How Did the Cotton Gin Impact the Harvesting of Cotton?

By  //  January 8, 2020

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Roughly prior to the year 1800, growers in the southern United States continued to rely on traditional crops such as Carolina rice and Chesapeake tobacco — just as they did in colonial days.

Roughly prior to the year 1800, growers in the southern United States continued to rely on traditional crops such as Carolina rice and Chesapeake tobacco — just as they did in colonial days.

However, after 1800, cotton became the chief plantation crop grown on southern plantations. Cotton was an ideal crop because it was easy to grow, could be stored for long periods of time, and was easily transportable.

The only difficulty came in the fact that cotton plants have sticky seeds that are hard to separate from the soft cotton fibers.

A type of cotton called long-staple cotton was easier to clean, but it was only suitable for planting in coastal areas. The majority of cotton growers had no choice but to grow short-staple cotton, which was much more labor-intensive because the cotton needed to be picked and painstakingly cleaned by hand. All this changed dramatically with the advent of the cotton gin.

What is the cotton gin?

The word “gin” is just a shortened form of the word “engine.” The original cotton gin was a manually operated cotton “engine” that easily and quickly separated the cotton fibers from the cotton seeds.

When cotton blooms, using a cotton gin enabled far higher productivity than the time-consuming process of separating the cotton fibers by hand.

Then and now, after separation, the fibers get processed into various kinds of cotton goods, while the separated seeds can be used to grow more cotton or to produce cottonseed oil.

Who invented the cotton gin?

Handheld roller gins were used on the Indian subcontinent beginning around AD 500. Also in India, the worm-gear roller gin appeared in the 16th century and has remained almost unchanged ever since. An American cotton gin was created by the inventor Eli Whitney in 1793.

Whitney’s gin utilized small wire hooks to pull the cotton through a wire screen, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to avoid jams.

Whitney created two cotton gins: a small one that was cranked by hand and a larger one that was driven by water or horse.

In today’s more high-tech world, cotton gins operate via multiple electric-powered saws and cleaning cylinders, generating a great deal more productivity than their manually operated precursors.

How did the cotton gin impact social and economic conditions?

First and foremost, of course, was productivity: Whitney’s invention revolutionized the cotton industry in the US and had a huge impact on the efficiency of the work.

Before the advent of the cotton gin, a picker could expect to remove the seeds from approximately one pound of cotton each day. With the cotton gin, seeds could be removed from fifty pounds of cotton each day.

The biggest question, however, was that of slavery. Although the introduction of the cotton gin meant that cotton processing became less labor-intensive, it allowed planters to increase their profits substantially.

This, in turn, prompted them to add more cotton acreage, which led to the need for more workers because the cotton still had to be picked by hand.

Slavery was the cheapest form of available labor, so cotton growers continued to acquire more slaves. Some historians have regarded the cotton gin as an inadvertent contributing factor to the outbreak of the American Civil War as a result. 

Slavery and Cotton

How the cotton gin contributed to the retention of slavery in the South is still being debated today. One fact we do know: the value of cotton as a cash crop grew astronomically during the decades following the patenting of Whitney’s invention.

It has been estimated that the US was responsible for three-quarters of the global cotton supply by the beginning of the Civil War.

Demand for US cotton already existed in the textile industry of Great Britain, and, in time, slave-grown cotton would make its way to the northern manufacturers in the US, as well.

The Debate Over Slavery

In 1807, Congress imposed a ban on slave importation. However, during the cotton boom, the slave population increased as the children of slaves contributed to the labor force.

Thus slave owners still had sufficient numbers to work their cotton fields while remaining within the new law. The debate over slavery continued, and by 1820, the nation was divided based on the legality of slavery in its states and territories.

The Forced Migration of Slaves

When a new slave state entered the Union, slaves were sent to clear the land for cotton. The expression “to be sold down the river,” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin alludes to this involuntary migration from the upper South to the Deep South states further down the Mississippi River.

As the cotton industry boomed, the Mississippi River became the crucial water highway in the US, and steamboats became a defining characteristic of the “cotton kingdom.”

The displacement of slaves throughout the South created one of the biggest forced migrations in the country. In each decade between 1820 and 1860, it is estimated that about 200,000 people were sold and relocated. By 1850, there were approximately 3.2 million slaves spread throughout the fifteen states that were regarded as slave states.

Of this population, about 1.8 million slaves were involved in producing cotton. By 1860, slaves were responsible for the production of cotton amounting to more than two billion pounds per year.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, South Carolina politician James Hammond confidently asserted that the North would never dream of threatening the South because “cotton is king.”

How Would Slavery Have Progressed Without the Impact of the Cotton Gin?

Some questions that have been posed in the years after emancipation: what would have happened to slavery if the cotton gin had not been invented, and did the cotton gin suddenly make slavery profitable? I

n a classic 1958 study on this topic, the authors Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer argued that slavery’s continued existence was dependant on the economic survival of the cotton industry and its spread into the Southwest in the 1860s.

More recently (2013), however, in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, professor Paul Finkleman asserted that the common view that slavery was a dying institution before the invention of the cotton gin is not true, arguing that slaves were still a profitable investment before the cotton gin arrived on the scene and simply became an even more lucrative investment after its invention. 

How Cotton Changed the South

The world market for cotton brought great wealth to the South, but it also increased the South’s economic dependence on other regions of the US and other countries.

For example, much of the pork and corn that slaves ate came from farms in the West, while some of the cheap clothing worn by slaves was manufactured in the North.

And, of course, many of the trappings of luxury and comfortable living that plantation owners gave themselves and their families came from the North or Europe. Planters in the South were also often reliant on money borrowed from banks in northern cities. 

Final Thoughts

In summary: the cotton gin can be regarded as one of the significant inventions of both American and global history, given the many broad and generational changes it brought about stateside and worldwide.

It had a considerable impact on the institution of slavery and changed the South in fundamental ways, and it continues to be a staple of the industry it revolutionized today, albeit with all of the routine improvements that modernization allows.

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