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Painting of Enslaved People on a Cotton Plantation

Chapter 01

King Cotton

The labor of enslaved Americans fueled the rapid growth of the national economy. Forced by the whip to work faster, better, and harder, African Americans, often malnourished and sleep-deprived, used extraordinary skill to catapult the United States into the global economy. In 1800 enslaved African Americans produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton. By 1860 they cultivated almost two billion. Sparked by higher quotas and the terror of the whip, individual productivity increased 400 percent.

Photograph of the Greenwood Cotton Gin

Section IInnovation & Industry

Innovations in cotton processing increased demand for cotton and enslaved African American labor and positioned the nation as an industrial power.

The Expansion of Slavery

Raw cotton is packed with seeds that make the fiber impossible to spin and weave. In 1793 Eli Whitney patented a mechanical cotton gin that combed the seeds out of the soft fiber. Before Whitney’s gin, one person could clean one pound of cotton a day. The gin increased that number by 4,900 percent. This left a major bottleneck—picking enough cotton to fill the gins. Enslavers made enslaved African Americans work longer and harder, and forced the nation’s westward expansion.

Southern Cotton Production, 1860

Map of the Cotton Empire

Photograph of the Greenwood Cotton Gin

The Greenwood Cotton Gin, ca. 1840

Ginning Cotton, Turning a Profit

Photograph of the Greenwood Cotton Gin

The Greenwood Cotton Gin, ca. 1840

This handcrafted 40-saw cotton gin was made on a plantation in Greenwood County, South Carolina. Master carpenters and engineers, some of them enslaved, constructed the stand and installed the elaborate gears. Gins like the one seen in this illustration of a gin house screw and press were located on the second story of gin houses and powered by large gears below. The screw (right) compressed the cotton into bales.

Illustration of Gin House and Screw Press

Gin House and Screw Press

Portrait of Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

Document showing the patent for the cotton gin

Cotton Gin Patent

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin, 1793

Portrait of Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney

Document showing the patent for the cotton gin

Cotton Gin Patent

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, patented in 1793, transformed the nation and the lives of enslaved Black people. The technological advancements propelled the production of cotton with the expedited separation of seeds from cotton fibers. This required enslaved laborers to work harder to keep up with the consumer demand and the grueling pace of the gins.

Boott Cotton Mills, Lowell , Massachusetts

Illustration of mass production of cotton cloth

Calico Production

Fueling the Industrial Economy

Boott Cotton Mills, Lowell , Massachusetts

Illustration of mass production of cotton cloth

Calico Production

Slavery created much of modern America. The factory system, with its innovations in technology and wage labor, is often held up as a symbol of American efficiency. Factories streamlined labor to mass-produce goods—brightly colored calico, woven hats, inexpensive shoes, and ready-made clothing—and placed them within the reach of the common American. Slavery made this possible: providing the incentive, the capital investment, the raw material, and the captive consumer.

Image of page of Newspaper

Advertisement for "Negro Goods." The ad can be read at the bottom of the column.

Negro Goods

Image of page of Newspaper

Advertisement for "Negro Goods." The ad can be read at the bottom of the column.

Manufacturers experimented with mass production to meet a large market for so-called negro goods—the first ready-to-wear clothing. The hats, shoes, and shirts, made with simple designs and inexpensive material, were cheap and uncomfortable.

Factory-Made Goods on the Plantation

In this 1840s painting of a Louisiana plantation scene, the people appear to be wearing mass-produced clothes. As Charlie Davenport recalled, “Us wore lowell−cloth shirts . . . an' heavy cow-hide shoes. . . . They was sorta club-shaped so us could wear ‘em on either foot.”

Illustration of people carrying cotton and tools while wearing cotton garmets

Hauling The Whole Weeks Picking, William Henry Brown, ca. 1842

Illustration of Wall Street

Wall Street, NY 1847

Northern Investments in Southern Slavery

Illustration of Wall Street

Wall Street, NY 1847

A diverse group of sources generated the estimated 40 percent of New York's earnings from cotton markets. Industries including finance, shipping, and insurance enabled New York to receive an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. cotton revenue. Textile mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and throughout New England benefited from enslaved-produced cotton arriving from the South. In addition to Lowell's textile mills and Brooks Brothers clothiers, businesses including Domino Sugar Company profited from southern slavery.

Cultivating a Country of Cotton video

Cultivating a Country of Cotton

The iconic Tower of Cotton featured in the Slavery and Freedom exhibition provides a visual storytelling of the significance of cotton and slavery in the development of the nation. The following special feature provides a closer look at the history embodied in the Tower and the surrounding objects.