Cotton History

Linda Benedict  |  11/19/2004 12:59:49 AM

Donald J. Boquet, B. Rogers Leonard and W. David Caldwell

Farmers have been growing cotton since 4,000 B.C. in India. In the New World, cotton production goes back well before Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492. He took cotton back to Spain to prove he had circled the world and reached India. Until the 18th century, England was the center of the European wool clothing industry but, once introduced, cotton quickly became the preferred fiber because of its advantages over wool for summer clothing.

In the 18th century, the English wool industry successfully sponsored laws to ban cotton, eventually to no avail. Because cotton was a tropical crop that could not be grown in Europe, these countries used their colonial system to support the development of extensive cotton production in many temperate and tropical areas of the world.

Cultivation of cotton in Louisiana was reported as early as 1729. At that time, cotton fiber was used in home spinning and weaving. It was not until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney that cotton was produced in Louisiana as a cash crop, primarily for export to Europe. By 1860, the United States was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton. Between 1870 and 1920, cotton was grown on as many as 48 million acres and was the only major cash crop in the South.

This quickly changed with the arrival of the boll weevil from Mexico in the 1890s. The boll weevil became the most devastating insect in the history of agriculture, forcing thousands of farmers out of the cotton business and serving as the primary impetus for the diversification of Southern agriculture, the development of the chemical insecticide industry and the aerial pesticide application industry. When the cotton picker was invented in 1927, each picker could replace more than 100 hand laborers. The loss of these jobs began the process that would eventually lead to large permanent migrations of rural Southerners to the cities in search for jobs.

(This article was published in the spring 2003 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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