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FW: McKinley on Lakwete, _Inventing the Cotton Gin_

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  • Amos J Wright
    FYI: Author Angela Lakwete teaches at AU... ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 23, 2007
      FYI: Author Angela Lakwete teaches at AU... ajwright@...

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      Subject: McKinley on Lakwete, _Inventing the Cotton Gin_

      Published by H-Southern-Industry@... (February, 2007)

      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
      complex machines.

      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.

      Copyright � 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the
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      editorial staff at hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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