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Cotton: The once and future king
roger branch

Cotton was once the dominant crop among Southern farmers, so much so that it was called King Cotton. Vintage photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show wagons loaded with cotton lining the streets of towns waiting in line for access to cotton gins. Farmers devoted months to planting, cultivating and harvesting cotton from early spring through half of autumn. It was an extremely labor-intensive, soil-depleting crop that often returned little profit.

The dramatic spread of cotton as a cash crop dates from the invention of the cotton gin (from engine) by Eli Whitney. Cotton is an ancient plant, versions of which emerged in India, Africa and South America. Early on, long staple (black seed, sea island) cotton was planted on the barrier islands of the South for export to England. Its long fibers yielded luxurious, silk-like cloth and were much easier to separate from its seeds than the higher yielding short staple cotton.

Long staple cotton thrived only in a narrow region along the coast and coastal plain, but short staple was highly adaptable. However, its fibers clung tightly to its seeds and separation by hand was difficult, laborious and slow.

Young Eli Whitney traveled to Georgia from Massachusetts to be a tutor. As a guest of Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene at his Mulberry Grove plantation near Savannah, he learned about the problem of separating fiber from seed with short staple cotton. In 1793, he invented the cotton gin, some say based on a design by his hostess. He did not get rich from his patent because others stole the basic idea, but its impact was revolutionary.

Cultivation of short-staple cotton swept across the South, expanding slavery and devastating the environment. (Georgia’s so-called “Little Grand Canyon” is a massive erosion gully created in a few decades.) It was most prevalent in middle and Piedmont Georgia, thriving on the heavier topsoil of the region. Much of South Georgia remained in a livestock and timber-based economy until after the Civil War when market forces pushed farmers into cotton culture for which their lighter-loamed soil was ill-suited. King Cotton ruled most of the state. It was a heavy-handed monarch.

Preparation of land for planting began early each year. It was important to get the crop in the ground as soon as the conditions permitted in order to get it picked before the storm season. It was planted in a continuous row of seed. After seeds sprouted and grew four leaves, “hoe hands” went through to “chop” (block) the plants to the desired number and destroy grasses and weeds. The crop was “sided,” plowed with a mule at this time, the first of several cultivations that continued deep into the summer. After a month or so, hoe hands returned to remove newly-sprouted grass or weeds.

This intensive work was due to the need to have a “clean field” for the cotton pickers. Moreover, any trace of green stain from grass or weeds that somehow made it through the ginning process could result in a reduction in price for the farmer. That is manipulative nonsense because all stains were removed in the bleaching and finishing process. But farmers had no control over the market.

The invasion of the boll weevil from the west devastated cotton farming in the 1920s. Farmers tried to fight back. Some gathered and burned cotton stalks after harvest. Others made mops to dab an arsenic/molasses mix onto cotton bowls. Neither made much difference in depredation. Other crops, like tobacco and peanuts, were introduced in South Georgia and had significant impact.

After farming became mechanized, chemicals were developed to be sprayed or dusted on cotton fields, but these were expensive, environmentally-destructive and dangerous. Then a new solution based on success with screw worm eradication was tried. Large numbers of male insects were sterilized by radiation and released to control population growth and better pesticides were developed to be used only when infestations were found in monitoring traps. Herbicides and mechanization have abolished hand labor. Cotton is back — not king — but an important part of contemporary farming.

Cotton has long been king in a different realm. Its fabric has been used for clothing, bags, ropes, shoes and much more. It can be spun finely enough for blouses, shirts, stockings and underwear. A heavier weave produces denim, the iconic work clothes of farmers and cowboys in the form of overalls, dungarees, jeans and coats. When jeans became standard wear for teenagers about 1950, girls began to wear them, too. Denim became the signature clothing of freedom marchers in the 60s and 70s, former cotton pickers, their children and friends.

Shirts, blouses and dresses were made from finely-woven cotton fabrics that had been treated to prevent shrinkage. My first dress shirts were made from broad cloth. I was delighted to discover oxford cloth in my uniform shirts for Air Force ROTC at the University of Georgia and have shirts in various colors, long and short sleeves, today.

Decades ago, cotton was found in bed sheets, pillow cases, mattress covers and the chords through the mattresses that kept them from clumping. Bath towels and clothes were of cotton. So were men’s socks and women’s everyday stockings. Sneakers, (tennis shoes) the only shoes not crafted from leather, were made of cotton.

Fertilizer came in tough cotton bags, 200-pound capacity, which later became the picking sacks for cotton pickers. With seams removed to open them up, they were sewn together to make sheets for harvested cotton and tobacco. In hard times, they could be bleached in hot lye water and fashioned into clothes, but these were rough on the skin and invariably stretched when wet with rain or sweat.

Flour came in tightly-woven but lighter cotton bags (sacks). These were often used to make clothing — primarily for females — that flour companies began to market their product in attractive print sacks. This is far removed from contemporary fashions, some of which also are made from cotton or a cotton plus something else blend.

Perhaps less visible than in the past, King Cotton is still around as farm crop and as clothing worn by farmers and almost everyone else.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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