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Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Early History of Cotton


Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794.

Mary Bellis
The many species of the cotton plant are indigenous to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and the manufacture of the cotton fiber into yarn and cloth developed independently in each of them. Cotton in India fifteen hundred years before Christ.

Vegetable Wool

Alexander the Great introduced vegetable wool (cotton) into Europe. The fable of the "vegetable lamb of Tartary" persisted down to modern times. The Moors cultivated cotton in Spain on an extensive scale. The East India Company imported cotton fabrics into England early in the seventeenth century, and these fabrics sold in spite of the bitter opposition of the wool manufacturers, which at times was strong enough to have the use of cotton cloth prohibited by law. It was in Manchester that cotton manufacturing finally became accepted in England. The Manchester spinners, however, used linen for their warp threads, for without machinery they could not spin threads sufficiently strong from the short-fibered Indian cotton.

In the New World the Spanish explorers found cotton and cotton fabrics in use everywhere. Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, Magellan, and others speak of the various uses to which the fiber was put, and admired the striped awnings and the colored mantles made by the natives. It seems probable that cotton was in use in the New World quite as early as in India.

Cotton Comes To America

The first English settlers in America found little or no cotton among the natives. But they soon began to import the fiber from the West Indies, whence came also the plant itself into the congenial soil and climate of the Southern colonies. During the colonial period, however, cotton never became the leading crop, hardly an important crop. Cotton could be grown profitably only where there was an abundant supply of exceedingly cheap labor, and labor in America, white or black, was never and could never be as cheap as in India. American slaves could be much more profitably employed in the cultivation of rice and indigo.

Cotton in the South

Three varieties of the cotton plant were grown in the South. Two kinds of the black-seed or long-staple variety thrived in the sea-islands and along the coast from Delaware to Georgia, but only the hardier and more prolific green-seed or short-staple cotton could. be raised inland. The labor of cultivating and harvesting cotton of any kind was very great. The fiber, growing in bolls resembling a walnut in size and shape, had to be taken by hand from every boll, as it has to be today, for no satisfactory cotton harvester has yet been invented. But in the case of the green-seed or upland cotton, the only kind which could ever be cultivated extensively in the South, there was another and more serious obstacle in the way, namely, the difficulty of separating the fiber from the seeds.

Continue > Inventions That Shaped the History of Cotton

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