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Lesson by:
Maureen Romero
Teacher, 8th grade U.S. History


Gin is short for the word engine.  The cotton gin is an instrument to remove the seeds from cotton.  Simpler versions of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had been around for centuries.  There was an East Indian gin called a charka where seeds were separated from the cotton when pulled through a set of rollers.  This machine was used for long-staple cotton, whereas in America, they grew short-staple cotton.  The cottonseed was being removed by hand, the work generally done by slaves.

Eli Whitney was the first to make a cotton gin for short-staple cotton.  His cotton gin had a hand crank which when turned, pulled the cotton through wire teeth to pull out the seeds and then through a second cylinder with brushes that removed the cotton from the wire teeth.  Cotton gins later became powered by being horse- drawn or water-powered.

Eli Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765 and died on January 8, 1825.  When he was young, he worked in his father’s workshop taking apart such things as pocket watches and clocks and studying how they worked and then putting them back together again.  Whitney accrued much debt while attending Yale University and took a private tutoring job on a Georgian plantation.  Learning of the problems of picking the seeds from the cotton, he made a basic instrument that would allow the laborers to clean more than just one pound of cotton per day.  Workers could now clean 50 pounds of cotton per day, per worker, thus changing the cotton farming industry forever.

Cotton requires very little to grow.  Before the invention of the cotton gin, there were only two cash crops in the South.  One was tobacco and the other was indigo, a flower used to make a blue dye.  Growing tobacco wore out the land and farmers had to rotate their land, leaving a section of the land bare for a year.  Because it took so long to pick the seeds from the cotton, cotton was not considered a cash crop.  After the invention of the cotton gin, people could grow cotton anywhere, even on land put aside for the crop rotation. 

Native Americans were pushed out of the land to make room for more cotton farms.  Farmers that grew food changed to cotton because it was more lucrative, thus the food supply decreased in the South.  The South became dependent on the price for cotton.  When cotton was being sold at a good price, farmers rushed to grow cotton and then flooded the market, which made the price for cotton drop dramatically.
More people were needed to harvest all the cotton.  Slaves were used for this task.  The need for slaves increased and caused more disagreements between the North and the South.  Because the need for slaves increased, the value of slaves also increased.

Who was going to buy all this cotton?  In the late 1700’s, the British textile industry started and created a huge demand for cotton.  The South sold their cotton to England instead of making factories and producing textiles themselves.  Since most of their money was tied up in slaves, they did not have the capital to start their own textile mills.

The South was not interested in improving their waterways, canals, or railroad systems, since they had no factories from which goods needed to be transported.  The North built many railroads across several states to provide transportation for the various goods that were produced and for the production of goods.  Southern railroad tracks were short and did not go far. This leaves the South at a disadvantage during the Civil War.