Cotton… more cotton… and its importance to historians

While running about on vacation this last week, I passed many cotton fields.

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Yes, when I speak of “cotton fields back home” it is not some metaphorical reference.  I grew up with cotton growing out in the fields beyond our back yard.  My family’s story is tied to cotton in many ways.  So when I see those fields in bloom, as they are in mid-summer, a flood of recollections come to the fore.  Some of those good recollections, particularly with those yellowish-white flowers over-exposed in the mid-day sun:

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Other recollections are to days working in the fields… hot, dusty, and demanding fields.  The work I can personally relate to was thankfully less so than my forebears.  In my time, most of the “cotton work” was mechanized (though I tried my hand once at “picking” the old way and quickly found it no fun).  But I am but one generation removed from a time when that was not so.  And cotton was not an easy crop to raise and harvest.  The phrase “labor intensive” is not used lightly with respect to cotton.  My kin put in their share of the “labor” to get that cotton to market.

Me being a historian, and dropping my personal and familial remembrances, several aspects of cotton cultivation are, I think, important to understanding the history of the South.  And where the history of the South goes, so goes the history of America, with no small weight into consideration of the Civil War.  I need not belabor the point – cotton made the South.  Cotton production, as it existed in the first half of the 19th century, required slavery.  Cotton production, as it existed after the Civil War, required the ills of sharecropping and tenant farming (both black and white, as I am reminded by the view look back at my personal links to cotton).

Two aspects of cotton cultivation stand out from the historical context.  First off, there is consideration as how the business of cultivating cotton evolved. Many volumes have covered the evolution of cultivation.  I’ll refer you to the US Department of Agriculture’s site for the “short version.”  Something to keep in mind, historically speaking – at the start of the 19th century, cotton required 601 man-hours for a 495 pound bale; while today that same measure requires three.  That story line, which I may take up at a later date, involves mechanization, along with improvements to the methods.  But focus on the numbers.  As cotton’s labor requirements diminished, that caused changes in the south.  Cotton’s impact was thus felt well after someone found a way to reduce the workload.

Second, as with any crop, there is a cycle to the production of cotton which need be taken into account with respect to the historical settings.  Farmers plant the crop sometime after the last frost of spring (in the area I grew up in, that was usually around mid-April). The cotton farmer hopes for a wet spring, but not too much rain.  Just enough to help the cotton through the growing stages (where modern irrigation makes this a less chancy endeavor).

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Planting cotton required about the same amount of labor as any other crop.  It is in the spring and early summer where cotton requires more labor.  Cotton is less tolerant of weeds or other plants than corn or wheat.  Beyond that for reasons felt most at harvest time, there is a need to keep the weeds in check.  The best means to fight off  weeds is hoeing or “chopping.”  With a well balanced hoe in hand, one would work down the row of cotton, chewing up the unwanted plants to leave the cotton as the sole occupant of the field.  Cotton fields are, for practical reasons, long.  Hence the expression “long row to hoe.”  “Choppers” were often hired on to work, on a day-by-day basis, depending on the farmer’s needs.  Thus setting up a system of temporary employment cycles.  In measure of hours or days spent, chopping was the most important labor investment in the days before herbicides.  And even today, chopping is required where the chemicals don’t complete the job.

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Another “tending” chore during growing season involved fighting off pests. While the boll weevil is most well known, that pest appeared well after the war (in most places not until the 20th century).  Various other insects are, and were, a threat to the cotton crop.  Historically, farmers “dusted” crops using powders applied by rags, adding more labor to the equation.  Now days, that dusting is done by devices carried on or towed by tractors… or by aerial spraying.

About two months after planting, the cotton forms “squares” or buds for flowers.  Then in mid-summer, the cotton blooms.  Nothing that would garnish a floral arrangement, but there are flowers.  Like any flowering plant, the cotton depends on pollination.  While cotton can self-pollinate, studies show that an active bee colony can improve yield by 10% or so.  Now days we see more hives in the field, but historically that has not been a factor.  Within a week, those cotton flowers are gone, leaving behind a boll.  The boll is a green lump housing the seeds and a fibrous protective tissue.  And it is that tissue which becomes the object of the harvest.

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Harvest season began, in the region where I grew up, in September. The bolls burst open, but the harvest waits until those are fully open and the cotton fibers are dry.  While hoping for just the right amount of rain during the growing season, the farmer will hope for no rain during the harvest.  Rain weathers the cotton, reducing fiber strength, allowing for fungi or bacteria growth, and loss of some bolls.  Since the bolls will open at different times, even on the same plant, the harvest may consist of several passes through the same field over the span of a month or two… or three.  Its not uncommon for the last “pull” to occur in December.

Prior to the 1930s, there was no reliable mechanical method for harvesting cotton.  And even after reliable means were at hand, for several reasons – some practical, some political – prevented wide-scale adoption of mechanical pickers until the 1950s.  Before then, the primary means of harvesting cotton was picking it by hand.

Cotton picking was yet another arduous activity.  Pickers pulled large sacks down the rows, pulling off one side, then the other.  Here again, the nature of the work setup cycles of day-to-day employment.  The farmer would often “go to town” and locate a group of pickers.  The pickers were paid based on the pounds of cotton harvested.  Since the taller sections of cotton tended to produce the most cotton bolls, thus more cotton to be harvested on a “per footstep” basis, a picker wanted to work through the “high cotton.”

Cotton, being dry to the touch, tends to pull away the moisture of the picker’s hands.  And working against the rough exterior hull of the boll caused cuts, scrapes, and callouses.  So a picker’s hands were left rough and cracked.  That’s the origin of “cotton-picking hands” as a derogatory expression.  (Though I would point out that “cotton-picking” has other applications.  And some will no doubt say “cotton-picking hands” is decidedly racist.  My grandmother, with her hands showing the wear of a lifetime of work in the cotton fields, might disagree.)

Once out of the field, the fibers must be removed from the seeds.  This is known as “ginning.”  This is also where we mention Eli Whitney and his contraptions.  Regardless of technological advances, the bottom line is the use of some form of combs to pull the seeds out of the fiber.

After ginning, the cotton is packaged into bales. Aside from being a practical means of moving the product, the bale became a standard unit of measure.  While the exact specifications have varied a bit, now days a bale is 55 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 28 inches tall.  Average weight is 495 pounds.  Throughout Civil War correspondence, we read of cotton bales as a measure – be that the measure of cotton a blockade runner might get to England or the measure of cotton captured by Federal advances.

This cycle from planting to market is important beyond just “general knowledge” and can be applied to the study of the Civil War.  Project the seasonal time lines into what you know of the war’s time line.  For example, the Overland and Atlanta Campaigns kicked off just after “planting time” for cotton.  While the bolls opened, Petersburg and Atlanta were under siege.  At the time of picking, Atlanta had fallen.  When the bales were ready, the number of ports open for shipping cotton could be counted on one hand.  Thus Sherman could report the destruction of millions of dollars in cotton that winter.   And that’s just the surface measure of cotton’s importance to the field of study.

9 thoughts on “Cotton… more cotton… and its importance to historians

  1. I recently read that a measure of a decent days’ work for a sharecropper was picking 100 pounds of cotton in a day. At 70 bolls a pound, that would require picking 7,000 bolls. By hand. In the sweltering heat. While also pulling the bag. Tough way to earning a living.

    Very informative post, and very interesting in connection to the war.

    • The statistic you offer – 100 pounds per day, 7,000 bolls – is a good way to parse out the Confederate economic problems. so one bale would require the work of five slaves for a full day. So if around 400,000 bales were exported from start of the war to the end (Stephen Wise’s numbers), that equates to 2 million work days harvesting cotton. That’s not counting the work days spent on the other “cotton” activities required earlier in the season. Oh, by the way, the slave population in the Confederacy at the start of the war was 3.5 million.

  2. The bale size you quote is the average size of the modern 500-lb. bale, pressed since the 1920s with hydraulic equipment. An unpressed bale, wrapped with burlap and rope at the gin, was about 6 feet long and 3 feet square and usually weighed no more than 400 lbs. Part of the technological advance in cotton and textile production before 1860 was the development of ever more powerful presses, which made bales both heavier and smaller. The usual plantation press was a wooden screw turned by muscle power, but some used lever presses similar to an orange juicer. The development of iron screw presses in the 1840s made for tighter bales, but in the 1850s steam presses were designed in New Orleans that could create something very close to the modern size bale, about half the height of the old bale. This meant that more bales could be loaded into railroad cars and the holds of ships, so important transportation points began to invest in these steam “compresses”. In NC, for example, there were steam compresses in Charlotte, on the railroad, and in Wilmington, at the port. In SC the compresses were in Columbia and Charleston; in Georgia, Atlanta and Savannah, etc. The Cotton Weigher was a city official in Charlotte, and was also in charge of the press. The 1898 Southern Railway steam-powered scissor press from Charlotte (which could produce an ungodly pressure at full steam) has been preserved at the Denton FarmPark in central NC.

    • Yes, I left out the compress work for brevity. The point being that, as mentioned, the bale size varied a bit but remains the unit of measure. I also excluded the latest innovations that use blocks of pressed cotton to transport the product to the gin, as opposed to the old “cotton trailers” used for many decades.

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