In the first half of the 20th century the
percentage of women in the U.S. workforce and the types of jobs available to
them varied greatly. In 1900 just 19% of
working age women were employed outside of the home. Most employed women were young and single and
worked in low-paying mill jobs or as domestic servants.
From 1900-1945 industrialization and technological
advances brought about major changes in the job market, girls and young women
were being allowed to pursue higher education, and two world wars took large
numbers of men away from jobs. All of
this contributed to the types of jobs available to women, as well as highs and
lows in employment numbers. Women were
still expected to leave the workforce and return to domestic life when the men
returned was military service.
|Slitters created as many as 20,000 bobbins
a day in the Finishing Department.
When Harry Straus brought big industry to Transylvania
County in 1939 the local job market and economy changed quickly. Straus’ Ecusta Paper Corporation, Champagne
Paper Corporation, and Boucher Cork Company on the Davidson River offered good
paying jobs to hundreds of men and women.
From the beginning Straus employed a large number of
women at the plant. They worked in positions
traditionally filled by women such as office assistants, secretaries, cafeteria
workers, and in the medical and first aid department. Women also worked in research, analytics, and
quality control but the largest number of women worked in the Endless Belt
Department, the Finishing Department, and the Booklet Department.
Tests were required for every phase of the paper manufacturing
process. In the Physical Testing
Laboratory women tested paper for thickness, weight, porosity, strength, and
opacity. Cigarette paper also had to be
tested for wet strength and burn rate.
|Finishing Department A Shift, 1949.|
Endless Belts were primarily used in making
cigarettes. A standard belt made of the
finest Irish linen thread was one inch wide and eighty-six inches long. Approximately two million cigarettes were
produced during a belt’s lifetime of about five days. Every cigarette made in the U.S. was made on
belts manufactured at Ecusta. There were
300 different sizes of belts. Other
industries that used the belts included soda straw and spaghetti plants.
|The Booklet Department.|
In the Finishing Department master rolls of cigarette
paper were slit into bobbins, the narrow reels of paper used to make
cigarettes. The width of the bobbin was
the circumference of a cigarette plus the overlap for adhesive. A single bobbin could make approximately
The Booklet Department produced machine and hand booklets. Smokers preferred machine made cigarettes but
when the economy was weak roll-your-own cigarettes, which used booklets, were
more popular. Booklets were also used in
the home perm industry.
At its peak the plant had more than 3000 employees. During the course of more than 60 years
Ecusta provided jobs for thousands, many of them women.
Photographs and information for this column are provided
by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library.
Visit the NC Room during regular library hours (Monday-Friday) to learn more
about our history and see additional photographs. For more information,
comments, or suggestions contact Marcy at [email protected]