The Business of Racism

Business letterhead can offer a fascinating snapshot of a place or time. A striking example appeared in the Rockingham County chancery causes recently. In the case of Ridgemont Cement & Manufacturing Company vs. Manly Manufacturing Company, 1900, there is a piece of Manly Manufacturing Company letterhead dated 1 March 1895 featuring an image of stereotypical 19th-century African American caricature behind bars. Shocking to our 21st-century sensibilities, this type of advertising was very common beginning in the Victorian era. Caricatured images of African Americans and other minorities were commonly used to sell products because they capitalized on existing beliefs and, ultimately, reinforced existing prejudices.

Manly Manufacturing Company billed itself as “The First and Only Steel Jail Works in THE SOUTH.” Headquartered in Dalton, Georgia, the firm was originally Manly & Cooper, a foundry responsible for casting, amongst other items, the ornamental fence surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s gravesite in Charlottesville. Relocating from Philadelphia to Dalton in 1887, the company developed “Manly Portable Convict Cages,” horse-drawn, steel-wheeled cages to house prisoners working on outdoor projects. The cages became one of its best selling products.

A quick Internet search revealed that Manly Manufacturing is still in business today, 121 years later, as Manly Steel.

The Rockingham County chancery collection contains 534 Hollinger boxes or about 250 cubic feet of records. It is currently being processed for digitization.

-Vince Brooks, Senior Local Records Archivist

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