Government are constantly at your disposal to assist and encourage you in your production and defend you in your rights. The Department of Commerce, with its various research bureaus, domestic and foreign agencies, is forever diligent in stimulating your production, advising more efficient methods, discovering new and enlarged markets and coordinating industrial activity.
The Federal Trade Board has been devised for the purpose of safeguarding your rights protecting you from unfair trade practices and admonishing and correcting you if you are wrong. The Department of Labor is constantly engaged in preventing and adjusting disputes between employer and employe, to promote justice and avoid the great waste of interrupted operation and production. But I refrain from further specific mention of the many activities of the Government in behalf of the industrial life of the nation.
I confess that I desire to see our country prosperous. I am aware there can be no prosperity in which the textile industry does not have a generous share. I do not believe there can be any permanent prosperity which does not rest on the everlasting foundation of justice.
In the effort of the Government to promote justice, no industry should have anything to fear. In the effort of the Government to provide constructive economy in public expenditure, all industry should concur. In the effort of the Government to encourage harmony in all our domestic relations, every industry should cooperate. In the effort of the Government to secure a firmer faith of the people of the earth in each other, which will establish an indwelling peace in the heart of mankind, all industry should rejoice.
Citation: The New York Times, April 7, 1925.