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This Day in Labor History: October 28, 1793

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On October 28, 1793, Eli Whitney submitted a patent for his invention known as the cotton gin. Perhaps more than any technology in American history, this invention profoundly revolutionized American labor. Creating the modern cotton industry meant the transition from agricultural to industrial labor in the North with the rise of the factory system and the rapid expansion and intensification of slavery in the South to produce the cotton. The cotton gin went far to create the 19th century American economy and sharpened the divides between work and labor between regions of the United States, problems that would eventually lead to the Civil War.

People had long known of the versatile uses of cotton. This plant produced fibers that could be used for many things, but most usefully clothing, which in the 18th century was often scratchy and uncomfortable for everyday people who could not afford finer fabrics, including cotton. The problem was the seed inside the cotton boll, to which the plant’s fibers stuck. Thus, the labor it took to process it made it a luxury good. The cotton gin solved that problem by mechanically separating the fibers from the seeds. This made cotton a universal product and the production of it an international business that would radically change the entire United States and transform work.

Whitney, from Massachusetts, became interested in the problems of cotton production while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Helping out the plantation’s owner (the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene), he created the cotton gin. On October 28, he send his patent application to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He hoped to make a lot of money on it but American patent law was weak at the time and others copied him. Quickly the invention spread around the South.

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The cotton gin immediately transformed the South. By 1815, cotton became the nation’s leading export, tying the Southern elite to the factory owners and investors of Great Britain. By 1840, it was worth more than all other American exports combined. The system of chattel slavery that had under-girded the colonial tobacco economy had become heavily strained during the 18th century. Declining soil fertility and the expansion of tobacco production around the British empire meant that the plantation owners were not making the money off of slavery that they did 100 years earlier. The lack of an economic imperative for the institution went far toward the abolition of slavery in the North after the American Revolution. In the South, it combined with Enlightenment ideals to at least make plantation owners question the institution. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both admitted the institution was bad but could not imagine freeing their slaves because of the lives of luxury the system provided them. Others were slightly less selfish and either freed their slaves in the 1780s or freed them upon the master’s death, such as George Washington. The general assumption though was that slavery was going to disappear, even if Georgia and South Carolina wouldn’t like it much. As Oliver Ellsworth said at the Constitutional Convention, “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”

The cotton gin ended this equivocation on slavery among the plantation elite and destroyed the myth of disappearing slavery in the North. Combined with the conquest of rich land in the hot climates of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few decades, the planters found new ways to make money using slaves. The southern discussion of slavery transformed from a “necessary evil” to a “positive good.” Thus we would enter the “classic” period of American chattel slavery, replete with the large plantation agriculture you probably think of when envisioning slavery. The lives for slaves were terrible under this system, with rape, beatings, whippings, murder, and the breaking up of families normal parts of life. Further advances in cotton farming created breeds that incentivized working slaves as close to death as possible while keeping them just alive to pick more. As the nation moved toward the Civil War, the southern labor system wrought by the cotton gin was becoming only more entrenched and more brutal for the laborers. Slaves would resist this in any number of ways–breaking tools, running away from masters, even revolt, such as Nat Turner’s revolt or Denmark Vesey’s supposed conspiracy. But by and large the system of racialized violence that kept the labor force in place doomed slaves to miserable lives. In 1787, there were 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 4 million and rising. Around 70 percent of those slaves were involved in cotton production.

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In the North, the revolution caused by the cotton gin was just as profound. Samuel Slater had opened the United States’ first modern factory, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a couple of years earlier. The textile industry would explode in the next several decades with all the newly available cotton. By the 1820s, New England had already undergone a massive economic shift toward textile mills that moved this region from rural to urban, with courts and politicians serving the interests of the industrialists over workers, farmers, and fishers. At first, this transformation was along the region’s copious waterways–at Pawtucket, Lowell, and Manchester. But further technological advances would for steam power meant owners could build factories anywhere and they dotted the region after the Civil War.

The impact upon northern workers was truly revolutionary. The agricultural economy certainly did not disappear but it soon became secondary to the textile factories in much of the region. The wealth spawned by textiles created other industries and new transportation technologies like the steamship, canal, and railroad, and by 1860, the growing northern industrial might had reshaped the nation. It took workers out of the farms and small shops that defined 18th century work and into giant factories. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution that the cotton gin brought to the U.S. meant that workers would lose control over their own labor, the ability to set their own hours of work, the possibility of drinking on the job, and the artisanship of American craft labor. Replacing it would be the factory floor, the time clock, and the foreman. This is largely in the relatively distant future from 1793, but the transformations began soon after.

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0

It also brought women into the economy in new ways. Supposedly because of their nimble fingers but really because employers could pay them less, women became desirable workers in the cotton factories. This upended gender roles and when American women resisted the treatment they faced in the factories, spurred the migration of immigrants from Ireland and then eastern and southern Europe to fill these low-paid jobs. In the early factories, work was hot, stuffy, and exhausting, with 14-16 hours days not uncommon. The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations. The fight to tame the conditions of industrial labor wrought, in part, by the cotton gin, remains underway today.

This is the 123rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Aimai

    Thanks for this excellent precis, Erik. I want to recommend a good book on the period: The Sea Captains Wife. It is a historian’s account of a white, artisnal class, new England mill girl who ends up down south during the war, widowed and in brutal poverty up north after the war, and married to a Black sea captain and proprty owner in grand cayman for several years. Because she was literate and had a large family to whom she wrote some letters survived to piece the story of race, class, labour and war together.

    • I don’t know it, but I should check that out.

      • Aimai

        I stumbled across it. Its pretty recent and really very good. I was reading it with “whiteness of a different color” and a few other things.

  • There you go, posting about King Cotton, you “redneck revisionist jive master,” you.

    • I know, defending the Confederacy once again!

      Inside joke.

  • Thom

    Thanks for this piece, Erik. Of course the cotton gin also revolutionized labor around the world, contributing to industrialization in Britain and then to a surge in cotton production in India and Egypt and to many (mostly dismal) attempts to encourage (or force) the growing of cotton in various African colonies in the 20th century. Since growing cotton comes at the expense of growing food crops, and the price of cotton fluctuates, Mozambiquan peasants said that “cotton is the mother of poverty,” the title of a book on this by Allan Isaacman.

    • I should read that, given that I know next to nothing about cotton’s legacy outside the U.S.

      • Jhoosier

        I hear the Egyptian variety is quite delicious once covered in chocolate.

      • Thom

        For your purposes, it would be more efficient to look at his edited collection, Cotton, Colonialism and Social History in Sub-Saharan Africa (Heinemann, 1995). Richard Roberts, his co-editor, also has a book about the failure of French colonial efforts to extract cotton in French West Africa (people grew more, but used it in the local handicraft economy).

  • prufrock

    Whitney was also one of the fathers of replaceable parts, meaning that he also was at least partly responsible for the industrialization of war. Of course, this includes the war that by modern estimates killed 750,000 Americans.

    Hell of a legacy.

    • The Dark Avenger

      Yes, those 10,000 muskets sure made a difference. Also, Whitney wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea himself, and it was bound to happen sooner or later in an industrialized society.

  • Bruce Vail

    I like your use of “supposed” to describe the Denmark Vesey scare. Your post on the subject last year inspired me to read up on it, and I was astonished at how little credible evidence existed that a slave revolt was actually being planned. More an example of a hysterical reaction to fear of the slaves, than an actual conspiracy that threatened anybody.

    • Haiti scared the fuck out of the slavers. As well it should have. They knew on some level they deserved to have the tables turned on them, and feared it.

    • Joe_JP

      Brings to mind … Lincoln’s speech to Cooper Union had an intriguing section on slave revolts.

  • While Whitney’s role was very important, let’s not forget the role nature played in this. As Mark Fiege points out in The Republic of Nature, a new super-productive cotton hybrid rapidly spread through the South. The cotton gin alone wasn’t enough to spread slavery or industrialization. Without the new productive plants, slavery and industrial production still would not have been economically viable even with the cotton gin. Because of the way cotton exhausted the soil, you needed super-productive plants to make it profitable.

  • DrDick

    But Erik, what about those noble “job creators” in the South? They more than quintupled the jobs available!

    • Bruce Vail

      Job creators, indeed. If we are going to credit the cotton gin with the feminization of industrial textile labor, then it also deserves credit for inspiring the widespread use of child workers in those same mills.

      • DrDick

        Truly a divinely inspired instrument! Not only created jobs for slaves, but wage slaves for the paying jobs.

    • Joe_JP

      Dave Barry wrote about this in “Dave Barry Slept Here,” providing a sample want ad:

      “Are you that special kind of guy or gal who’s willing to work long hours for no pay…plus we get to keep your children?”

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  • Fosco

    I had heard (maybe in high school?) that Whitney had invented the gin as something of a humanitarian gesture, a way to ease the burden on slaves, reasoning that a labor-saving device would lead to less demand for labor and thereby reduce the pressure on slave owners to buy more slaves. Sort of hoping that by removing the “need” for slave labor he could help reduce slavery as a practice. Is there any truth to that?

    • Never heard of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

      • Lee Rudolph

        If you ever want to try tracking down something closer to home, I heard that the jin-rickshaw (human powered but using a bicycle to pull rather than shoulders to lift) was invented as a humanitarian device by a missionary from (and possibly in?) Worcester.

    • Katya

      I wrote a children’s book on Whitney, and I ran across that version–the gin was intended as a labor-saving device to make separating the cotton less onerous. It’s not an unreasonable claim–I doubt Whitney anticipated the effect that the cotton gin would actually have (in conjuction with the new cotton hybrid varieties).

  • Phil Perspective

    The creation of textile work as women’s work and thus highly exploitative never ended and continues today in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, and many other nations.

    Exploitative? Try telling that to Matt Yglesias!!

  • William Berry

    Apologizing in advance for incredibly minor quibble:

    General Greene, Washington’s right-hand man (until he displayed apparent cowardice in a fight in the southern campaigns late in the war; I forget the details), spelled his first name as Nathan[a]el, not “Nathaniel”. I have no idea how it was pronounced, though.

    • William Berry

      Now I’ve gone and slandered the man’s good name!

      That was Gates, the hero of Saratoga, not Greene, who disgraced himself in the field.

  • j_kay

    We can’t be sure when factories started, because they were illegal under British unjust mercantilist colonial law. ISTR the suspicion of the first is a whisky factory, which seems likely because colonial life was HARD. But then production of rum was added, part of the triangle trade, from smuggled Caribbean sugar.

    Manufacturing and especially smuggling were beyond popular because they were unjust colonial law. They and the craft unions were big in the Northern cities. And factories made a mint for the time.

    • The Dark Avenger

      The only reference I could find for colonial times was a chocolate factory that opened in Massachusetts in 1765. It was probably for domestic consumption, although if a smuggler happened to have, say, 1/2 ton of the stuff, they could probably sell it to the Spanish or the French.

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  • Latverian Diplomat

    The cotton gin drastically reduced the labor necessary in the cotton mills, allowing for more spinning and thus higher production rates.

    I think you are conflating the cotton gin and the spinning jenny or the spinning mule here?

    The cotton gin created a supply of cheap cotton wool as a raw material. But I have the impression that the gin was used in the South, before the export of the cotton, not in the textile mills.

    The innovations in spinning and weaving machines (many of which were the subject of industrial espionage) were what increased mill productivity directly.

    Both were needed to make the textile industry develop the way it did.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      Oops, I meant this to go with a different article.

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