What Did the Cotton Gin Do?

did-cotton-gin Credit: Connie Ma/CC-BY-SA 2.0

The cotton gin, patented by Eli Whitney in 1794, was a machine that efficiently removed seeds from cotton fibers. This revolutionary device made it possible for cotton to become the leading American export by the middle of the 1800s. Unfortunately, it also strengthened the institution of slavery.

Cotton grew well in the American South, but it was labor-intensive, requiring long, backbreaking days in the summer and tedious work removing seeds from cotton in the winter. A typical cotton picker could process a pound of harvested short-staple cotton, the most common type, per day. A hand-cranked cotton gin, in contrast, could remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton a day.

This invention radically changed the American economy. Southern cotton farmers planted larger crops, while Northern textile factories grew up to take advantage of the sudden cheapness of cotton. By 1860, the American South provided roughly two-thirds of the cotton sold worldwide, shipping it from prosperous ports such as New Orleans and Charleston. However, in order to harvest and process those crops, Southerners needed more workers. The population of enslaved workers increased about five-fold by 1850, and a higher proportion worked in the cotton fields than ever before. By the time of the Civil War, Whitney's amazing invention had led to an American South heavily dependent upon slavery for its prosperity.