(Note: The following is part of a series of articles looking at the history and evolution of agriculture in Georgia and Bulloch County.)
In Bulletin #146 of the United States Department of Agriculture, published on Sept. 25, 1914, William Meadows, a “Cotton Technologist,” examined the “Economic Conditions of the Sea Island (S.I.) Cotton Industry.”
Matthews used the 1912 cotton crop for comparisons. The prices for "Upland" cotton that year were 12.05 cents per pound. Meanwhile, Florida and Georgia’s "S.I." cotton sold for 19.50 cents per pound and South Carolina’s "S.I." cotton sold for 25 cents per pound.
He reported that of the some 30,000 bales of S.I. cotton shipped in 1912 from Savannah, 18,886 bales went to domestic mills, 8,977 bales went to Great Britain’s mills and 2,076 bales went to continental European mills.
Savannah’s Sea Island crop exceeded everyone else’s totals combined: Charleston shipped 7,000 bales of S.I. cotton; Jacksonville, Florida, shipped out 12,000 bales; Brunswick shipped 2,000 S.I. bales; and "Inland" markets shipped 7,000 bales.
The crop of Sea Island cotton in 1911–12 was 122,724 bales, but the crop for 1912–1913 amounted to only 73,777 bales. Meadows stated the decrease in overall production had three main causes.
The first was that there was no “futures” market for Sea Island cotton growers, who could not lock prices in in advance, as they could with the cheaper Upland cotton.
In addition, there was a new variety of Egyptian long-staple cotton entering the market: Sakellaridis. Not as soft as the best American S.I. cotton, it was, however, stronger than most Sea Island cotton.
Finally, Matthews said that S.I. cotton growers would not sell their seed. Certain planters had sold large quantities of their Sea Island seed earlier to West Indian cotton farmers. That competition in the marketplace had been unappreciated, to say the least.
Matthews reported that one of the most common uses of the Sea Island cotton at the turn of the century was for use in making "tire cloth fabric."
Today, tires have polyester and steel construction, but back in the earliest days tires were made with the strongest cotton cloth. There was none better than that made with S.I. cotton.
Unfortunately, the price of tires dropped precipitously (up to 50 percent) as producers started switching to cheaper cottons. Apparently, they thought customers wouldn’t get too upset if their tires didn’t last nearly as long as before.
Matthews also makes another startling claim: “Sea Island cotton crops are made chiefly by ‘negro’ labor, but in Bulloch County, Georgia especially, and to a less extent all over the Georgia area, white labor is largely used.”
Matthews encouraged the use of a new strain of cotton, "Meade," which was not only almost indistinguishable from Sea Island plants but matured early and was very prolific.
Growers throughout the region were given seeds to test plots of this cotton against S.I. cotton for use in several products, including the brand new market for ‘airplane fabric’ for use in making the new-fangled airplanes’ seats.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email Roger at email@example.com.