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Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America

Author(s):Lakwete, Angela
Reviewer(s):Phillips, William H.

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003. xiii + 232 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-7394-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William H. Phillips, Department of Economics, University of South Carolina.

This book, written by Angela Lakwete, a technological historian at Auburn University, looks at the wonderful historical subtleties that lie behind the school-house phrase: “Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.” Without belittling Whitney’s accomplishments, Lakwete discusses the devices used to remove cotton fiber from seed before Whitney, as well as the constant experimentation with ginning technology during the South’s rise as the dominant cotton producing region. At every step of the process, those seeking a better way to gin cotton faced tradeoffs with imperfect solutions, while those looking to buy a suitable device faced an array of useful and misleading information about the choices available to them. After the fact, this complex story gets simplified for later generations. Obviously, the source of much of this has been conscientious historians when they must summarize to meet space limitations. At other times it has been done by those who wish to create an unblemished example of a larger theme, such as Yankee ingenuity or the cause of the Civil War. For this reason, we can thank Lakwete, who has grounded her story in the documentary evidence, and where no definitive answer can be found, points out the gaps in our knowledge.

Early cotton ginning devices relied on a pinching principle to remove cotton fiber. By the 1600s, this approach had resulted in what are now called “roller” gins. Hand-cranked and foot powered versions had been used in India, China and the Levant, and were imported into the New World when cotton production was started in the Caribbean. By the end of the seventeenth century, two-thirds of British cotton imports came from this new output source, replacing Levantine supplies. Early experiments at exportable cotton production in the Virginia and Carolina colonies ceased when tobacco, naval stores and rice became the dominant cash crops. The American colonies reentered the cotton market during the Revolution to supply domestic textile producers, and demand received an additional boost afterwards from the expanding British textile industry. Initial attempts to expand ginning output led to the centrally powered “barrel” gin of the 1770s and Joseph Eve’s self-feeding roller gin, which received a patent in 1788 and could be water, wind, or animal powered.

Lakwete explains that Whitney’s 1793 gin forced a dramatic new equilibrium because it sacrificed cotton fiber quality for cotton fiber quantity. Whitney’s design used wire teeth embedded in a wooden roller to pull cotton fiber quickly through a grate that the seed could not pass through. As news of the machine was announced, some of Whitney’s future marketing problems arose from the fact that he and his business partner, Phineas Miller, claimed that their ginned fiber was equal in quality to that turned out by the traditional methods. This inevitably led to customer disappointment and additional debate over the merits of roller gins versus the Whitney design. The eventual judgment of the market was the creation of two niches for cloth and cotton production. A small luxury market retained the emphasis on fiber quality, and continued to rely on roller gin seed removal. Cotton production for this niche remained concentrated along the South Carolina and Georgia coast, where sea-island cotton, a long-staple (and more easily ginned) transplant from South America was grown. The larger mass-production textile market learned to live with lower-quality ginned cotton turned out by Whitney-style gins. It made use of the rapidly expanding production of fuzzy-seed cotton varieties that could be grown in most of the interior South.

The greatest irony of the Whitney gin is that his original embedded wire teeth design for fiber removal had been largely abandoned by 1800, well before his patent expired in 1807. Whitney and Miller soon discovered that the teeth were problematic in actual cotton gin construction and use. Southern mechanics, either in an attempt to find their own solution, or as a way to try to avoid a patent infringement suit, started to substitute circular saws for the purpose of snaring the cotton fiber. Lakwete documents a demonstration model made by a Natchez mechanic, John Barcley, in 1795. The next year, Hodgen Holmes, a mechanic in Augusta, Georgia, received a patent for his “saw” gin. The response of Whitney and Miller was that this modification originated with Whitney, and that Holmes had no right under patent law to substitute one part in the Whitney gin and then get a new patent for the entire machine. The courts nullified Holmes’ patent in 1802, with the verdict upheld in 1807 and 1810 appeals. In the meantime, Whitney and Miller, while publicly insisting that wire teeth were preferable, had begun to supply their customers with saw gins in the late 1790s, if that was their preference.

Subsequently, Lakwete turns to the countless antebellum mechanics and later, factory owners, North and South, who constructed cotton gins and made improvements in design. A search of regional newspapers, city directories, and census records reveals how extensive this service network for the Southern cotton culture was. For example, Lakwete reports 117 gin-makers (Southern, Northern, and foreign born) listed in the 1850 Mississippi Population Census, although only 11 cotton gin firms are reported in the manufacturing schedules, with its $500 reporting cut-off. Eventually a machinery industry developed in which a small number of New England cotton gin factories competed with Southern manufacturers (e.g., Daniel Pratt, Samuel Griswold), who were among the largest business enterprises in the region. The author is particularly interested in documenting the use of slave labor by Southern gin makers. This and the appearance of female and free black ginwrights located in the South, contrast with the exclusively white male New England gin industry.

In the remainder of the book, the author examines patent files to follow technological developments in Whitney-style saw gins and proposed alternatives. Of these alternatives, two stand out. In 1840, a New Yorker named Fones McCarthy patented a reciprocating knife principle to cut seeds from the cotton fiber. Intended as a replacement for the saw gin, it instead became the dominant method for ginning luxury long-staple cotton varieties. As production of this cotton rose in Egypt and other British dominions, the technological leadership for McCarthy gins passed to English machinery firms. Finally, several patents were issued in the 1840s and 50s for what were called “cylinder” or “card” gins. These were a hybrid of Whitney’s wire teeth and roller gins, which pinched fiber from the seed. Versions patented by Stephen Parkhurst of New York created considerable excitement in the early 1850s, as the sought-after successor to the imperfect saw gin. Instead, through its own improvements, the common saw gin prevailed, and remains the principle behind short-staple cotton ginning to this day.

This study provides students a clear example of how technological choices are not the storybook cases of perfected innovations replacing hopelessly outclassed traditional methods. Besides following the actual course of cotton gin technology, Lakwete discusses how stories of the Whitney gin began over time to downplay the roller gin, even to the point that some commentators would claim that seed could only be removed from cotton fiber by hand before Whitney’s invention. Myths replace facts to increase the dramatic impact of the story. Professors will be able to find many short reading selections in the book that provide useful antidotes to this kind of thinking.

William H. Phillips is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of South Carolina. He is currently researching the development of the Southern cotton gin manufacturing industry and more generally, patents issued to Southern inventors before World War I.

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century