Cotton: the old and future king
Cotton was once the dominant crop among southern farmers, so much so that it was called King Cotton. Period photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show wagons loaded with cotton lining city streets lining up to access cotton gin factories. Farmers spent months planting, cultivating and harvesting cotton from early spring until mid-fall. It was an extremely labor-intensive crop, which depleted the soil and often brought in little profit.
The spectacular spread of cotton as a cash crop dates from the invention of the cotton gin (motor) by Eli Whitney. Cotton is an ancient plant, versions of which have emerged in India, Africa and South America. Very early on, long staple cotton (black seed, sea island) was planted on the southern barrier islands for export to England. Its long fibers produced a luxurious silky fabric and were much easier to separate from its seeds than the higher yielding short staple cotton.
Long staple cotton only thrived in a narrow region along the coast and coastal plain, but short staple was very adaptable. However, its fibers clung tightly to its seeds, and parting by hand was difficult, laborious and slow.
Young Eli Whitney traveled to Georgia from Massachusetts to be a tutor. As a guest of Catherine Greene, widow of War of Independence hero Nathaniel Greene at his Mulberry Grove plantation near Savannah, he learned about the problem of separating fibers from seeds with short staple cotton. In 1793, he invented cotton gin, some according to a drawing by his hostess. He didn’t get rich from his patent because others stole the basic idea, but his impact was revolutionary.
The cultivation of short staple cotton swept across the South, increasing slavery and devastating the environment. (Georgia’s so-called “Little Grand Canyon” is a massive erosion ravine created in a matter of decades.) It was most prevalent in central and Piedmont Georgia, thriving on the region’s heavier topsoil. Much of South Georgia remained in a ranching and timber-based economy until after the Civil War, when market forces pushed farmers into growing cotton for which their lighter loamy soil was. poorly suited. King Cotton ruled most of the state. He was a monarch with heavy hands.
Preparation of the land for planting began early each year. It was important to put the crop in the ground as soon as conditions permitted so that it could be picked before the stormy season. It was planted in a continuous row of seeds. After the seeds germinate and four leaves grow, â€œhoe handsâ€ are passed to â€œcutâ€ (block) the plants to the desired number and destroy the grasses and weeds. The harvest was â€œon the sidesâ€, plowed with a mule at that time, the first of several crops that continued until the end of the summer. After about a month, the hoe hands came back to remove newly sprouted grass or weeds.
This intensive work was due to the need to have a “clean field” for the cotton pickers. In addition, any trace of green spot from grass or weeds that made it through the ginning process could lead to a reduction in the price for the farmer. This is nonsense to handle as all the stains have been removed during the bleaching and finishing process. But the farmers had no control over the market.
The invasion of the boll weevil from the west devastated cotton cultivation in the 1920s. Farmers attempted to fight back. Some picked up and burned the cotton stalks after harvest. Others made mops to dab an arsenic / molasses mixture on cotton bowls. Neither made much of a difference in depredation. Other crops, such as tobacco and peanuts, have been introduced to South Georgia and have had a significant impact.
After the mechanization of agriculture, chemicals were developed to be sprayed or sprinkled on cotton fields, but they were expensive, environmentally destructive, and dangerous. Then a new solution based on the successful worm eradication was tried. Large numbers of male insects have been radiation sterilized and released to control population growth, and better pesticides have been developed for use only when infestations have been found in surveillance traps. Herbicides and mechanization have abolished manual labor. Cotton is back – not king – but an important part of contemporary agriculture.
Cotton has long been king in another area. Its fabric has been used for clothing, bags, ropes, shoes and more. It can be spun quite finely for blouses, shirts, stockings and underwear. A thicker weave produces denim, the iconic work clothes of farmers and cowboys in the form of overalls, overalls, jeans and coats. When jeans became the norm for teens around 1950, girls started wearing them too. Denim became the signature garment of freedom walkers in the 1960s and 1970s, former cotton pickers, their children and friends.
Shirts, blouses, and dresses were made from finely woven cotton fabrics that had been treated to prevent shrinkage. My first dress shirts were in loose fabric. I was delighted to discover the oxford fabric in my Uniform Shirts for the Air Force ROTC at the University of Georgia and today I have shirts in different colors, long and short sleeve.
Decades ago, cotton was found in sheets, pillow cases, mattress covers, and ropes across mattresses that kept them from clumping together. The towels and clothes were cotton. The same goes for men’s socks and women’s everyday stockings. Sneakers, (tennis shoes) the only shoes not made of leather, were cotton.
The fertilizer came in heavy-duty cotton bags, with a capacity of 200 pounds, which later became the cotton pickers’ picking bags. With the seams removed to open them, they were sewn together to make sheets for the harvested cotton and tobacco. In difficult times, they could be laundered in hot laundry water and fashioned into clothes, but these were rough on the skin and invariably stretched when wet with rain or sweat.
The flour came in tight but lighter woven cotton bags (sacks). These were often used to make clothes – mainly for women – as flour companies began to market their products in attractive printed bags. It’s a far cry from contemporary fashions, some of which are also made of cotton or a cotton blend and something else.
Perhaps less visible than in the past, King cotton is still present as a farm crop and as clothing worn by farmers and almost everyone.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University and a retired pastor.