The Cotton Gin in American History

Interior of a Cotton Gin
Interior of a Cotton Gin. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

The cotton gin is a machine designed to remove cotton from its seeds. The process uses a small screen and pulling hooks to force the cotton through the screen. It was invented by Eli Whitney on March 14, 1794, one of the many inventions that was created during the American Industrial Revolution. The cotton gin had an enormous impact on the cotton industry and the economies of the South and, indeed, all of America.

It also changed the face of the slave trade--for the worse. 

Historical Significance of the Cotton Gin

The cotton gin made the cotton industry of the south explode. Before its invention, separating cotton fibers from its seeds was a labor-intensive and unprofitable venture. After Eli Whitney unveiled his cotton gin, processing cotton became much easier, resulting in greater availability and cheaper cloth. However, the invention also had the by-product of increasing the number of slaves needed to pick the cotton and thereby strengthening the arguments for continuing slavery. Cotton as a cash crop became so important that it was known as King Cotton and affected politics up until the Civil War.

A Blooming Industry

Eli Whitney's cotton gin revolutionized an essential step of cotton processing. The resulting increase in cotton production dovetailed with other Industrial Revolution inventions, namely the steamboat, which greatly increased the shipping rate of cotton, as well as machinery that spun and wove cotton much more efficiently than it had been done in the past.

These and other advancements, not to mention the increased profits generated by the higher production rates, sent the cotton industry on an astronomical trajectory. By the middle of the 1800s, the United States produced over 75 percent of the world's cotton, and 60 percent of the nation's total exports came from the South.

Most of those exports were cotton.  

A Deepening Problem

The negative side of the huge growth in the cotton industry was the corresponding rise of the slave trade. As cotton boomed throughout the South, larger and larger plantations grew more and more cotton, requiring not only more manpower to harvest the cotton but also more rigorous work. As a result, landowners brought in more slaves and worked the slaves harder than ever before. In the years just before Whitney's cotton gin was invented, six states were slave states. By 1860, the number of slave states totaled 15. In just 18 years--between 1790 and 1808--80,000 slaves had been taken from Africa. Congress outlawed the slave trade from Africa in 1808, but that did little to change things. In the years just before the Civil War, about 1 in 3 residents of the South was a slave.   

Whitney's Other Invention

Eli Whitney is most famous for the cotton gin, but another one of his ideas arguably had a greater impact on history and certainly made Whitney much more money. This was his idea of producing muskets using interchangeable parts rather than custom-made pieces for each finished product. In essence, Whitney is responsible for the idea of mass production.