The Evolution of Technology: Cotton Processing
By Hanna Reed
George Ranch Historical Park Intern – Spring 2018
During March 13-17, the George Ranch Historical Park will spend the week exploring the evolution of various technologies used throughout history of the Ranch. Did you know that the United States exported 117,995 pounds of cotton at the end of 2017? Texas is one of the four primary production states in the U.S. Today, we will explore the evolution of cotton processing and how it evolved over 100 years of history!
Cotton was the primary cash crop of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Jones, the founders of the Ranch back in the 1830s. When it comes to the cotton plant, the desirable part of the plant is the white fluffy part called “lint” that is inside a “boll.” Inside the lint are the seeds of the plant. Let’s explore this process a little bit further.
Patented in 1793, the cotton gin was a revolutionary invention that greatly sped up the process of picking seed and debris out of cotton. If you have visited the Ranch, you may remember at Mr. Jones’ cabin they demonstrate how difficult it is to separate the seeds from the lint. Imagine a child not wanting to separate from her blanket; cotton seeds are similar and picking by hand caused a great deal of unintentional waste.
The gin is made up of thin slots and circular blades. The blades guide the cotton through the slots while the seeds are left behind since they cannot fit through the small opening. This machine saved significant production time and greatly increased the amount of cotton that could be successfully harvested and sold. The adverse effect of this efficiency was a greater need of workers to pick an increased cotton yield. This greater need directly correlated to the growth of slavery in Texas and the United States in the early and mid-1800s.
Up until the 1930s, cotton was harvested by hand. While the cotton gin did help speed up the process of cotton production, it only expedited the process once the cotton was picked from the plant. Until the early 20th century, picking the lint was still being conducted by members of the family, enslaved workers or sharecroppers, depending on what year we are discussing. The pickers would carry and fill 10-foot long bags through the field until the bag was full of mature, fluffy cotton. The invention of the model “H-10-H” cotton combine (picker) in 1942 by Texas native John D. Rust radically changed this longstanding process. The picker solved the problem of separating the lint from the stoke by adding water to the rotating spindles of the machine. The moisture caused the lint to stick to the rotator and reduced material left on the stoke. Today’s cotton farmers have the choice of either using the more modern cotton picker or a cotton stripper. The stripper is a picker used for shorter crops. It differs from the combine in that it takes the whole stock and then separates the mature bolls from the green bolls.
So what did we learn? Hand picking cotton was the main cotton harvesting method until the invention of the cotton picker in 1942. Since then, various updates have been made to these machines, but the function has remanded the same. Now cotton producing states like Texas, for example, are entirely harvested and de-seeded by machinery. For more information about the technology evolution of cotton machinery, feel free to visit us here at the George Ranch Historical Park. Also, don’t forget to come and join us during spring break for more adventures through the evolution of technology from March 13-17. See you soon!