With 34 billion pounds of cotton grown annually in the United States alone (2.5 trillion pounds worldwide), cotton remains the leading non-food crop in the world, just behind wheat, corn, and other grain crops, using 2.5% of the world’s arable land to grow it. Cotton is still king. But, obviously, cotton is common too—it is likely you are wearing a bit of cotton right now—and that means we may not fully appreciate its importance to our culture or its historical significance.
For example, it was the introduction of cotton mills in England in 1733 that started the Industrial Revolution, which, for better or for worse, has given us the modern world as we know it. Likewise, it was the advent of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin sixty years later that so radically altered both American and British economies, propelling both countries into positions of world leadership.
Prior to this time cotton fiber had to be separated from the cottonseed by hand, and about one pound of cotton could be separated by one person in a day’s time. Now the cotton gin could separate out fifty pounds a day. Whereas it would normally take 600 man-hours to produce a 500-pound bale of cotton, the cotton gin reduced it to only twelve hours.
Production skyrocketed overnight. Cotton yield doubled every ten years, and from 1815 to 1860 cotton was not only America’s leading export but represented more than half the total exports for the entire nation. The fledgling republic soon provided over three-quarters of the world’s cotton and became the primary source for England, who led the world in textile industries. The cotton trade was literally providing for America—for America’s expanse and for America’s industrialization.
Success came with a cost, however. While reducing the need for slaves to deseed the cotton, the appearance and widespread use of the cotton gin actually greatly increased the demand for slave labor, since higher production meant more cotton to plant and to pick. In fact, slavery in the South was in great decline in the late 1700’s and was expected by many to disappear altogether in the next few decades. However, in the fifteen years between the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the illegalization of the slave trade in 1808, the South imported 80,000 Africans, most of these to be employed on cotton plantations. It may be too much to blame the cotton gin as the cause for America’s civil war, but it certainly had a monumental role to play in the drama that eventually unfolded in 1860.
On a personal level, Whitney never profited from the cotton gin since courts failed to validate his patent for more than thirteen years after its invention. By then, of course, the patent had almost expired anyway, and many had copied his design, using and selling their own versions of the cotton gin across the country. Whitney did, however, eventually become wealthy—from the development of muskets with interchangeable parts. This innovation paved the way for the mass production of weapons by unskilled workers in factories rather than by craftsmen in their independent shops. As with the cotton gin, Whitney’s ingenuity in weapons manufacture had once again helped to lay the foundation for the industrialization and modernization that transformed the world.
N.B. According to some sources, Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin alone. Records at the Connecticut Historical Society, the New York Historical Society, Smith College, the University of Michigan, and Yale University indicate the involvement of Catherine Littlefield Greene, owner of the plantation where Eli Whitney worked. In addition to sponsoring Whitney’s work, Greene is said to have created the final version of the filter for the cotton gin. It is likely she did not receive widespread credit for her contribution because it was socially unacceptable for a woman of her day to be recognized as an inventor, and in fact, under the U.S. Patent Act of 1793, married women forfeited their ownership rights to their husbands. Most mainstream sources neglect to mention Greene, but many feminist authors have adopted her story as a cause célèbre and an example of the ways in which social factors shape our understanding of history.