William H. Phillips, University of South Carolina
The cotton gin developed by Eli Whitney in 1793 marked a major turning point in the economic history of the Southern United States. Prior to this time, the major commodities produced and exported by the South were tobacco and rice. Only with the ability to quickly separate short-staple cotton fiber from its seed was the future of the Southern economy, and its use of slave labor, tied to cotton production.
Whether slavery in the American South would have withered away without the cotton gin and expanded cotton production has not been given a definitive answer. Almost certainly it would have altered the development of sectional conflict prior to 1861. Nonetheless, as shown in Table 1, the South was already a major slave economy prior to the cotton gin, and would have remained so for some time. The table shows that the percentage of slaves in the Southern population remained at about one-third from 1790 down to the eve of the Civil War. There was a notable decline in the border-states, offset by the increasing weight of the Lower South’s population expansion.
Percent of Slave Population to Total Population, Southern States, 1790-1860
|Year||Southern States||Border States||Lower South|
Sources: Adapted from Table 21 in Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, vol. 2 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1958), 656. Original Data from United States Census, 1860, Population, 599-604. Border States are Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, while Lower South states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
Cotton Ginning before Eli Whitney
Devices for separating cotton fiber from seed have existed since antiquity. This process is considerably easier to perform for smooth seed long-staple cotton varieties, which dominated total cotton production prior to the popularization of Whitney’s machine. In 1788, Joseph Eve patented an improved machine for this purpose, using a method that is now referred to as “roller” ginning.
The problem faced by planters in the Southern United States was that long-staple cotton could only be grown at that time in a narrow band along the Carolina and Georgia coast (hence the term “sea island” cotton). Demand for cotton by English textile factories was increasing, but interior areas of the Southern states could only grow “upland” short-staple cotton. This cotton variety was marked by two characteristics: it had cotton fibers which were shorter in length (the short staple), reducing yarn and cloth quality, and it had a “fuzzy” seed since the fibers were tightly attached to the entire seed surface. This attachment of fiber to seed meant that removing the fiber without damaging it was time consuming and labor intensive.
Eli Whitney’s Design
While visiting a plantation (Mulberry Grove) near Savannah, Georgia, Connecticut native Whitney used his familiarity with New England textile machinery to construct his engine (shortened to “gin”). It used wire teeth hammered into a rotating wooden cylinder to snare the cotton fibers and pull them through a grate. The slots in this grate were too narrow for the cotton seed to pass, so that the fibers were pulled away from the seed.
The quick adoption of Whitney’s original design and its subsequent modifications contradicts the common perception that slavery prevents labor-saving technical change. The opportunity cost of slaves, as represented by their purchase or potential sale price to the slaveowner, was significant. Southern planters jumped at the chance to reduce the labor time needed to prepare picked cotton for market.
In fact, the primary barrier that the new cotton gin faced was that it sacrificed fiber quality for quantity, and so met with some resistance from English buyers of cotton fiber. Due to its short staple and damage caused by Whitney-style gins, the upland cotton varieties consistently sold for half the price received by long-staple cotton prior to the Civil War. Because undamaged fiber was so crucial to the high price received by sea-island cotton, it continued to be roller ginned.
Despite these drawbacks, short staple cotton was the only option if cotton production was to expand. With low-cost ginning assured by Whitney’s design, the Southern economy moved westward and planted cotton. Table 2 shows that American cotton production expanded 1000-fold from 1790 to 1860. In 1790, before the Whitney gin, almost all of the 3,000-plus bales of cotton made were sea-island cotton. By 1860, almost all of the 3.8 million bales grown were short-staple varieties.
American Production of Raw Cotton, 1790-1860 (bales)
Sources: Adapted from Table 40 in Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, vol. 2 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1958), 1026. Original Data from United States Department of Agriculture, Atlas of American Agriculture, V, Sec. A, Cotton, Table IV, p. 18. Crop Year begins October 1 for 1790-1840 and July 1 for 1845-1860. Production is measured in equivalent 500-pound bales, gross weight.
Whitney and the Patent System
The story of the cotton gin is also significant in that it led to the first major test of the newly created United States patent system. The test was not only of the ability of the system to protect the rights of inventors, but also of how the courts would interpret what a patent protected and what it did not protect. In the case of the cotton gin, the patent system was immediately confronted with the reality that new innovations are not born in a state of eternal, or even temporary, perfection.
Almost immediately, Whitney and other gin users encountered problems with the use of his wire teeth, which were difficult to install properly and easily damaged in use. In a development of murky origins, cotton gin technology had quickly switched by 1800 to the use of a series of circular saws attached to the rotating cylinder. These “saw” gins (still the basis of short-staple ginning today) used the teeth of the rotating saws to pull the cotton fiber through the grate, instead of Whitney’s original wire teeth. As these events unfolded, Whitney claimed that he had originally thought of this alternative as well and that it was an obvious variation of his design and thus covered under his patent. The courts eventually ruled in Whitney’s favor, but it was the initial warning that patent law was going to be complicated.
Whitney’s ultimate problem, however, was that his attempt at factory production of his cotton gins in a New Haven, Connecticut facility was not feasible. Given the crude state of cotton gin design at this time, he could not make a machine that was any better than what a local craftsman could make. The alternative was licensing, that is, selling the right to copy Whitney’s patent to would-be cotton gin makers.
This task fell to Whitney’s business partner, Phineas Miller of Georgia, who sold the licenses, printed newspaper notices warning those who would infringe on the patent, and took some of the alleged violators to court. Miller did sell a number of licenses, and his activities undoubtedly at least forced non-licensed ginmakers in South Carolina and eastern Georgia to avoid publicity. Miller’s efforts, however, had little impact in the western cotton market developing around Natchez, Mississippi. Whitney moved on to fire arms production, and his patent expired in 1807 without making either he or Miller rich.
Whitney and Miller, however, would probably have become quite wealthy if factory-made cotton gins had been clearly superior by 1800. Monitoring the patent under these circumstances would have been much less costly, whether they were making the gins in New Haven, or factory licensees were making them in Savannah and Natchez. Even today, patent holders whose innovations are too easily copied will be overwhelmed by the legal costs of taking all the violators to court.
The Arrival of Factory-made Cotton Gins
Table 3 demonstrates that what Whitney was attempting was not impossible in theory, just too early in practice. The earliest successful cotton gin factories appeared in the 1820s, and by 1850 the six largest cotton gin manufacturers were making close to a half-million dollars worth of cotton gins per year. With this amount, these leading factories controlled around half of the total cotton gin market, a market share that was maintained after the Civil War as well.
Output Value of the Six Largest Cotton Gin Manufacturing Firms
Sources: Manuscript schedules and published volumes of the U.S. Manufacturing Census, 1850-1880, and information provided on 1850 Georgia production in George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (New York: Pudney and Russell, 1854). Microfilm copies of the surviving schedules for the Southern states found at the microfilm library, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Microfilm copies of schedules for Connecticut and Massachusetts found at the respective state archives.
Small local gin makers continued to survive into the late 1800s, but increasingly they were unable to match the mechanical sophistication of factories that incorporated the latest improvements in gin technology as they appeared. Among the most notable of these early cotton gin manufacturers were: Eleazer Carver of Bridgewater, MA, Samuel Griswold of Jones County, GA, Daniel Pratt of Prattville, AL, Israel Brown of Columbus, GA (later New London, CT), Franklin Lummus of Juniper and Columbus, GA, and Benjamin Gullett of Aberdeen, MS (later Amite, LA). Started largely by New England mechanics who migrated to the South, the Southern cotton gin manufacturing sector was one of the few machinery industries that successfully competed against Northern firms during the nineteenth century.
Whether made by a local mechanic or in one of the later factories, cotton gins before the Civil War were primarily sold to farmers who installed them on their own property and used them to gin their own cotton. The newspapers of the time were full of the testimonials of planters discussing the merits of particular gins and how the processed fiber graded for price in the market. Gin makers for their part assured potential buyers in ads that they had thoroughly studied every aspect of proper gin design. They used only the best materials in their premium product, while at the same time offering economy models at a discounted price per saw (the standard measure of a cotton gin’s capacity).
During this period, the Patent Office approved many new patents on various improvements in the technology of cotton ginning, but progress was incremental, with no one innovation making other gins obsolete. The cumulative impact of the search for a better gin, however, was substantial. According to Lakwete (2003, pp. 146-47), early Whitney ginning operations could only turn out a quarter of a bale per day. But by the late 1850s, large-capacity steam powered gins could claim 5 to 6 bales per day.
The Rise of System Ginning
The turbulent Reconstruction era led to an increase in “custom” ginning across the Cotton South. Now tenant and small-acreage farmers did not purchase gins, but took their unginned “seed cotton” to a ginner who removed the seed for a fee. As the ginning operation might be connected to a supply store at which the farmer had run up a debt, crop liens (legal claims on the cotton filed by a lender) could leave the farmer with little or no saleable cotton. However, the concentration by location of the ginning process gave a boost to the new cottonseed industry. Farmers could now get extra cash by selling their surplus seed to nearby oil mills for pressing into cottonseed oil and meal.
But the biggest impact of custom ginning was that it focused the attention of innovators on how to maximize the efficiency of the entire process of ginning, rather than just the cotton gin itself. In the mid-1880s, Robert Munger of Texas developed “system” ginning, as seed cotton was fed continuously to multiple gin stands, from which the fiber went directly into pressing equipment for baling. This eventually ended once and for all the era of plantation gins and small cotton gin makers.
As seen in Table 4, the major cotton gin machinery firms in the late 1800s now patented systems for new ginning plants, sharply increasing patent activity by Southern inventors. Similar increases in ginning patents occurred among the major Northern firms. The possession of key patents was now essential for survival in cotton gin manufacturing, as ginning productivity increased rapidly and made older ginning machinery obsolete. At the ginning plant level, this meant that the most modern plants were now capable of processing all the cotton grown in an ever-widening radius around their location. Ginning operations had to upgrade their equipment or be quickly pushed out of business by more up-to-date competitors.
Cotton Gin Patents in the Southern States, 1831-1890
|Years||Number of Patents|
Sources: William H. Phillips. “Making a Business of It: The Evolution of Southern Cotton Gin Patenting, 1831-90,” Agricultural History 68 (1994): 82. Original data from U.S. Patent Office, Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Patents (Washington, D.C.). Patents issued by the Confederate Patent Office during the Civil War are not included. The Southern States consist of the eleven states of the Confederacy plus West Virginia and Kentucky.
The modern process of cotton ginning continues across the Southern states where cotton is grown, but is now also located in the major cotton producing areas of the American Southwest and overseas. The machinery that even for small ginning plants costs several million dollars is made by a small number of technologically sophisticated firms, based on the designs of specialized engineers. In 1999 one of those firms, Lummus Corporation, relocated to Savannah, Georgia, bringing the history of short-staple cotton ginning back to its roots at Mulberry Grove Plantation.
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Bennett, Charles A. Cotton Ginning Systems in the United States and Auxiliary Developments. Dallas: Cotton Gin and Oil Mill Press, 1962.
Britton, Karen Gerhardt. Bale o’ Cotton: The Mechanical Art of Cotton Ginning. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1992.
DeWitte, Dave. “Lummus Cottons to Savannah.” Savannah Morning News. August 29, 1999.
Evans, Curtis J. The Conquest of Labor: Daniel Pratt and Southern Industrialization. Baton Rouge, LA.: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Gray, Lewis Cecil. History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, 2 vols. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1958.
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Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Mirsky, Jeannette, and Allan Nevins. The World of Eli Whitney. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
Phillips, William H. “Making a Business of It: The Evolution of Southern Cotton Gin Patenting, 1831-90.” Agricultural History 68 (1994): 80-91.
Ransom, Roger L. and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Wrenn, Lynette Boney. Cinderella of the New South: A History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855-1955. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.