California Agriculture in the Classroom

King Cotton (Grades 9-12)

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

1 hour

Purpose

Students will learn about the production and processing of cotton and discuss the impact it has had on the history and culture of the United States.

Materials

*A Cotton Boll Kit is available for purchase from agclassroomstore.com.

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Essential Links

Vocabulary

gin: to separate cotton fiber from seeds and waste material

boll: the part of a cotton plant that contains the seeds; the pod or capsule of a plant

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

It’s common knowledge that slavery was a source of conflict between the North and South leading up to the Civil War. But why did the South want or need slaves? Cotton. By examining this important crop, your students will learn how cotton influenced the slave trade, slave culture, economic policies, the Civil War, and the industrial revolution.

Cotton picking was a job given to healthy, adult slaves. These slaves handpicked cotton in the fields all day. Then, by candlelight they would join the elderly, infirm, or children to gin the cotton by hand. Ginning cotton means removing the lint or fiber from the seed. The more lint one removed from the seed, the more profit could be made from each boll. It would have been important for slaves to remove as much lint as possible from each seed. Your students may find anywhere from fourteen to forty-two seeds per boll, as did the slaves. A slave could gin approximately one pound of cotton a day, or about 120 cotton bolls. After completing the following classroom activity, your students will be able to determine how many bolls of cotton they would need to make one pair of jeans.

Eli Whitney is generally credited with the invention of the cotton gin. His idea for this machine came while he was watching a cat try to catch a chicken in the barnyard. The cat’s unsuccessful attempt left him with a claw full of feathers and no chicken (more detail about Eli Whitney’s machine can be found in Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Whitney decided to try a similar approach with cotton, creating a gin operated by hand-crank that would rake the seeds from the fiber. In 1794, his machine was patented, revolutionizing the production of cotton. One slave could now gin fifty pounds of cotton per day. Did this mean plantation owners needed fewer slaves? No, but it did make cotton a more profitable crop because less time was required for ginning. Plantation owners now wanted more slaves to grow more cotton.

Cotton production increased across the South following the invention of the cotton gin. At the same time, factories that could process cotton were being built across the north. Unlike wool, which is a very long and scale-like fiber, cotton is a short and smooth fiber. These physical differences make wool easier to spin into thread than cotton, either by hand or by machine. Spinning cotton by hand is time consuming and difficult. Wool, and to some extent linen, was the fabric of choice until machine technology made the production of cotton thread viable. Cotton production in the South was only economical or possible with the manufacturing industry of the North. The southern economy had virtually no manufacturing and was based solely on production.

Cotton requires a long, warm growing season, meaning it cannot be grown in colder, northern climates. Today, cotton is grown across the southern United States from Virginia to California. Cotton also requires ample water but grows well in the arid southwest with modern irrigation technology. California is well-known for their America Pima cotton, which produces a finer, more expensive fiber than the more common American Upland cotton. Cotton gins are now very large machines that work much faster than Eli Whitney’s simple machine. What happens to all the cottonseed after it is ginned? Most of those fuzzy seeds are fed to dairy cattle or processed into cottonseed oil, which can be found in nearly every kind of snack food, including chocolate candy bars.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Ask students to think about the economic, cultural, and political causes of the Civil War. Ask them, "Why did the South want or need slaves more than the North?" 
  2. Allow your students to offer their answers. Use guided questions to help them connect the South with cotton and the demand for labor to produce and process it.

Procedures

  1. Find a local source for cotton bolls or order the Cotton Boll Kit. Note that the cotton in these kits has a longer fiber than the cotton harvested in the 1800s. 
  2. Share the background information about cotton and slavery.
  3. Give each student or group of students one cotton boll. 
  4. Have your students examine the woody stem of the cotton boll. Ask students if they can understand why it was so painful to pick this plant by hand. Would gloves have been available? 
  5. Share the background information about slaves and the process of ginning cotton. Have your students predict how many seeds are in each boll, and then ask them to compare it to the actual number of seeds after ginning.
  6. Have students listen to songs that were sung by slaves while they performed the tedious work of ginning cotton. Many spirituals are available from negrospirituals.com. What cultural differences may be expressed by this music? Do we still use music to pass the time while we work? What does the kind of music we listen to say about our cultural heritage?
  7. Have your students weigh their fibers from one boll, and then compare it to the weight of a pair of jeans. A pair of jeans would be almost one hundred percent cotton (minus a zipper and a button). 
  8. Ask students to consider how many cotton bolls are needed to produce a pair of jeans. Share the information from the Linking History and Technology handout.
  9. Have students examine the fiber under a hand lens or simple magnification lens. They will notice that these short fibers have almost a silky appearance. 
  10. Discuss the invention of the cotton gin. Ask your students how many years passed between invention of the cotton gin and the beginning of the Civil War. Did the tension between the North and the South escalate after this important invention?

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting this activity, review and summarize the following key concepts:

Enriching Activities

Suggested Companion Resources

Sources/Credits

  1. Statistics and graphics from the National Cotton Council's Cotton Counts educational materials.

Author(s)

Deb Spielmaker & Rose Judd-Murray

Organization Affiliation

Utah Agriculture in the Classroom