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The Cotton Gin

The cotton engine or “gin” was the device invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 for the purpose of removing seeds from the cotton fiber. Widespread use of this machine created a cash crop for the South and revived the institution of slavery. Prior to the 1790s, a minor cotton economy had existed is some coastal areas of the South, particularly the Sea Islands. The sandy soils supported the growth of long-staple or black seed cotton. It was relatively easy to remove the seeds from this variety; devices with rollers to force out the seed had been used for centuries in India. The drawback with the long-staple variety was that it would not grow in the rich soils of the inland regions. Short-staple or green seed cotton grew easily in the regions that would become the “cotton belt” of the interior South. Efforts to extract these seeds with rollers resulted in crushed seeds, which emitted an oil that ruined the fiber. Whitney’s gin was a simple device that used a toothed cylinder to extract the seeds and a revolving wire brush to collect the fiber. A rival mechanic broke into Whitney’s shop and pried open one of his gins to discover its construction secrets. Imitators quickly appeared, denying Whitney the opportunity to derive wealth from his invention. The growth of the cotton culture in the South led some to believe that tremendous prosperity was around the corner. John C. Calhoun and others believed that their region would soon be home to major cotton mills and other industries.