Saturday, June 20, 2009

When Cotton Was King: The Cotton Press

In a speech on the United States Senate floor on March 4, 1858, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, on debating the admission of Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, made a bold and somewhat threatening statement. Hammond defiantly asked, "...What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? I will not stop to depict what everyone can imagine, but this is certain: England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King...."

Obviously, in order to obtain the financial benefits from cotton it first has to be processed and then taken to market for sale. The process of processing cotton, like many other agricultural duties, was simple in theory, but much more difficult in practice and in the effort expended. Slave labor was believed necessary for the arduous processing.

First, the cotton had to be planted, then constantly cultivated to ensure the best possible yield. Cotton was picked in the fall when the bolls matured. Then it was ginned to remove the seeds and "trash," such as stems, husks, and leaves that might have been picked up as well. Once ginned, the cotton was pressed into uniform bales, and then usually bound and tied with hemp bagging and rope.

In order to get the bales uniform, most large plantations had a cotton press. Planters who didn't own a cotton press usually paid a neighboring planter to use theirs; same when for the gins. Cotton presses came in a variety of sizes and forms, as they were often designed by the individual planters who owned them, and built by skilled artisan slaves. The most common cotton presses were those in a vertical form, as shown below.

Cotton presses usually had two long arms to which horses, mules, or oxen were attached, that rotated around the main structure. The most important component of the press was the screw mechanism. As the arms rotated the screw forced a flat mobile platform downward. The platform came down into a "closet." The closet consisted of four stationary walls and a solid platform floor. The loose cotton would be tossed into the closet and then compacted. When it was tightly packed, the press would be released, and the "bricked" bale would be rolled out and then tightly bagged and roped to keep it together for transporting to market.
Some cotton presses were in covered shelters, and some were out in the open. Some presses worked on a jack system that ratcheted rather than screwed the mobile platform down on the cotton. As inventions progressed, presses were later outfitted with steam and electric engines.
Cotton presses such as the ones shown here, as with many agricultural tools of the past, have become relics of a by-gone era. A few of these historic cotton presses remain throughout the South; some are even on the National Register of Historic Places. They represent a time and way of life long past, but hopefully we better understood those days of long ago due to their remaining existence.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! Mingei International Museum in San Diego has a wonderful exhibit of Bill Traylor's work. The cotton screw seems to have inspired some of his drawings, and your commentary was very helpful.