The Story: The Workers

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, families throughout the tobacco-growing regions of North Carolina and Virginia earned much-needed income by sewing drawstrings into cotton tobacco bags. Long forgotten today, tobacco bag stringing was a common activity in many communities. Because the labor was not physically demanding and could be done at home, the work attracted many women, children, and others who needed money to supplement their farm incomes, or who could not find work in nearby factories and mills.

Many of the bag stringers received work through a "bag agent," who was employed directly by the manufacturer. The agent was often a local businessman or county government official who was well known throughout the community. Distributing tobacco bags became an important responsibility when demand for work outpaced the number of bags available. A bag agent in Leaksville, N.C. in 1939 described the need for work in his community:

The mills here have been running short time for several years now. And I believe less than one half of the people normally employed are now at work. Boiled down this means there probably is one in each household partly employed [as a tobacco bag stringer]. So every day I have hundreds of requests for bags above that I am able to provide. They come at me from every angle, telephone, doorbell and since my business is in my residence, they'll even go around the house and come in the back door just to tell me how needy they are, and ask me to please get them some bags to string to help out in the little they now receive.

The short, factual sketches of tobacco bag stringers are similar to the life histories that were being prepared around the same time by writers for the Federal Writers' Project. T he biographical notes discuss the health and living conditions of the bag stringers and list their current expenses in an effort to illustrate the importance of the income earned from tobacco bag stringing. Most of these profiles are accompanied by striking black and white photographs, many of which document the heartbreaking poverty in which so many of these people lived.


Citing this Page in MLA Format

"The Workers." Tobacco Bag Stringing. 2006. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. date accessed <http://www.lib.unc.edu/instruct/tobacco/story/workers.html>.