King Cotton and the Cotton Gin

Today if you drive through Georgia in the summer, you will pass miles and miles of cotton fields. That was not always the case. It took one very small sized invention to make the difference – Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. With the debut of his invention in 1793, the history and economy of Georgia as well as that of the entire South was changed forever. John Johnson, director of Interpretation and Education at the Agrirama in Tifton, asks students to separate cotton seeds by hand before demonstrating the gin. This finger-hurting exercise makes it clear how the cotton gin revolutionized production. His explanation of the economic impact of going from one person able to seed one pound of cotton a day to the gin seeding 50 pounds of cotton a day, makes it clear how cotton became king. Johnson’s demonstration of picking cotton in the field makes another fact evident. To produce more cotton, more slaves were needed as field hands. The increase in cotton production saw a parallel increase in slavery. From 1790 to 1860 the slave population increased from fewer than 30,000 to more than 460,000. Dr. Jerry DeVine of Albany State College notes that slaves and land were the two greatest forms of wealth in Georgia, with more money invested in slaves than land.

Teacher tip: This video leaves no doubt about the enormous impact of the cotton gin in Georgia. Are there other inventions that brought about similar dramatic changes in the state? Students should think about that and then make nominations to the “Invention Hall of Fame” giving reasons why their nominee should be included.