Deep South: Cotton Fields

Evidence of early cotton use (7,000 years ago) has been found  throughout the world, i.e. in caves in Mexico or in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan.The cotton plant was grown, spun and woven into fabrics. The plant started a global success story being well known and used throughout the world.

It is estimated that first cotton seeds were planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. Cotton was grown by colonists along the James River in Virginia by 1616. Toward the end of the 16th century, cotton was also cultivated throughout the Americas and Asia.

In 2009 the largest producers of cotton were China and India (annual production ca. 34 and 27 million bales). Most of this cotton is used in the textile industries. The United States is the largest exporter of raw cotton (sales of $4.9 billion), followed by Africa as second largest (sales of $2.1 billion).

At the end of the Civil War in 1865 cotton remained a key crop in the Southern states. In the South, sharecropping was common:  landless white farmers and “free black” farmers worked on cotton plantations in return for a share of the profits. Cotton mills were built mainly in the Southern states due to cheap labor and water power making operations profitable. Workers in the mills and so called “mill girls”, low paid child laborers, received a fixed a low, wage for their 73 hour week. They often lived in company-owned boarding houses, and attended churches supported by the mills.

Cotton was processed into fabric in mills that were located close to the cotton fields cutting down transportation costs. Cotton was still picked by hand in the 1950s, around that time the first harvesting machinery was changing the industry.

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