Cotton industry

The cotton industry, aided by the invention of the cotton gin, enriched the American South before the Civil War. Although it suffered setbacks during the war, the industry recovered to provide a significant source of American exports.

The early history of the cotton industry revolves around the introduction of African slaves to the American South in an effort to provide inexpensive labor for the cotton fields. Despite the use of the slaves, cotton farming was not highly noted or profitable before the late eighteenth century.Cotton industry

The Invention

The Cotton gincotton gin, widely believed to have been the invention of Eli Whitney alone, industrialized the harvesting of cotton. The invention was introduced in 1793, and a patent was filed in 1794. The patent was finally upheld in 1802, but by that time, many other inventors had copied the idea and sold their machines to southern farmers. This was partially Whitney’s fault, as he and a partner had set up ginning facilities across the South, charging farmers a fee for processing the cotton, rather than selling the machines directly to the growers. Although scholars continue to debate whether the cotton gin was Whitney’s original design, whether it included parts copied from the machines of other inventors, or whether it was adapted from African and Asian contraptions, the cotton gin produced a revolution in the industry. The easier separation of the cotton fiber from the seeds increased the yield, thereby speeding up production. This allowed more cotton to be readied for sale, creating higher profits. The credit for the improvement in the South’s economic status has popularly been given to Whitney and his invention.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the cotton industry was one of the largest industries in the world, employing as many as twenty million workers. In the years just before the U.S. Civil War, U.S.;cotton industryCivil War, the American South provided most of the cotton to Textile industrytextile mills both within the country, primarily in Massachusetts, and outside the country. The main export customers were Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. American cotton provided more than three-fourths of the necessary supply for textile mills in the countries that imported it.

The cotton industry’s success has been blamed, in part, for the Civil War, as industries in the North were purportedly envious of the South’s financial success. The onset of the Civil War caused a number of problems in the cotton industry. As the war progressed and the Slavery;cotton industryslaves became emancipated, the production of cotton in the South plummeted, dragging the economy with it. The loss of approximately four million unpaid laborers destroyed the plantations’ ability to keep up with world demand. Production continued to be limited in the South as workers refused to labor in the cotton fields, even with pay. The drop in production resulted in international panic and unemployment. British and French textile workers rioted as the lack of cotton closed the doors of their mills. Because the countries that imported the cotton needed it to keep their mills running, they found other sources, and after the war, it took almost a decade for the cotton industry to recover. Fortunately for the United States economy, the cotton industry bounced back in the years after the Civil War with small farms, sharecroppers, and recovering plantations producing increasingly larger crops.

Modern Issues

In the latter part of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first century, the cotton industry has dealt with a number of issues. The World Trade Organization;cotton industryWorld Trade Organization has repeatedly called for fewer government subsidies for American cotton growers. The organization claims that the U.S. government is illegally subsidizing American cotton farmers, which drives down cotton prices on the world market, creating poverty in other cotton-producing countries. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (known as the 2008 Farm Bill), which was voted into law on May 22, 2008, attempted to make concessions to the World Trade Organization and to American growers, but a true compromise was not reached.

American cotton growers have been plagued by elevated energy costs for irrigation, higher fertilizer prices, and hikes in the minimum wage. Stagnant prices and increasingly pesticide-resistant weeds have also caused problems. Weather and reduced acreage (caused by increases in the acreage planted with corn) have also created trouble for American cotton growers. However, export demands have increased, with China continuing to be one of the country’s biggest customers. In addition, although less acreage is being used for cotton crops, production has increased because of technological advances and newer farming methods that lower soil loss and water and pesticide usage.

Further Reading

  • Broadus, Mitchell. The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Looks at the history, the laborers, and the economic functions of cotton mills in America’s southern states.
  • Jeremy, David J. Technology and Power in the Early American Cotton Industry: James Montgomery, the Second Edition of His “Cotton Manufacture” (1840), and the Justitia Controversy About Relative Power Costs. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1990. Provides historical information about eighteenth century writer James Montgomery and the conclusions he drew about American cotton manufacturing.
  • Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Argues that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was not the first model introduced to the South and, thus, not as responsible for Southern cotton production increases during the late 1700’s as history books suggest.
  • Lichtenstein, Jack. Field to Fabric: The Story of American Cotton Growers. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1990. An account of the cotton industry, from the farmers to the finished product.
  • Yafa, Stephen. Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary. New York: Viking, 2005. Provides a general overview of the cotton industry in the United States from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries.


U.S. Civil War

Commodity markets

Cotton gin

Panic of 1819

Panic of 1837

Plantation agriculture

Slave era

Tariff of Abominations