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.

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17 comments… add one
  • Peter Mar 4, 2009 @ 7:50

    “At that time, there wasn’t really a viable alternative to plantation slavery for territorial expansion on that scale.” Northwest Territory, anyone? That area is about the size of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia; it did just fine without plantation slavery. I’m still not sure what your point is getting at, Craig.

  • Craig Mar 4, 2009 @ 4:49

    I would describe those statements as conjecture, but I think it could be interesting to try to determine what validity they might have.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2009 @ 5:04

      I appreciate the honesty, but perhaps in the future you should make that more explicit. After all, there is a vast literature on this topic so there is very little need to fall back on speculation. Thanks.

  • Craig Mar 3, 2009 @ 19:01

    I think slavery on the American mainland was a relatively benign institution until large scale cotton production came into the picture. Haiti had a large slave insurrection during and shortly after the French Revolution. Refugees from that insurrection fled to New Orleans bringing with them Creole culture and there is a sense in which that migration is comparable to the growth of the Cuban community in Miami after Castro came to power. Native American tribes successfully played competing Spanish, French, Dutch and English interests in the American interior off against each other while steadily increasing their own role in the North American fur trade for two hundred years. That changed when the United States became strong enough to resist encroachments on the American interior from European interests. The shift in trade from fur to cotton and the removal of Native Americans west of the Mississippi meant that the slave system that had worked so well for European colonial powers in the Caribbean could finally take hold as an economy of scale on the North American mainland. Slavery itself was less of an issue than the unique opportunity presented at that time to greatly expand the scope of large scale plantation slavery as a social and economic institution in territories that seemed destined to become part of the growing United States. The remarkable thing is that at the time there wasn’t really a viable alternative to plantation slavery for territorial expansion on that scale. The technology for mechanized agribusiness was as far off in the future then as the hydrogen economy is now.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 4, 2009 @ 2:10

      “I think slavery on the American mainland was a relatively benign institution…”
      “Slavery itself was less of an issue than the unique opportunity presented at the time to expand…”

      Can you share the sources where you are getting this from? Thanks.

  • Larry Cebula Mar 3, 2009 @ 15:25

    But Kevin, they do recognize the often under-appreciated importance of the TV show “Miami Vice” in American agricultural history.

    Why do you always have to be such a hater?

  • Peter Mar 3, 2009 @ 12:48

    Craig, could you clarify what you mean a bit more? I thought the main reason Indians got kicked out was because the whites wanted their land to grow more cotton.

  • Craig Mar 3, 2009 @ 6:48

    Just pointing out that Indian Removal around 1830 was a significant factor in the growth of the plantation economy run on slave labor that made cotton king. Though viable economically, conditions on cotton plantations did little to advance the cause of slavery.

  • Craig Mar 3, 2009 @ 0:55

    Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas all had significant Native American populations up until 1830 that weren’t generally secure enough for establishing large plantations for producing cotton and tobacco. Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi also had significant Native American populations and weren’t securely part of the United States until after the War of 1812, so it’s not like the North American mainland had a long tradition of plantation slavery. I’ve seen maps that refer to everything from Florida to Venezuela as Granada. I would guess that Spanish, Dutch, French and English maps of that region had different labels for it, but the tradition of New World slavery really belongs to Hispaniola and environs, islands that were small enough to be secured for plantation slavery through controlling a main port with a sufficient garrison. My guess would be that Haitian independence brought more ‘slaves’ to what became the confederate states than were brought by the slave trade.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2009 @ 2:14

      Thanks for the comment Craig, but I am not sure what point you are trying to make or how it connects with this particular post.

  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Mar 2, 2009 @ 9:47

    Not just cotton companies:

    “When Aetna Insurance Company apologized to its shareholders in 2002 for having written insurance policies on slaves before the Civil War, three Connecticut journalists began to research the role of citizens and companies in their state in the promotion of slavery. Their work eventually expanded into the current book, which documents and describes how Northern shippers, factory owners, business magnates and even the makers of piano keys all depended on the slave system for their economic success.”


    • Kevin Levin Mar 2, 2009 @ 9:52


      Thanks for the reference. I have that book and remember that section well. There are other titles, however, that do a much better job of analyzing the North’s history with slavery. My guess is that many northern institutions that go back to the antebellum period, including banks, would be surprised and disappointed to read about their connection to slavery. It clearly doesn’t fit with our collective memory of slavery.

  • Charles Bowery Mar 2, 2009 @ 5:58

    On a sort-of related note, I had a Big-Ass Confederate Flag sighting in Alabama a couple of weeks ago. The SCV put one on I-65 north of Montgomery. Lovely!

  • Karen Cox Mar 2, 2009 @ 5:14

    Having worked for a company that developed corporate histories, I can tell you this is not surprising. Company histories are often sanitized–you’ll see no labor strikes or massive layoffs discussed. It is all about marketing a product, in this case, cotton. I vividly recall my colleagues pouring over the archives of an insurance company to identify how many slaves had been insured by said company. This was done in anticipation of being sued for reparations, and to develop a spin for other projects. So, Kev, when a company or corporation develops sanitized lesson plans, you shouldn’t be surprised.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 2, 2009 @ 4:50


    Thanks for the reference.


    Thanks for the correction. I should have noticed that.

  • Ken Noe Mar 2, 2009 @ 4:38

    I must at least mention my colleague Angela Lakwete’s book on the cotton gin, which among other things finally buries the myth that Whitney invented it. He patented one kind of gin, but that’s about all.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 2, 2009 @ 4:37

    FYI—I think her name is spelled “Matalin.”

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