Human Flower Project

When Cotton Was King

Can botany equal destiny? In the U.S., the fate of the Old South was bound up with one plant. The EarthScholars and a Memphis museum explain.


U.S. cotton field ready to harvest

Photo: Fahey Byrum III

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

The year was 1858. Cotton had surpassed tobacco as a cash crop in the Deep South after the introduction of the cotton gin. Southern plantations were producing 75% of the world’s cotton supply.

US cotton’s world supremacy led Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina to make a famous boast: “Cotton is king.” He was actually echoing the title of an influential pro-slavery book of the time written by David Christy in 1855. By 1860, cotton ruled the South. Cotton was unquestionably vital to the US economy, and it was a major US export to Europe.


imageOld Memphis Cotton Carnival Sign

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

The phrase “Cotton is king” encapsulated the Southern belief that cotton was so essential to American life that those who controlled it might dictate the economic and political policies of the United States and of the world. It should also be noted that Southern cotton provided capital for the continuing development of the North as well. Southern confidence in cotton’s economic power contributed to the decision to establish the Confederacy in 1861.

However, during the War Between the States(for political, economic and social reasons too complex to explain here) the dominance of the U.S. cotton trade became the focus of an intranational and international power struggle, and other nations (such as India and Egypt) began to transform into important cotton producers to meet world demand. After the War, the South continued to be a one-crop, cotton economy until the mid-20th century, when the New Deal and World War II sparked diversification and industrialization.

Today, cotton stands as the fiber crop plant used most around the world. As of 2008, China grows the most cotton, followed by India, the US, and Pakistan. The US ranks 6th in cotton consumption—following China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Brazil. China also imports the most cotton, while the US exports the most (31%).

In the US, 98% of the cotton is grown in 14 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (the top grower). The remaining 2 % is produced in Kansas, Florida, and Virginia. There are about 25,000 cotton growers in the US at present.

imagePresent-day cotton harvesting machinery

Photo: via wiki

Interestingly, today the US is the world’s largest consumer of cotton textiles and apparel.  Why? In 1989, Cotton Incorporated launched a sentimental, natural, musically-tagged series of television commercials during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Its theme was: “Cotton… the fabric of our lives.”

Since then, this advertising campaign has unfolded in fresh and effective ways so that cotton products remain popular with consumers of all ages. The final key was to target a specific demographic group: women, ages 18 to 34. This was an incredibly successful marketing strategy, given that US women purchase 80% of all apparel—both for themselves and for family members, plus young women in the US are trend-setters.

Botanically, what is the cotton we wear?  It comes from the fibers surrounding the seeds of an annual plant (as cultivated) that stands 2 to 6 feet tall, and bears fairly large and showy, cream yellow, red, or purple flowers. Most of the cotton grown today, Gossypium hirsutum, originated in Mexico and has been cultivated there for over 5,000 years.

imageCross-section of a cotton flower, showing where the seeds develop

Photo: University of Georgia

In the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus reported that among the valuable plants in India was the “wild plant that bears fleece as its fruit.” We know that real fleece originates as animal hair, so the use of cotton as a spin-able fiber likely occurred in societies that had already spun animal hair.

After the cotton plant flowers, the seed “hairs” that remain are actually one-celled outgrowths of the epidermis (outer layer) of the seed coat; they consist of a thin primary wall and a secondary cellulose wall.

imageA post-flowering cotton boll opening to reveal the cotton

Photo: Judy Baxter

The hairs’ cellulose thickening is deposited in spirally arranged fibrils. Their spirals reverse directions at intervals so that they are present in the same hair in both clockwise and counter-clockwise directions (Prentice, 1972). This switching of directions causes the ‘hairs’ to twist, to form irregularly twisted ribbons that cling together when spun into thread. The quality of clinging makes cotton thread strong, although individual cotton fibers are much shorter than those of wool or flax (Munro, 1987).

In commercial cotton, the hairs are of two types, lint and fuzz. Lint hairs are the cotton used in fabrics, the seed hairs that are suitable for thread spinning; they develop in a different way than the cotton fuzz does. The fuzz is used as upholstery stuffing. About 2/3 of the harvested cotton crop today is seeds and 1/3 is cotton.  Many commercial uses have been developed for the seeds as well.

We recently visited The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, and we encourage any travelers passing through that city to do likewise. This museum is housed in the former “members only” trading room of the elegantly appointed Memphis Cotton Exchange building downtown. It attempts to capture the historical and cultural essence of Front Street’s ‘King Cotton’ economy and culture during the trading floor’s heyday, as the visitor stands “in the city that remains the epicenter of worldwide cotton trading.”


The Cotton Museum’s massive cotton trading chalkboard

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

By far, the Museum’s most stunning exhibit is the massive cotton trading board (covering one of the four walls;  authentically garbed clerks (manikins) stand on precarious ladders and hastily scribble the world’s 1939 prices in chalk as they receive new data by telegraph and telephone. This scene alone, like walking back in time, is worth the price of admission.

The upper perimeter of the walls of this large room depicts the cultural impacts of cotton via a panoramic, full-color, 135-foot mural created by Memphis artist David Mah. The rest of the room is filled with exhibits and large images than convey Memphis’ cultural connections with cotton, cotton grower’s agricultural practices, cotton-related artifacts, and computer-presented DVD programs on various cotton topics— historical, musical, technological.

imageOverview of the Cotton Museum’s rich Americana

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

Although none of the museum’s permanent exhibits that we examined explained the botany, evolution, genetics, soil science, weed and insect control, and crop physiology of the cotton plant, we respect that this is not designed to be a science museum. One of the specialized school tours that we saw listed may well address some of these topics. And a museum such as this one will undoubtedly inspire some visitors to seek out missing scientific information on their own.

Recently the Museum received a prestigious “Save our History” grant. “Students from Memphis University School and Hutchison School will work with their teachers, a museum intern from the University of Memphis, and the executive director of the Cotton Museum to do research in the libraries, conduct oral histories, and use the museum’s resources to create a script” for an audio walking tour of Front Street,  incorporating oral histories from people who worked in the cotton industry.” We look forward to experiencing that.

We hope that learning about how cotton is produced and where it is grown leads quite naturally to a curiosity about the science of the plant itself. Cotton growing is a long, involved process; growers must understand the requirements of the plant and maintain a vigilant gaze for potential problems. Specialized equipment and chemicals are used at every stage of the plant’s life cycle to increase yield, turn a profit, and insure that the work required is humane. Today, the spotlight is on sustainable agriculture and green practices. Stay tuned for more changes in cotton growing. The “King” is more considerate now than in the past—of people and the environment.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/23 at 09:44 PM


I am one of the women 18-34 targeted by the highly effective Cotton Inc. campaign. 

What role do the fibers serve?  Do they protect the seeds?

Posted by Georgia on 11/26 at 07:02 PM
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