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Redeeming Time

June 2024
6min read

Shakespeare—that master limner of the ways of kings—probed the frequent conflict between sovereigns and their heirs apparent in Henry IV, Part I . While the king concerns himself with fractious nobles, treason, and other cares of state, his son, Prince Hal, concerns himself with wine, women, and song. But Hal tells the audience early on that his loose behavior has a purpose and promises that one day, “like bright metal on a sullen ground,/My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.I’ll so offend to make offence a skill;/Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

Since Hal at this point in the play has just plotted both a felony and a practical joke on his fellow criminals, this statement might seem dubious. But Shakespeare’s audience, of course, knew that Hal was the future King Henry V and that he would indeed redeem time, and himself, on the field of Agincourt.

Today kings are getting rather thin on the ground, but men of great fortune often have similar trouble understanding, still less appreciating, their heirs. Certainly Elliott White Springs, the only child of “the richest man in South Carolina,” was a worthy twentieth-century version of Prince Hal.

The White and Springs families had been prominent in the Carolina Piedmont since colonial times. In the 188Os they were among the first to foster the textile industry there. In 1887 Capt. Samuel Elliott White, Leroy Springs, and twenty-three others founded the Fort Mill Manufacturing Company to produce cotton cloth in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Leroy Springs was by far the most dynamic of the stockholders of the fledgling enterprise and soon controlled it, thanks in part to his marriage to Samuel White’s only child.

Born during the Civil War, Springs began by selling groceries but was soon involved in a number of businesses, including cotton brokering in both New York and New Orleans. Cotton brokering was a high-risk, high-profit business that exactly suited Springs’s gambling instincts and dominating personality. For Springs had in spades two attributes of a born fortune maker: supreme self-confidence and a take-no-prisoners attitude toward his competitors. In his youth he shot a man dead in one dispute (it was ruled self-defense) and in his old age would himself be very nearly assassinated in another.

By the time he was thirty he was worth a million dollars, no small sum in those days, especially in the South. He expanded his interests in other cotton mills in the area and was soon one of the most important men in the Southern textile industry.

But what made him so successful a businessman worked against him when it came to fatherhood. His son, Elliott, would spend the first thirty-five years of his life being alternately ignored and criticized by a father who made no attempt whatever to understand his remarkable offspring.

After attending Princeton, Elliott joined the Army Air Corps and served on the Western Front. Although the life expectancy of fighter pilots in the First World War was measured in days, Elliott survived and, with eleven confirmed kills, was the fifth-ranking American ace of the war. His father did not seem impressed.

Leroy wanted Elliott to settle down and begin learning the cotton business, but his son resisted. The cotton business seemed to him very dull indeed.

He continued to fly and also continued what were already well-developed tastes for wine, women, and song. Even after he married, his all-night parties—hardly the social norm in staid Fort Mill—were the despair of his father. One day, when he was supposed to be in his office at the cotton mill, he buzzed it with his airplane instead. His father fired him.

Elliott decided to become a writer. Like any good writer, he wrote about what he knew best: flying, aerial combat, and, of course, wine, women, and song. His novel War Birds , couched as the diary of another fighter pilot, was a huge success with both the critics and the public. Liberty magazine paid Elliott nearly ten thousand dollars for the serial rights; the movie rights went for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the 1920s this was money that only writers in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s class could command.

Again, Elliott’s father was unimpressed. In fact, he was outraged, especially by a most unflattering description of himself, in which Elliott had written, in the third person, that “[Springs] said that he had to get killed because he couldn’t go home … [if he died] his father would have a hero for a son and he could spend all his time and money building monuments to him. … But if he lives thru it, he says his father will fight with him the rest of his life.”

To get Elliott to stop writing, Leroy offered to make him vice president and treasurer of the Fort Mill plant if he would work fulltime. Elliott, perhaps sensing his father’s declining health, gave in and began to learn the cotton business seriously. As in everything he turned his mind to, he was a very quick study.

He was soon suggesting many improvements and new ways of doing business, all of which, needless to say, his father vetoed. Only after the old man’s death in 1931 did Elliott obtain real power.

Leroy’s net estate came to nearly five million dollars and Elliott could easily have taken his two-thirds share and lived in comfort. Most people in the cotton business expected him either to do exactly that or to promptly run his father’s business into the ground.

But Prince Hal was now king. The playboy, it turned out, had quietly mastered the cotton business. For years he had kept a loom in his basement and there tested ideas and suggestions. “For a man who loves machines,” Elliott had discovered, “a cotton mill beats an airplane.”

But if Elliott was king, he soon discovered he was monarch of a deeply troubled kingdom. The mills turned out to be heavily mortgaged, much of their machinery worn out. His father’s reckless gambling in the stock market had further weakened his finances. Still worse, the American economy as a whole was sliding rapidly into the black hole of the Great Depression.

Elliott moved at once. He suspended dividends, postponed debt payments, slashed his own salary, rationalized the corporate structure, and used his liquid assets, including the last fifty thousand dollars of his personal funds, to begin a massive repair and rebuilding program.

His competitors had slashed their capital spending after the Crash, but Elliott expanded. (In a gesture that Sigmund Freud would have loved, he built one expansion right over his father’s grave, refusing to have the body moved.) His mills were soon the low-cost producers, and he showed a profit all through the Depression.

It was soon clear that Elliott was a much better executive than his father. Unlike his father he was a conservative, hands-on, cost-cutting manager, while always open to new technology. (Springs Industries in the 1950s would become one of the first manufacturing companies in the country to use Computers.) But like his father, when he was bold, he was very, very bold.

In a gesture that Dr. Freud would have loved, Elliott White Springs insisted on expanding the factory right over his father’s grave.

For instance, when orders were slow in the 1930s, he often manufactured cloth for which he had no market, just to keep his mill hands employed, content, and un-unionized. He stockpiled this cloth in warehouses, sometimes for years, confident he would one day be able to sell it. The Second World War turned it into a bonanza.

After the war Elliott decided to expand still further. His mills had produced mostly “gray goods,” unfinished cotton cloth that other firms turned into such retail products as sheets and towels. He wanted to manufacture his own, under the Springmaid trademark. He was told that the cost of the expansion would equal the value of the existing mills. He bet the ranch.

Once the manufacturing facilities were in place, Elliott set out to make the Springmaid trademark a household name. He did it by using his gift for the English language, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his love for—guess what—wine, women, and song. He created a now-legendary advertising campaign that featured drawings of leggy, bosomy women supposedly dressed, to the extent that they were dressed at all, in Springmaid fabrics. His copy was full of double entendres and risqué innuendos.

“Protect your assets,” warned one ad that featured three showgirls backstage dressed in the miniest of mini-skirts. “Beware the goose,” suggested another, showing a farm girl startled by an aggressive gander. “We put the broad in the broadcloth,” offered a third. The most famous pictured a hammock made from a Springmaid sheet. In it, sinking into a blissful repose, is a young Indian brave. Stepping out of the hammock is a clearly satisfied Indian maiden. The headline: “A buck well spent on a Springmaid sheet.”

The Pooh-Bahs of the advertising industry were scandalized. Some of the prissier magazines, notably The New Yorker and Life , refused to run the ads. But the campaign did exactly what Elliott had hoped for: it made Springmaid a household name. He claimed that when his campaign began, Springmaid sheets were sold in only six retail outlets. A few months later they were sold in ten thousand and were soon the largest-selling brand in the country.

Elliott White Springs inherited a kingdom and left an empire. When he took over from his father, the plants were valued at $7.25 million and had sales of $8 million. When he died twenty-eight years later, they were valued at $104.5 million and had sales of $163 million. Springs Industries was the seventh-largest—and most profitable—textile business in the country.

Would Leroy Springs have been proud of his son? I suspect he would have been. I also suspect he would have taken a horsewhipping rather than admit it. That, too often, is also the way of kings.

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