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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.