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Mechanical Cotton Picker

Donald Holley, University of Arkansas at Monticello

Until World War II, the Cotton South remained poor, backward, and un-mechanized. With minor exceptions, most tasks — plowing, cultivating, and finally harvesting cotton — were done by hand. Though sharecropping stifled the region’s attempts to mechanize, too many farmers, both tenants and owners, were trying to survive on small, uneconomical farms, trapping themselves in poverty. From 1910 to 1970 the Great Migration, which included whites as well as blacks, reduced the region’s oversupply of small farmers and embodied a tremendous success story for both migrants and the region itself. The mechanical cotton picker played an indispensable role in the transition from the prewar South of over-population, sharecropping, and hand labor to the capital-intensive agriculture of the postwar South.

Inventions and Inventors

In 1850 Samuel S. Rembert and Jedediah Prescott of Memphis, Tennessee, received the first patent for a cotton harvester from the U.S. Patent Office, but it was almost a century later that a mechanical picker was commercially produced. The late nineteenth century was an age of inventions, and many inventors sought to perfect a mechanical cotton harvester. Their lack of success reinforced the belief that cotton would always be picked by hand. For almost a hundred years, it seemed, a successful cotton picker had been just around the corner.

Inventors experimented with a variety of devices that were designed to pick cotton.

  • Pneumatic harvesters removed cotton fiber from the bolls with suction or a blast of air.
  • Electrical cotton harvesters used a statically charged belt or finger to attract the lint and remove it from the boll.
  • The thresher type cut down the plant near the surface of the ground and took the entire plant into the machine, where the cotton fiber was separated from the vegetable material.
  • The stripper type harvester combed the plant with teeth or drew it between stationary slots or teeth.
  • The picker or spindle type machine was designed to pick the open cotton from the bolls using spindles, fingers, or prongs, without injuring the plant’s foliage and unopened bolls.

The picker or spindle idea drew the most attention. In the 1880s Angus Campbell of Chicago, Illinois, was an agricultural engineer who saw the tedious process of picking cotton. For twenty years he made annual trips to Texas to test the latest model his spindle picker, but his efforts met with ridicule. The consensus of opinion was that cotton would always be picked by hand. Campbell joined with Theodore H. Price and formed the Price-Campbell Cotton Picker Corporation in 1912. The Price-Campbell machine performed poorly, but they believed they were on the right track.

Hiram M. Berry of Greenville, Mississippi, designed a picker with barbed spindles, though it was never perfected. Peter Paul Haring of Goliad, Texas, worked for thirty years to build a mechanical cotton picker using curved prongs or corkscrews.

John Rust

John Rust, the man who was ultimately credited with the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, personified the popular image of the lone inventor working in his garage. As a boy, he had picked cotton himself, and he dreamed that he could invent a machine that would relieve people of one of the most onerous forms of stoop labor.

John Daniel Rust was born in Texas in 1892. He was usually associated with his younger brother Mack Donald Rust, who had a degree in mechanical engineering. Mack did the mechanical work, while John was the dreamer who worried about the social consequences of their invention.

John was intrigued with the challenge of constructing a mechanical cotton picker. Other inventers had used spindles with barbs, which twisted the fibers around the spindle and pulled the lint from the boll. But the problem was how to remove the lint from the barbs. The spindle soon became clogged with lint, leaves, and other debris. He finally hit on the answer: use a smooth, moist spindle. As he later recalled:

The thought came to me one night after I had gone to bed. I remembered how cotton used to stick to my fingers when I was a boy picking in the early morning dew. I jumped out of bed, found some absorbent cotton and a nail for testing. I licked the nail and twirled it in the cotton and found that it would work.

By the mid-1930s the widespread use of mechanical cotton harvesters seemed imminent and inevitable. When in 1935 the Rust brothers moved to Memphis, the self-styled headquarters of the Cotton South, John Rust announced flatly, “The sharecropper system of the Old South will have to be abandoned.” The Rust picker could do the work of between 50 and 100 hand pickers, reducing labor needs by 75 percent. Rust expected to put the machine on the market within a year. A widely read article in the American Mercury entitled “The Revolution in Cotton” predicted the end of the entire plantation system. Most people compared the Rust picker with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

Rust’s 1936 Public Demonstration

In 1936, the Rust machine received a public trial at the Delta Experiment Station near Leland, Mississippi. Though the Rust picker was not perfected, it did pick cotton and it picked it well. The machine produced a sensation, sending a shutter throughout the region. The Rust brothers’ machine provoked the fear that a mechanical picker would destroy the South’s sharecropping system and, during the Great Depression, throw millions of people out of work. An enormous human tragedy would then release a flood of rural migrants, mostly black, on northern cities. The Jackson (Miss.) Daily News editorialized that the Rust machine “should be driven right out of the cotton fields and sunk into the Mississippi River.”

Soon a less strident and more balanced view emerged. William E. Ayres, head of the Delta Experiment Station, encouraged Rust:

We sincerely hope you can arrange to build and market your machine shortly. Lincoln emancipated the Southern Negro. It remains for cotton harvesting machinery to emancipate the Southern cotton planter. The sooner this [is] done, the better for the entire South.

Professional agricultural men saw the mechanization of cotton as a gradual process. The cheap price of farm labor in the depression had slowed the progress of mechanization. Still, the prospects for the future were grim. One agricultural economist predicted that mechanical cotton picking would become reality over the next ten or fifteen years.

Cotton Harvester Sweepstakes

International Harvester

Major farm implement companies, which had far more resources than did the Rust brothers, entered what may be called the cotton harvester sweepstakes. Usually avoiding publicity, implement companies were happy to let the Rust brothers bear the brunt of popular criticism. International Harvester (IH) of Chicago, Illinois, had invented the popular Farmall tractor in 1924 and then experimented with pneumatic pickers. After three years of work, Harvester realized that a skilled hand picker could easily pick faster than their pneumatic machine.

IH then bought up the Price-Campbell patents and turned to spindle pickers. By the late 1930s Harvester was sending a caravan southward every fall to test their latest prototype, picking early cotton in Texas and late-maturing cotton in Arkansas and Mississippi. In 1940 chief engineer C. R. Hagen abandoned the idea of a tractor that pulled the picking unit. Instead of driving the tractor forward, the tractor moved backward enabling the picking unit to encounter the cotton plants first. The transmission was reversed so that it still used forward gears.

After the 1942 caravan, Fowler McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester, formally announced that his company had a commercial cotton picker ready for production. The IH picker was a one-row, spindle-type picker, but unlike the Rust machine it used a barbed spindle, which improved its ability to snag cotton fibers. This machine employed a doffer to clean the spindles before the next rotation. Unfortunately, the War Production Board allocated IH only enough steel to continue production of experimental models; IH was unable to start full-scale production until after World War II was over.

In late 1944, as World War II entered its final months, attention turned to a dramatic announcement. The Hopson Planting Company near Clarksdale, Mississippi, produced the first cotton crop totally without the use of hand labor. Machines planted the cotton, chopped it, and harvested the crop. It was a stunning achievement that foretold the future.

IH’s Memphis Factory, 1949

After the war, International Harvester constructed Memphis Works, a huge cotton picker factory located on the north side of the city, and manufactured the first pickers in 1949. Though the company had assembled experimental models for testing purposes, this event marked the first commercial production of mechanical cotton pickers. The plant’s location clearly showed that the company aimed its pickers for use in the cotton areas of the Mississippi River Valley.


Deere and Company of Moline, Illinois, had experimented with stripper-type harvesters and variations of the spindle idea, but discontinued these experiments in 1931. In 1944 the company resumed work after buying the Berry patents, though Deere’s machine incorporated its own innovative designs. Deere quickly regained the ground it had lost during the depression. In 1950, Deere’s Des Moines Works at Ankeny, Iowa, began production of a two-row picker that could do almost twice the harvesting job of one-row machines.

Allis Chalmers

Despite his success, John Rust realized that his picker was substandard, and during World War II he went back to his drafting board and redesigned his entire machine. His lack of financial resources was overcome when he received an offer from Allis Chalmers of Indianapolis, Indiana, to produce machines using his patents. He signed a non-exclusive agreement.


In late 1948 cotton farmers near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, suffered from a labor shortage. Since cotton still stood unpicked in the fields at the end of the year, they invited Rust to demonstrate his picker. The demonstration was a success. Rust entered into an agreement with Ben Pearson, a Pine Bluff company known for archery equipment, to produce 100 machines for $1,000 each, paid in advance. All the machines were sold, and Ben Pearson hired Rust as a consultant and manufactured Rust cotton pickers.

Ancillary Developments

The mechanization of cotton did indeed proceeded slowly. The production of cotton involved three distinct “labor peaks”: land breaking, planting, and cultivating; thinning and weeding; and harvesting. Until the 1960s cotton growers did not have a full set of technological tools to mechanize all labor peaks.

Weed Control

The control of weeds with herbicides was the last labor peak to be conquered. Desperate to solve the problem, farmers cross-cultivated their cotton, plowing across rows as well as up and down rows. Taking advantage of the toughness of cotton stalks, flame weeders used a flammable gas to kill weeds. The most peculiar sight in northeast Arkansas was flocks of weed-hungry geese that sauntered through cotton fields. The weed problem was solved not by machines, but by chemicals. In 1964, the preemergence herbicide Treflan became a household word because of a television commercial. Ultimately, the need to chop and thin cotton was a problem of plant genetics.

Western cotton growers embraced mechanization earlier than did southern farmers. As early as 1951, more than half of California’s cotton crop was mechanically harvested, with hand picking virtually eliminated by the 1960s. Environmental conditions produced smaller cotton plants, not the “rank” cotton in the Delta, and small plants favored machine picking. Western farmers also did not have to overcome the burden of an antiquated labor system. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Machine Harvested Cotton as a Percentage of the Total Cotton Crop, Arkansas, California, South Carolina, and U.S. Average, 1949-1972

Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Statistics on Cotton and Related Data, 1920-1973, Statistical Bulletin No. 535 (Wash­ing­ton: Government Printing Office, 1974), 218.

Mechanization and Migration

The most controversial issue raised by the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester has been its role in the Great Migration. Popular opinion has accepted the view that machines eliminated jobs and forced poor families to leave their homes and farms in a forlorn search for urban jobs. On the other hand agricultural experts argued that mechanization was not the cause, but the result of economic change in the Cotton South. Wartime and postwar labor shortages were the major factors in stimulating the use of machines in cotton fields. Most of the out-migration from the South stemmed from a desire to obtain high paying jobs in northern industries, not from an “enclosure” movement motivated by landowners who mechanized as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the South’s cotton farmers were often reluctant to make the transition from hand labor, which was familiar and workable, to machines, which were expensive and untried.

Holley (2000) used an empirical analysis to compare the impact of mechanization and manufacturing wages on the labor available for picking cotton. The result showed that mechanization accounted for less than 40 percent of the decrease in handpicking, while the other 60 percent was attributed to the decrease in the supply of labor caused by higher wages in manufacturing industries. Hand labor was pulled out of the Cotton South by higher industrial wages rather than displaced by job-destroying machines.

Timing of Migration

The evidence is overwhelming that migration greatly accelerated mechanization. The first commercial production of mechanical cotton pickers were manufactured in 1949, and these machines did not exist in large numbers until the early 1950s. Since the Great Migration began during World War I, mechanical pickers cannot have played any causal role in the first four decades of the migration. By 1950, soon after the first mechanical cotton pickers were commercially available, over six million migrants had already left the South. (See Table 1.) A decade later, most of the nation’s cotton was still hand picked. Only by the late 1960s, when the migration was losing momentum, did machines harvest virtually the total cotton crop.

Table 1
Net Migration from the South, by Race, 1870-1970 (thousands)

Decade Native White Black Total
1870-1880 91 -68 23
1880-1890 -271 88 -183
1890-1900 -30 -185 -215
1900-1910 -69 -194 -218
1910-1920 -663 -555 -1,218
1920-1930 -704 -903 -1,607
1930-1940 -558 -480 -1,038
1940-1950 -866 -1,581 -2,447
1950-1960* -1,003* -1,575* -2,578
1960-1970* -508* -1,430* -1,938
Totals for 1940-1970 -2,377 -4,586 -6,963

Source: Hope T. Eldridge and Dorothy S. Thomas, Population Redistribution and Economic Growth, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1964), 90. *United States Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), Series C 55-62, pp. 93-95.

Migration figures also provide a comparison of statewide migration estimates in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi with estimates for counties that actually used mechanical pickers (79 of 221 counties or parishes). During the 1950s these counties accounted for less than half of the total white migration from the three-state region and just over half of the black migration. The same was true in the 1960s except that the white population showed a net gain, not a loss. (See Table 2.) Though push factors played some role in the migration, pull factors were more important. People deserted the cotton areas because they hoped to obtain better jobs and more money elsewhere.

Table 2
Estimated Statewide Migration, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi
Compared to Migration Estimates for Cotton Counties, 1950-1970


1950-1960 1960-1970
State as a Whole Counties Using Mechanical Pickers Percent­age State as a Whole Counties Using Mechanical Pickers Percent­age
Arkansas -283,000 -106,388 37.6 38,000 -26,026 68.5
Louisiana 43,000 -15,769 36.7 26,000 -28,949* 111.3
Mississippi -110,000 -50,997 46.4 10,000 -771 7.7
Totals -350,000 -173,154 49.6 74,000 -55,746 75.3
Arkansas -150,000 -74,297 49.5 -112,000 -64,445 57.5
Louisiana -93,000 -42,151 45.3 -163,000 -62,290 38.2
Mississippi -323,000 -175,577 54.4 -279,000 -152,357 54.6
Totals -566,000 -292,025 51.6 -554,000 -279,092 50.4

Source: Donald Holley. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 178.

*The selected counties lost population, but Louisiana statewide recorded a population gain for the decade.

Most of the Arkansas migrants, for example, were young people from farm families who saw little future in agriculture. They were people with skills and thus possessed high employment potential. They also had better than average educations. In other words, they were not a collection of pathetic sharecroppers who had been driven off the land.


During and after World War II, the Cotton South was caught up in a complex interplay of economic forces. The region suffered shortages of agricultural labor during the war, which led to the collapse of the old plantation system. The number of tenant farmers and sharecroppers declined precipitously, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped counting them after its 1959 census. The structure of southern agriculture changed as the number of farms declined steadily, while the size of farms increased. The age of Agri-Business had arrived.

The migration solved the long-standing problem of rural overpopulation, and did so without producing social upheaval. The migrants found jobs and improved their living standards, and simultaneously rural areas were relieved of their overpopulation. The migration also enabled black people to gain political clout in northern and western cities, and since Jim Crow was in part a system of labor control, the declining need for black labor in the South loosened the ties of segregation.

After World War II southern farmers faced a world that had changed. While the Civil War had freed the slaves, the mechanical cotton picker emancipated workers from backbreaking labor and emancipated the region itself from its dependence on cotton and sharecropping. Indeed, mechanization made possible the continuation of cotton farming in the post-plantation era. Yet cotton acreages declined as farmers moved into rice and soybeans, crops that were already mechanized, creating a more diversified agricultural economy. The end of sharecropping also signaled the end of the need for cheap, docile labor — always a prerequisite of plantation agriculture. The labor control that the South had always exercised over poor whites and blacks proved unattainable after the war. Thus the mechanization of cotton was an essential condition for the civil rights movement in the 1950s, which freed the region from Jim Crow. The relocation of political power from farms to cities was a related by-product of agricultural mechanization. In the second half of the twentieth century, the South underwent a second great emancipation as revolutionary changes swept the region that earlier were unattainable and even unimaginable.

Selected Bibliography

Carlson, Oliver. “Revolution in Cotton.” American Mercury 34 (February 1935): 129-36. Reprinted in Readers’ Digest 26 (March 1935): 13-16.

Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Day, Richard H. “The Economics of Technological Change and the Demise of the Sharecropper.” American Economic Review 57 (June 1967): 427-49.

Drucker, Peter. “Exit King Cotton.” Harper’s 192 (May 1946): 473-80.

Fite, Gilbert C. Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984.

Hagen, C. R. “Twenty-Five Years of Cotton Picker Development.” Agricultural Engineering 32 (November 1951): 593-96, 599.

Hamilton, C. Horace. “The Social Effects of Recent Trends in the Mechaniza­tion of Agriculture.” Rural Sociology 4 (March 1939): 3-19.

Heinicke, Craig. “African-American Migration and Mechanized Cotton Harvesting, 1950-1960.” Explorations in Economic History 31 (October 1994): 501-20.

Holley, Donald. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Johnston, Oscar. “Will the Machine Ruin the South?” Saturday Evening Post 219 (May 31, 1947): 36-37, 94-95, 388.

Maier, Frank H. An Economic Analysis of Adoption of the Mechanical Cotton Picker.”Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1969.

Peterson, Willis, and Yoav Kislev. “The Cotton Harvester in Retrospect: Labor Displacement or Replacement.” Journal of Economic History 46 (March 1986): 199-216.

Rasmussen, Wayne D. “The Mechanization of Agriculture.” Scientific American 247 (September 1982): 77-89.

Rust, John. “The Origin and Development of the Cotton Picker.” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 7 (1953): 38-56.

Street, James H. The New Revolution in the Cotton Economy: Mechanization and Its Consequences. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.

Whatley, Warren C. “New Estimates of the Cost of Harvesting Cotton: 1949-1964.” Research in Economic History 13 (1991): 199-225.

Whatley, Warren C. “A History of Mechanization in the Cotton South: The Institutional Hypothesis.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 100 (November 1985): 1191-1215.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Citation: Holley, Donald. “Mechanical Cotton Picker”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 16, 2003. URL