Cotton Ginning

A bit of “trivia” submitted by Leander Ricard based on the following citation from Shenkman. March 12, 2008

Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History by Richard Shenkman, Harper and Row, ISBN 0­-06-­097262-­9

Daniel Thomas, in an article in 1965 in the Journal of Southern History, documents that the cotton gin was invented in Asia and perfected in Santo Domingo in the 1740’s, half a century before Whitney produced his gin. The Santo Domingo gin was crude but effective. A single slave using the machine could produce up to 60 lbs. of fiber a day; a slave working by hand could produce just a lb.

The Santo Domingo gin, however, didn’t work on the slippery seeds of American cotton. That was where Whitney came in . His gin was effective on American cotton, but even here his contribution is in question. Whitney’s machine was equipped with a wire brush that needed constant cleaning and wasn’t very efficient. It was left to Hodgen Holmes to invent a gin equipped with saw teeth, which allowed for the continuous operation of the device without cleaning. It was Holmes’ invention, developed a few years later, which enabled the South to crown cotton as king.

Further investigation confirmed what Lee Ricard said above about Holmes and Whitney. A Google search on March 13, 2008 revealed the following site: Charles A. Bennett, a researcher for the USDA Stoneville, MS writing in 1960 nails down the pertinent facts that both men invented gins at nearly the same time. His research was based on earlier research by DA Tompkins of Charlotte who researched extensively around 1900. Whitney developed and was awarded a US patent for a toothed gin and Holmes developed and was granted a patent for a saw gin. The saw gin was ultimately more successful with the sticky­seeded, short­staple upland cotton. Bennett reported that models of both gins were on display at Clemson College in 1960 and that Whitney’s later model gins were of the saw­tooth variety.

Cotton in North Carolina, Georgia and throughout the South

Cotton was an incredible crop for the South. At first, the planters struggled with productivity – it took a slave a long time – up to a month ­ to pull enough seeds out of the cotton boll to make a standard 500­pound bale of cotton. After the invention and improvement of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney and others, cotton became the dominant crop for the antebellum South. Despite the ginning improvements, it was still backbreaking hand labor for the slaves assigned to the fields to pick the cotton. Every boll had to be pulled by hand and stuffed into a trailing burlap sack and later transferred to waiting baskets.

Cotton Exchange History
Photo:  Gary Mock





Cotton Exchange building of 1886
Photo: Gary Mock





The Port of Savannah shipped millions of bales per year to eager customers in Manchester, England and the North. After the Civil War, so much damage was done to area around Savannah that the port never recovered as a major cotton shipping port. Poverty descended on the entire region. It was not until Henry Ford re­discovered the wonderful winter climate in the 1920s and pumped money into hospitals and education that Savannah grew again. The Savannah Cotton Exchange building stands today along the waterfront and is now the headquarters for the Chamber of Commerce. Below the main floor, “factors” ­ men who bought and sold cotton, walked from building to building assembling the right shipment for their customers.

Charlotte 1905
UNC Postcard Archives





Concord, NC 1908




Mt. Olive, NC ca. 1915





In North Carolina and elsewhere, the crop was worthless unless you could deliver it to market. Poor roads kept the farmers from exploiting the land. Cotton remained a minor crop until the North Carolina Railroad was chartered in 1849 and worked its way across the state from the port of Wilmington to inland cities such as Durham, Haw River, Company Shops (later named Burlington), and Greensboro. The mill owners at the town of Haw River offered to build the bridge across the Haw River if the railroad could pass by their mill. A separate stop west of Burlington for the mill up the river at Altamahaw enabled the Gant’s mill to flourish. The Cones located their Proximity plant in Greensboro so that cotton could easily be brought in and finished denim shipped out.

Further west in North Carolina, families scratched out a living with cottage industries involving homespun yarn and hand woven cloth. It was such a rough life that many were enticed off the farms and willingly came east to the new mills being built in the Piedmont by the Rhyne, Love, Cannon, Cone, Holt and Erwin families. Here wages were steady throughout the year, but many yearned for the freedom of farming. Few returned to the hardscrabble farm life.

Machine picking near Hamlet, NC 1913
Weighing Sacks, Enfield, NC
UNC Postcard Archives


Gradually, mill towns grew more prosperous. Families made more money and children went to school instead of working in the mills. Cotton provided way to improve family life. Machines replaced hand labor in the fields. Electricity replaced water power in the mills and soon, mill owners made electricity available to the homes in the mill villages.

Cotton remains a main stay today for denim, T­shirts, men’s underwear, athletic socks and bedding. Much of this production has moved off shore to China, India, Central America and South America. The cotton is still shipped from ports from Wilmington to Savannah to Mobile and on to New Orleans.



    Cotton Bales being loaded on ship – Postcard UNC
    Allanstand Cottage Industry. Winding a warp from a creel of cotton spun yarn UNC Postcard
    Picking Cotton Postcard UNC
    Cotton Market Mt Olive 1919 UNC M. Durwood Barbour Postcard