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225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 3)

Jessica Karsten
Wednesday, October 5, 2016

225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 3)
A History of Knoxville’s Diverse Business Community

1900 – 1940s: ‘Underwear Capital’ and Business Development Hub

Today, some might be surprised to learn the city of Knoxville was once coined the “Underwear Capital of the World.” During a brief period in the early 1900s, the textile industry grew to be the city’s largest. By 1930 there were 20 textile and clothing factories in Knoxville, including Standard Knitting Mills which employed nearly 4,000 people. At its peak, the industry employed more than 11,000 workers in the area and was the city’s largest employer.

Photo: Standard Knitting Mills, Thompson Photograph Collection
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)

This period also marked the establishment of companies still active in the Knoxville business community today. Alcoa’s Tennessee Operations, developed in the early 1900s, has manufactured a variety of products for the construction, aerospace, military, automotive, and consumer markets. Expanding the city’s communication industry, Scripps-Howard (now E.W. Scripps) founded The Knoxville News, which later became the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 1926. This publication, sans the hyphen, continues to serve as a primary media source for East Tennesseans.

Family-owned Bush Brothers & Company made its start in 1908 as a tomato cannery, later adding other fruits and vegetables to its products which were canned locally in Tennessee. As new canning and processing technologies helped the company grow through WWI, it expanded its product line into a variety of beans, which is its most famous product today. 

To counter the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Roosevelt introduced his “New Deal” to help America recover. The most ambitious project was the Tennessee Valley Authority, created to help with flood control, improve water navigation, provide cheap electrical power, bring agricultural assistance to the region, and create a number of news jobs to assist with the massive dam construction projects. Currently headquartered in Knoxville, this federal corporation is now the largest public power company in the United States.

Photo: Norris Dam, Roger Howell Collection
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)

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