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Photo of black people picking cotton

Sharecroppers and cotton: Cotton pickers in the 1800s AD

Slavery and the cotton gin

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 AD made it possible for enslaved people to produce cotton cheaply enough so cotton was now the cheapest kind of cloth. Tens of thousands of black people worked hard as slaves in South Carolina and Georgia to plant and pick enough cotton for everybody to wear. The owners sold a lot of the cotton to settlers in New York and other northern states, and a lot of it also to mills in England, which spun and wove the cotton into cloth.

Cotton moves west

To get more and more land to grow more cotton, European and African settlers moved into Alabama and Mississippi, pushing out or killing the Mississippian people who were living there. Planting cotton wore out the land, so cotton farmers were always looking for new land further west – in Louisiana, then Texas, and Arkansas. Some of these cotton farmers were rich men and women who owned many slaves, but others were poor families who just grew enough cotton to buy food for themselves.

Giant green machine with many teeth

Cotton picking machine

Sharecroppers and machines

After the Civil War in the 1860s, most of the black people who had been working picking cotton stayed on in the South and picked cotton just the way they had before, only now as sharecroppers instead of as slaves. But in the 1950s, people invented motorized machines that could pick the cotton. These machines used gasoline motors. But oil and gas also helped cotton farmers out in a lot of other ways about the same time. Farmers used motors to run cotton gins. Many black sharecroppers lost their work and moved south to Florida to pick oranges for even lower pay.

Cotton or polyester?

Farmers used nitrogen fertilizers made from oil to keep the soil good for growing cotton. And they used gas-powered ships to send cotton all over the world. Clothes got much cheaper. Today, cotton is the cheapest kind of clothing except for polyester, and the United States produces most of the world’s cotton. Underwear, socks, jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies are made of cotton. But as gas and oil become more expensive, so will cotton and polyester clothing.

Cotton before 1500 AD
Cotton and slavery

Bibliography and further reading about cotton:

Cotton and Silk, by Jacqueline Dineen (1988). Easy reading.

Cotton, by Guinevere Healy-Johnson and Nancy Shaw (1999). Also for kids.

Cotton Now & Then, by Karen B. Willing (1996).

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