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American Cotton Culture

When George Washington was president the cotton gin launched a sweeping migration across the South. Within a half century, slaves and masters, rich and poor, established what Southerners called the Cotton Kingdom. From the Carolinas, where tobacco and rice had long dominated agriculture, to Louisiana, where sugar production made its start during the Revolutionary era, cotton plantations and slavery grew side by side with family farms. In significant ways, cotton shaped antebellum U.S. history, both in the South, where it was grown, and in the North, where wage earners manufactured it into cloth. Its cultivation fuelled the westward movement and reinvigorated slavery, and the issues generated over free trade and the tariff, slavery and freedom, states rights, and nationalism contributed to the Civil War.

The war destroyed slavery, and sharecropping--an arrangement that allowed landlord and tenant to share the proceeds of the crop--emerged as the dominant labor system. Landlords, bankers, insurance companies, and credit merchants controlled ever larger areas of the rural south. Cotton moved westward, spurred not only by economic forces but also by the invasion of the boll weevil into Texas and the Southeast. Everywhere cotton went, it reordered time and work, forcing all growers, regardless of wealth, into an annual cycle that included land preparation and planting in the spring, cultivation through early summer, and picking, ginning, and marketing in the autumn.

Many cotton growers, especially sharecroppers, lived hard lives and depended on friends and community for support. But, they made time for worship, visiting, and music. Scholars now realize that they created an exceedingly rich and important culture. Country music and blues, for example, are now recognized as unique contributions to American life. Southern novelists, shaped by the traditions that surrounded them, often used the rural South as the setting for their work.

The way of life that had matured over a century and a half began to unravel in the 1930s as New Deal policies cut production, reduced the labor force, and encouraged mechanization. World War II opened defense jobs to rural people, and others joined the armed forces. Most never returned to the land. After the war, the mechanical cotton picker and chemical herbicides revolutionized rural work and drastically reduced the need for hand labor.

Cotton cultivation today relies upon capital more than labor; it bears little resemblance to the old culture that faded away in the 1940s and '50s.

From "Rhythm of the Land: The Legacy of the Cotton Culture," brochure, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 1984


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