Cotton has one of the richest histories of fabric on earth, and the story of how we got from fields of fluffy pods to a modern textile industry worth over $12 billion a year is a long and interesting one. Because of the long history involved, we’re going to try to boil down the most critical moments in the history of cotton picking and harvesting, before we move to the invention of the modern cotton picker and subsequent events that made the cotton industry what it is today.
The History of Picking Cotton
Cotton is one of the few crops that can be historically found in both the Old and New World. In the ancient Greek and Roman Empire, cotton was largely unknown until the wars of Alexander the Great, where trees had been found “growing wool” from which the native cultures of areas such as India had already been harvesting and spinning cotton into clothes. On the other side of the globe, cotton picking and spinning were already known to Central and South American cultures for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, who reported that people in Mexico and Peru were already wearing clothes made from cotton. In fact, examples of cotton items can be found dated to 3,000 BC. In China, examples of cotton clothing existed as far back as the Han Dynasty (200 BC-200 AD) and in Persia cotton fields were well-known for their harvests.
Developments in cotton harvesting and manufacturing were a byproduct of the Islamic Conquests in Europe, and when lands originally conquered under those empires were reconquered, knowledge of the harvest and production of cotton passed on to Europe, where the earliest Western textile industries began to develop. Roller gins, the earliest form of hand-powered cotton gins, were introduced from India in the 6th century AD and would remain the standard of separating cotton from the seeds throughout Europe and Asia. This status quo would remain with cotton-growing as an industry reliant on export and import until the invention of the modern mechanical cotton gin by Eli Whitney (1765-1825), which accelerated cotton production in the United States, at which point the nascent American cotton industry would explode with activity.
A negative to the sudden growth in the new American cotton industry was the need for workers to pick cotton more efficiently, which contributed heavily to the American slave trade, which would become one of the reasons for the future American Civil War. By the mid-19th century, American “King Cotton” was the dominant trade partner with Britain, built on the backs of thousands of slaves employed in the task of picking cotton, the ginning being run through technology such as Whitney’s.
Cotton remained a key part of the trade of the American South after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Landowners and former slaves, now working in employer-employee arrangements, continued to produce cotton, while in India’s Mughal Empire, the Indian cotton industry attempted to take the place of the now-reduced American cotton industry. This would remain the status quo until the early 1940s and 1950s with the creation of the cotton picker.
When Was the Cotton Picker invented?
While the earliest cotton pickers can be traced back to the work of Rembert and Prescott in 1850, mechanical cotton pickers were often difficult to use and were designed around field width rather than efficiency in picking cotton. They had to be constantly cleaned of the cotton fibers and other parts, although these early models would lead to the eventual development of the cotton stripper.
Indeed, there were multiple types of mechanical cotton pickers were invented, but the only one that seemed to be of real interest at the time was the spindle-based cotton picker, where cotton would wrap around the spindle.
Such design arguments and demonstrations would be had well into the 1910s, where newly formed companies such as Price-Campbell continued to try to perfect and demonstrate existing cotton pickers, with poor-to-moderate levels of success. So the name of John Rust, generally regarded as the inventor of the modern cotton picker, merits such regard due to the comparative effectiveness of his work.
John Rust (1892-1954) was a cotton picker in his youth and was known as the type of garage inventor typically ingrained in the popular imagination. Indeed, he describes his own invention of the cotton picker as coming to him in a dream, where he remembers picking sticky cotton in the morning dew. This realization brought him to the conclusion that the missing ingredient to successful cotton picking was moisture, and tested his hypothesis by licking a nail and watching cotton fibers stick to it as he spun it.
In 1932 he and his brother, after creating successful designs, started the Rust cotton-picking company along with patents for the designs, and in 1936 first subjected their cotton-picking machine to a public demonstration.
While it could only pick one row of cotton at a time and was a bit clumsy, the machine was still effective as it demonstrated a machine that was able to replace 75 cotton laborers. This sent a shockwave throughout the national media. There was now a machine that could replace poorly paid laborers and provide massive cost savings to the industry.
While Rust held patents, his company was not able to keep up with demand, and other companies picked up the slack from his lack of financing. Within 20 years of the formation of Rust’s company, the modern cotton industry was born based on machines using improved versions of Rust’s designs, once again making the United States a leader in cotton production, as well as spurring the Great Migration of African-Americans throughout the United States in search of new work. The modern cotton industry, based around the mechanical cotton picker, had finally arrived.
What is Cotton Used For?
On its surface, it’s hard to believe that a plant with a fluffy boll could be the backbone of a global multi-billion dollar industry that extended to the pre-Christian era, playing a part in wars, conquests and even the era of American slavery and Industrial Revolution. But it’s important to consider that for all our uses of cotton now and its relatively benign presence in everyday life, cotton has been used in the production of so many things that make our life easier. It is a more powerful luxury item than almost any other non-food item in the world.
We can look at the items that helped shaped modern culture (the history of blue jeans alone is worth reading on the matter), or we can consider cotton swabs and how cotton is used to make items like paper wipes softer.
Towels are comprised of cotton. Most major clothing items are made of cotton. Cottonseed oil is used in commerce and the food industry. Linters (the fluffy ends of the seeds) are used in the production of plastics and even explosives. Parts of the cotton plant even make effective feed for fish in the commercial fishing industries. Tablecloths and soft parts to headsets are just the tips of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the thousands of uses for cotton. You can likely find a use for cotton closer than you realize.
For this reason, cotton plays such an important role in global commerce, and thanks to the advances in technology in the past 80 years, more and more people can enjoy cotton’s benefits globally with minimal disadvantage to sectors of society. Unlike any other time in the history of cotton (and textile production in history which, like most world history in general had people who benefited versus people who suffered) the modern cotton industry, capable of supplying the world with all the benefits cotton has to offer, is capable of producing enough cotton that everyone’s a winner. The benefits of those “woolly trees” of the days of the Roman Empire are significant enough to share globally.