Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives – Just Not the Lives of Slaves
The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many. Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line. They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced. As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once. Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.
Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.
They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.
Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America. One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes. During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas. England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes. England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices. In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun. Homespun was rough and not very fashionable. Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them. But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause. Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.
Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher. In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand. It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton. To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster. The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day. With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”
It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website. On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history. After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness. Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.