FYI: Author Angela Lakwete teaches at AU... ajwright@...
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Subject: McKinley on Lakwete, _Inventing the Cotton Gin_
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Angela Lakwete. _Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in
Antebellum America_. Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xiii + 232 pp.
Illustrations, photographs, notes, index. $25.00 (paperback), ISBN
Reviewed for H-Southern-Industry by Shepherd W. McKinley,
Department of History, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Whitney and "The First Cotton Gin"
To grace the cover of her book's paperback edition, Angela Lakwete chose
William L. Sheppard's illustration, "The First Cotton Gin," first
published in _Harper's Weekly_ in 1869. In it, Sheppard drew planters
evaluating ginned cotton and slaves operating a roller gin, a forerunner
to Whitney's famous invention. The image, Lakwete argues, gets to the
heart of the matter: the question of Eli Whitney's paternity of that
most troublesome of all American inventions, the cotton gin, as well as
the role southerners of both races played in its invention. Sheppard
sought to dilute what historians since the early nineteenth century had
promulgated, the myth--still alive and well in most textbooks--that no
other gin existed before Whitney's eureka moment in 1794. While on a
visit to Georgia, the myth continues, Whitney (full of Yankee ingenuity
but new to the cotton industry) came to the rescue of black and white
southerners (a head-scratching bunch of dimwits who could only think to
finger gin the cotton) by solving the problem of quickly extricating
seeds from cotton without (completely) destroying the fiber. By
identifying the northern mythmakers and the southern debunkers, as well
as providing a painstaking explanation of the evolution of the ancient
invention, Lakwete properly exposes cotton gins (not just Whitney's) as
cultural artifacts with ample historical baggage. In doing so, she
begins a long overdue revision of what textbooks and history teachers
have mistakenly preached regarding Whitney, cotton gins, and the lack of
southern ingenuity. Of course, change takes time. In the decade since
Lakwete's scholarship forced this professor to revise his classroom
comments about gins, rare is the student who does not revert
reflexively, on exams and papers, to the Whitney myth.
A graduate of the Hagley Program in the History of Industrialization at
the University of Delaware and now an associate professor at Auburn
University, Lakwete organizes _Inventing the Cotton Gin_ chronologically
through the first five chapters, and thematically in the last three.
Exploding the Whitney myth in the book's opening sentence, she
introduces readers to cotton varieties and early cotton gins in the
first chapter. So much for a surprise ending. Global in scope and
research, this chapter also features the emergence of single roller gin
technology during the first century C.E. and its dispersion throughout
Asia, Africa, and North America. Double roller gins appeared about a
dozen centuries later in India and China, but did not dislodge the
single roller. Lakwete completes this background chapter by illustrating
Great Britain's rise in the world textile trade.
In chapter 2, Lakwete narrows the focus to the Americas and advances the
timeframe to the eve of Whitney's invention. Planters in the Caribbean
dominated cotton production early in the eighteenth century, but
mainland producers reentered the trade in the 1770s when the British
mechanized cotton spinning. Lakwete describes American inventions such
as the fully foot-powered gin, the barrel gin, and Joseph Eve's
self-feeding gin as conservative modernizations of the roller gin,
"faithful to the pinch principle" and successful in preserving the
quality of the cotton fiber (p. 46). Contrary to popular belief, ginning
was not a bottleneck for the American industry before Whitney. Lakwete
also provides interesting background on the policy debates of 1787
between Tench Coxe, the "father of the American cotton industry," and
Thomas Jefferson over the role of government in economic development (p.
Reinforcing her thesis that Whitney was just one of several important
inventors of the gin, Lakwete presents his story in detail in chapter 3.
Covering the years 1790-1810, she argues that Whitney's unique
contribution was to patent a "new ginning principle" and a "new kind of
gin," the wire-toothed gin (p. 47). The new machine pulled the short
staple fiber from the seed more quickly than the roller gin's pinching
action, enhancing quantity over quality and forcing textile and cotton
producers to reevaluate their priorities. Modifications to the
wire-toothed gin by other inventors led to the saw gin and a series of
lawsuits. Lakwete demonstrates that Phineas Miller, Whitney's partner,
and William Johnson, a judge in one of the many patent lawsuits, helped
invent the Whitney myth by "collapsing" two centuries of successful
roller ginning into Whitney's invention, and thereby created THE moment
of southern economic discontinuity (p. 71). Lakwete begs to differ. The
saw gin represented a different form of gin from what had come before,
but the change was not, as has been widely proclaimed, similar to the
jump from horse and buggy to automobile.
Planters and gin makers did not abandon the roller gin immediately. In
chapter 4, Lakwete depicts the thirty-year transition from the roller to
saw gin as more evolutionary that revolutionary. While the roller gin
represented "a colonial past" and the saw gin the modernity championed
by Tench Coxe, Americans were relatively slow--slower than textbooks
portray--to fully embrace the saw gin technology (p. 72). The roller gin
remained a strong competitor until the late 1820s, but saw gin makers
hastened its demise by aggressively advertising and developing a strong
manufacturing infrastructure. By not keeping up, roller gin makers found
their products pushed out of the rapidly expanding short-staple market
and restricted to the limited market for long-staple cotton. Textile
manufacturers allowed themselves to be seduced by the saw gin's edge in
quantity, and they adapted to the shorter, lower quality fiber. Lakwete
spends most of the chapter discussing the development of new communities
of cotton gin makers in Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and
Alabama. The transition to saw gins ended with the creation of large saw
gin manufacturing companies, two in Bridgewater, Massachusetts and one
in Triana, Alabama. By demonstrating the vitality of innovation in the
South, as well as the North, Lakwete explores a related set of
reoccurring themes in the next few chapters: the power and breadth of
southern industrialization and the collaboration of northern and
southern manufacturers and consumers.
Not surprisingly, sectionalism takes center stage in chapter 5, which
covers the final decades of the antebellum era to the end of the Civil
War. Lakwete describes this period within the saw gin industry as "a
case study of southern industrialization" due to the developing
manufacturing industry that incorporated the region's agriculture (p.
97). Although gin makers in Massachusetts became more prominent, and
northerners directed the South's biggest factories, southern
manufacturers were important in the industry, and southerners were not
dependent on the North for this most vital machine. Southern mechanics
and manufacturers congregated in county seats, forming "zones of
industrialization" where innovation thrived in gin manufacture, and
later, in firearms production for the Confederacy (p. 97). Southern gin
makers, such as Daniel Pratt, Samuel Griswold, and T.G. Atwood, employed
free blacks and slaves who contributed to the "innovative industry that
blurred regional and racial distinctions as it reinforced them" (p. 98).
Lakwete discusses the differences between northern and southern firms,
and wrestles with the question of what role enslaved African Americans
played in the industry.
Fluctuations in cotton prices during much of the antebellum period
exacerbated the tensions between quality and quantity in the saw gin
industry, and pressured gin makers to innovate. Lakwete explains in
chapter 6 that low prices made planters and British textile
manufacturers demand longer and cleaner fiber with no decrease in
production. Caught in the middle, gin makers sought to perfect their
machines with incremental, conservative changes, usually in the form of
"fancy attachments" that were often sectionally distinct (p. 122). Price
shocks, such as the panic of 1837, spurred inventors to improve gin
speed as well as fiber length and cleanliness. By the 1850s, however,
quantity had triumphed over quality and became synonymous, in the minds
of planters, with perfection.
To paraphrase Monty Python, the roller gin was not dead yet. Roller gin
makers tried to innovate and modernize in the face of the saw gin's
continuing dominance during the 1820-1870 period. A group of
predominantly northern gin manufacturers attempted to increase roller
gin output for the long-staple cotton market, but failed to maintain
quality standards. Other gin makers, located in the South but with
"northern roots," created the McCarthy and cylinder gins in an
unsuccessful attempt to compete with saw gins in the short-staple market
(p. 148). Lakwete's analysis in chapter 7 sheds light upon the cultures
of short- and long-cotton planters. Many long-staple planters continued
to use foot and Eve gins until adopting the McCarthy gin in the 1860s.
The final chapter, "Machine and Myth," returns to intriguing themes
introduced in the preface and mentioned in other chapters. Lakwete
argues that the cotton gin was "a site of invention and innovation and a
symbol of regional prosperity," but as the Whitney myth proliferated,
the gin "degenerated into a signifier of southern failure" (p. 177).
"The narrative begins," she continues, "with inept planters and sleepy
finger-ginning slaves and ends with battlefield dead. It celebrates
Yankee ingenuity in invention and victory and insinuates southern
incompetence in passivity and defeat" (pp. 191-192). Accounts of the
inventor's life, including a particularly influential one by Denison
Olmstead in 1832, fortified evolving stereotypes of "ingenious"
northerners and "incompetent" southerners (p. 180). Historians,
beginning with James Ford Rhodes in 1893, gave Whitney's evil gin agency
and blamed it for the South's cotton economy, the reinvigoration of
slavery after 1800, and the sectional tensions that led to the Civil
War. New South boosters struck back, claiming that the saw gin
represented the dead Old South, and the McCarthy gin represented the
modern New South, but the failure story, Lakwete documents, has survived
to the twenty-first century.
By following the advice of her mentor, George Basalla, to use "things in
history," Lakwete successfully overturns the story of southern failure
by recovering the history of roller gins and southern gins shops (p.
xi). Planters, machinists, and African Americans (free and enslaved)
were skilled innovators and talented marketers, resulting in
technological advances and financial success. Whitney's invention was an
important advance in cotton gin history, but many southerners before and
after Whitney played vital roles in the development of the machine. In a
direct writing style, Lakwete presents in-depth and wide-ranging
research with helpful summaries at the beginning and end of each
chapter. She painstakingly explains complicated technological issues,
including the nuts and bolts of each machine, while providing the reader
with context. This is an important book, and now in paperback form, a
good candidate for graduate level courses. As is evident in this
reviewer's attempt to summarize her chapters, Lakwete had her work cut
out for her in trying to explain this complex industry and its even more
While _Inventing the Cotton Gin_ serves as an exciting revision and
raises even more exciting questions, Lakwete's detailed exploration of
cotton ginning makes for slow reading for those not technologically
inclined. It is understandable that Lakwete should demonstrate the
differences between Whitney's machine and its predecessors and
successors, and it is helpful to reveal the evolutions in production,
marketing, and the needs of planters. But this reviewer would have
preferred less detail and more summary, guidance, and context. Lakwete
documents many cases of, and raises tantalizing questions about,
southern industrialization, but readers of H-Southern-Industry will find
themselves wanting more. Specifically, she declares in the preface that
the "innovative southern gin industry belies constructions of failure
read back from 1865. Instead, it forces a reconciliation of an
industrializing, modernizing, and slave labor-based South" (p. ix).
While Lakwete documents such innovation and returns to this theme
occasionally, readers may wish for a fuller exploration of context--the
cotton gin as "the emblem of the cotton South," the historiography of
industrialization of the antebellum South, and an understanding of the
sense of industrial inferiority among southerners (p. 176). This reader
would have also enjoyed more discussion about the relationships of the
cotton gin to race in the South and Coxe's new nationalism, and of zones
and communities of gin makers to southern industrialization.
Lakwete's _Inventing the Cotton Gin_ is an important addition to the
growing list of works on southern industrialization. Her argument that
continuity, not the myth of discontinuity, marked the history of cotton
gins, is well documented and has important implications for
understanding the antebellum and postbellum periods. Whitney's gin was
not a major turning point in American history, or even southern history,
but part of a long tradition of innovation and collaboration; innovation
by northern and southern inventors and machinists, and collaboration
between inventors and planters, blacks and whites, slaves and masters.
As with other good history books, it challenges what we think we knew,
and sends us searching for more clues.
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