Elliott White Springs, Part Two

[Part One here]

After World War II, Elliott White Springs threw himself into making his mills a success. Previously, the Springs mills had produced “grey cloth”, unfinished cotton fabric, now Springs began turning out bleached and processed cloth and manufactured it into various items: underwear, sheets, and so on. And he had some ideas about how to promote these products, too.

Original logo [photo by 29seven20.com]

Miss Springmaid was conceived for the company logo. She was a proper Dutch maid harkening back to the Springs ancestors, originally Springsteens from Holland. Pretty soon, Elliott shortened her skirt, then he began tinkering with the idea of a pin-up in every ad. He had already tried something almost like that with a James Montgomery Flagg illustration:

Springs contacted several ad agencies with his concept which basically saw the ad as a cartoon, a humorous picture up top and some funny copy below. Springs’ thinking was that, if someone was entertained by the ad, then they would remember the product. When none of the professionals was able to work up a campaign on these lines, Springs did it himself. The resultant Miss Springmaid campaign was one of the most successful advertising programs ever.

The pin-ups were either purchased from original publishers, like Esquire, or commissioned from artists (who often copied other pin-ups). Each picture had a snappy caption, something common in the pin-ups of the day, but the real jokes were in the copy written by Elliott White Springs himself. There, the panties and bras manfactured by Springs Mills were called “ham hampers” and “bust buckets”. Springmaid sheets were “America’s favorite playground”. Many were horrified, calling the ads “crude, vulgar, and obscene” and a “threat to the sanctity of womanhood”. Some magazines, like the New Yorker, refused to carry the ads but not, tellingly, those that were aimed at women who actually shopped for sheets and underwear at the local department store. Springmaid sales climbed. Women like bawdy humor. Who knew?

It wouldn’t be fair to simply print criticism of the ads printed in the 1940s and 50s — it all sounds prim and priggish in an old fashioned way. So here’s equal time for contemporary feminist Jean Kilbourne, author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
and creator of the Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women documentary series:

 Jean Kilbourne says things have gotten worse over the past six decades and finds some of the sexuality in the Springmaid ads “pretty tame by today’s standards” — though she cautions that “that doesn’t mean they’re not offensive.”
As for the peek-a-boo imagery and incessant sexual punning in the Springmaid ads, Kilbourne calls those “sophomoric,” adding that the real problem with ads of this sort is their cumulative effect, not just on our attitudes toward women but on our attitudes toward sexuality in general.
“Part of the ultimate impact is to trivialize sex, to kind of reduce it to a joke or to an eighth grade — or these days, maybe a fourth grade — mentality,” Kilbourne explains. “That becomes part of the way a culture talks about and thinks about sex.”

[NB: An article by Kilbourne excerpted from Can’t Buy My Love is included in Sex In Advertising , available here. It is more developed than the above quotes but does not specifically mention Springmaid, though the Springmaid campaign is cited in her book.]

Whatever the impact of the Springmaid ads on society in general, Elliott White Springs was probably more interested in their impact on polite society and the tastemakers of the day. He loved to thumb his nose at them and gloried in their outrage. If you see a connection between this and Springs’ relationship with his father, I think you see clearly.

[via SCETV.org  “Miss Springmaid”]

At the bottom of the ad copy you may be able to read that a book “Clothes Make the Man” by Elliott White Springs is available for 10¢ from the Springs Mill in South Carolina. This little booklet contains a sort of biography of Elliott, the story of the Springs Mills, and many letters complaining about the Springmaid ads,calling them obscene and so on. Some of these letters were written by Springs himself. The best real letters were used over and over again.

Covers from “Clothes Make the Man”. I think from 1949 and 1952 but I may be wrong. You will see the cover design on the right again. These books may be obtained from your friendly used book seller for about $5 each plus an outrageous shipping charge.

The most famous of the Springmaid ads may still offend people, not so much because of sexism but of current notions of racism. Remember, a set of Springmaid sheets cost a dollar:

The “buck” and “squaw” appeared in other Springmaid ads. There are probably other examples of racial or ethnic offensiveness in the ads over the years. I suspect that, if he were alive, Springs wouldn’t be bothered by complaints. In his day, no one noticed.

Elliott White Springs models a shirt printed with designs from his ads. (Or the cover above.) In your face, respectable people!

Springs was very successful and kept expanding. The mill at Lancaster, South Carolina was, at one point, the largest in the United States. This was after a massive rebuilding and renovation program that saw the mill extended over several acres that included Leroy Springs’ burial place. Elliott never had him exhumed but simply built the new mill right over his grave.

Aside from expanding the mills and testing new machinery, working out new marketing techniques, writing ad copy, running Miss Springmaid beauty contests, entertaining and partying — aside from all that Springs had many other activities. Being frenetically active may keep a man from having to face his own inner demons. The problem is, these demons will out and the harder they are repressed, the more violent their escapes. Springs had serious ulcer problems and, sometimes, an explosive temper.

In the 1920s Springs had acquired a farm where he sometimes retired when his father fired him or he quit. He treated it like his other investments: he got the best people he knew to advise and run the show, then experimented like mad. One experiment that worked out was peaches and Elliott Springs was very proud of his peaches. He was incapable of apologizing to anyone but, sometimes, when he knew he had wronged someone, he would have a basket of peaches delivered to their door. I suppose that how the gift was received depended on how well the recipient liked peaches — or how well he understood and liked Elliott Springs.

Springs Industries was never the largest of mill companies but it was one of the most profitable.  Springs plowed the money back into his concerns. He had various benefit plans for his workers including profit-sharing, a common practice of business owners to head off union organizing. He created a beach resort and underwrote much of the cost of employee holidays there. He began looking into trusts and charitable ventures. And he bought toys.

The current Miss Springmaid takes a ride on the colonel’s miniature railroad, circa 1953. Note the shirt and bathing suit design.

Leroy Springs had bought a small bankrupt railroad that he used to link together several of his holdings over twenty-nine miles of track. His son saw it as a wonderful plaything. The Lancaster and Chester Railroad still performed its function of delivering stuff from one spot to another, but it also became the platform for elaborate games.  In 1939, Springs bought the Loretto, the sumptuous personal rail car that had once belonged to Charles Schwab, the U.S. Steel magnate. It spent all its time on a siding, but did serve as a publicity item. Springs designated a station at each mile on the L&C line, twenty-nine of them. These stations were named after friends, now called vice-presidents of the L&C,  such as James Montgomery Flagg, Billy Bishop, and fellow WWI flier Clayton Knight who did the cover art for many of Springs’ books. Ham Fisher, the comics artist behind Joe Palooka, had a station and, whenever you see a train in Fisher’s comics, it bears the Lancaster and Chester logo.

Springs loved to posture as a railroad president and used this pose to attack the pompous, such as whoever it was at the Long Island Railroad that refused to recognize his status. Springs solemnly wrote to the LI.R.R. that he would no longer send business their way. He made up imaginary trains on his line like the “Blue Blazes” and had schedules for them. He wrote elaborate menus for his non-existent dining cars that included items like “alligator pear $1, pair of alligators $2” and “Pork Barrel stuffed with Republican” or “Drawn and Quartered Democrat roasted in own jacket”.

Springs learned that famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was a railroad buff and invited her to South Carolina to inaugurate her own mile. Lee was named Vice President in Charge of Unveiling. She and Springs were kindred souls in a way; both very smart, very talented, very determined to puncture convention:

 Lee: “What’s that?”
Springs: “That’s a throttle.”
Lee: “A throttle?”
Springs: “You pull it and something happens.”
Lee: “Oh. Like a zipper.”

They could have had a vaudeville act. Eventually, Springs built his own miniature railroad thus creating a toy that mimicked the real thing that had become a toy.

A curious lawsuit that involved Springs came up in early 1959. Some photos that Springs purchased showed a couple lying next to one another reading. Springs had the man’s book doctored to look like Clothes Make the Man and gave the guy an old man’s face. The young woman in the photo, Mary Jane Russell, sued because, she said, the photo defamed her:

The plaintiff’s professional services and photographs have never been available for purposes of advertising or trade to anyone who resorts to bad taste, immodesty, double entendre or similar techniques in his appeals for public attention. The use of a photograph of the plaintiff by an advertiser known to be an adherent of such techniques connotes that the plaintiff had consented to such use. Such consent, if given by the plaintiff, would ruin her professional standing and earning power and cause her to be shunned by family and friends and in the community in which she lives and works. 

In June, 1955 Springs retouched and altered the negative and the art work so as to place the plaintiff in the company of an elderly male reading a book by Springs entitled “Clothes Make the Man”. This book had for some years been nationally advertised to contain reading matter and illustrations so vulgar in content that publication thereof had been refused by editors. Springs used the transformed material in their bedsheet advertisements in the publications of the defendant Magazines, with circulations in the millions of copies. The material thus published was intended and understood to mean, among other things, that the plaintiff had posed for a bedsheet advertisement portraying a willing call girl waiting to be used by a stranger whetting his sexual appetite. Insofar as the publications concerned the plaintiff, they were false and defamatory. As a consequence, the plaintiff was humiliated and distressed, held up to public contempt, and exposed to the hazard of loss of clients and earnings and to the respect of her family.

Oh my! Before giving judgement, I wish to note that the photographer was none other than Richard Avedon, though he was neither a plaintiff nor defendant in this case. Anyway, the judge held that a good many of the plaintiff’s charges were to be dismissed (Russell’s husband claimed that he had been deprived of the “society” of his wife which I take as a legal euphemism for “he was so ashamed that he couldn’t bring himself to have sex with her”) but allowed the case to be argued along certain other lines. I can imagine Springs having great fun with this but he was past fun now; he had pancreatic cancer and died in October of 1959.

Springs had named his son-in-law, H. William Close, as heir and successor. By all accounts Close did a good job and, in 1999, Springs Industries was worth more than $2 Billion. Springs’ daughter and family have created a fair number of charitable enterprises. One provides free meals to children in Fort Mill and Chester. Much of the family property has been turned into green space and gifted to the state. But the L&C R.R. was sold  and the mills are gone. As of 2007, all of Springs Industries work is done in Brazil as millowners seek cheap labor, the same thing that brought them south in the first place. The huge Lancaster mill is abandoned now, only one building still stands. Somewhere, under the rubble, lies the grave of Leroy Springs.

War Bird: The Life and Times of Elliott White Springs, by Burke Davis
War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator
War Birds, a documentary on Springs and his flying career.
“Redeeming Time” by John Steele Gordon. An article that sees Springs as Prince Hal.

Textile workers and the Great Strike of 1934:
Southern Workers & Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina
The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama
Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South
A PBS documentary on the Strike.
Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948

Flickr set of Miss Springmaid advertisements. (There’s lots more via your friend, Mister Google.)
Miss Springmaid, a documentary.

The photos of Joseph C. Hinson on flickr.com which he doesn’t want downloaded. Pictures of the abandoned mill in Lancaster and the overgrown L&C RR line.
R. Scott Lucas photos and scans of old photos of Lancaster, Chester, and Cheraw.
29SEVEN20.com has been linked several times above. It is a Lancaster, S.C. blog.


2 comments on “Elliott White Springs, Part Two

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