War and Gin

Had my father been alive, this month would have seen him celebrate his 100th birthday. Of course 1914 is better remembered for being the year that The Great War commenced.

It was an earlier great war, what Southern States call, ‘The War of Northern Agression’ aka the American Civil War, that saw the birth of my grandfather, in November 1862; exactly one year before President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

The Napoleonic Wars had not yet commenced when my great grandfather was born 220 years ago, in February 1794. However, they were well under way when, at the age of 16 he went off to fight with Wellington against the Corsican upstart. Much to his chagrin, my ancestor was wounded at the battle of Quatre Bras, which took place two days before Waterloo and thus was unable to take part in that more famous battle.

1794 was also the year that Eli Whitney received a patent for his Cotton Gin. (The word ‘gin’ came from India, derived from ‘engine’.) Whitney’s invention was of huge significance to the history of America and even to the world; much more so than many people realise.

Following the Revolution, the United States found itself in serious financial difficulties. It had little industry of its own, its population, of only 4.5 million, being too small and spread too thin over a vast country; it lacked critical mass. Agricultural production had been severely damaged by the war and without traditional import favours granted by Britain, farmers, Southern plantation owners in particular, were desperate for new crops and sources of income. They found inspiration from the Britain’s burgeoning textile industry and hurried to experiment with cotton. To their dismay, they discovered the only variety that would flourish in the uplands, away from the coast, was, ‘green seed cotton’, one that produced particularly short fibres and seeds that clung ferociously to them. Thus a slave could only gather one pound of cleaned cotton per day. Unlike the variety of cotton grown in India, Brazil and the West Indies which had smooth black seeds, green seed cotton would not pass through the existing gins. As it stood at the time, the American cotton industry was simply not viable.

Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts in 1865. His father was a farmer who possessed a work shop where Eli developed an interest in engineering and manufacturing.  It took considerable persuasion for his father to agree to his attending college and he was already 28 when he eventually graduated from Yale having had to pay much of his own way. After an appointment as a school teacher fell through, he was forced to accept a role as tutor to the children of a certain Major Dupont, in a remote part of South Carolina.

Whitney’s journey south was not particularly auspicious. Along the way his ship was wrecked and he was forced on travel to New York where he was met by an old friend who congratulated him on his survival. Unfortunately the friend had Small Pox and Eli became infected, albeit relatively mildly. He was nursed by a new acquaintance, Catherine Greene, the widow Revolutionary hero, Nathaniel Greene. Catherine owned an estate in South Carolina and it was her manager, Phineas Miller, who had organised the tutoring job for young Whitney.

Together they travelled to her home where Eli impressed his hostess with his mechanical dexterity. She decided to introduce him to the various local plantation owners with a view to solving the problems they were facing with regards to ginning cotton.

Whitney took up the challenge with relish and on June 1, 1793, only 10 days after he had embarked on the project, he was able to demonstrate a prototype of the machine that would revolutionise the whole US economy and enabled the unimpeded growth of the British textile industry.

The early gin was manually operated, but could still clean cotton 10 times faster than could be cleaned by hand. When power assisted machines came along, they were able to do so 1,000 times faster and the cotton was cleaner.

The benefits derived from Whitney’s invention are illustrated by the table below.

British Imports of Cotton British Imports of US Cotton
1793 – 28 million pounds 1793 – almost nil
1812 – 63 million pounds 1812 – 30 million pounds
1825 – 228 million pounds 1825 – 170 million pounds

The huge economic significance of Whitney’s invention did not immediately, or indeed form many years, garner for him or his partners (Phineas Miller and Catherine Greene) the wealth and success they deserved. Though he was granted a patent in March 1794, this did not prevent his design being emulated by numerous an unscrupulous competitors.

Rather than sell their machines, Whitney and Miller decided to own them and to provide a ginning service to the growers for a fee, payable in cotton, three-fifths to the grower and two-fifths to the ginner. Rather than be held to ransom by this exclusive service, the growers set about building their own gins. Since the design was relatively straight forward, this was not difficult to do.

The growers went further. They spread rumours that the Whitney machine damaged the cotton by breaking the seeds. Some buyers in England refused to buy cotton ginned by Whitney and Miller’s machines. Their misfortunes were increased by a fire which destroyed their first factory, in 1795.

However, the biggest problem they encountered came as result of the legal battles they fought to protect their patent.

The law stated that for a competitor to be found guilty of breaching a patent, it had to be proved that he had devised, made, constructed, used, employed and vended the patented machine. It was not constructing or selling that was illegal, but the combination. (Lawyers. Don’t you just love ’em?) It was only after the law was changed, that Whitney and Miller were able to recoup some of their lost revenues. Even while the industry thrived, the embattled partners faced bankruptcy. Miller, virtually broke, died in 1803. Aside from fighting his legal battles, Whitney himself, was forced to travel to England to convince his buyers that his gin did not damage the cotton.

The staggering growth of the cotton industry transformed the economy of the nation, especially that of the South which had had the effect of prolonging slavery by several decades. Were it not for cotton, the South would never have gained the prominence it did. Of course following the Civil War and Emancipation, the South’s influence waned dramatically.

It took another industrial innovation, the discovery in 1928 of chlorofluorocarbons and thus the invention of the air conditioner, to bring about an economic renaissance in the Southern states. Manufacturing jobs headed south leaving behind the northern Rustbelt.

As for Whitney, he went on to build rifles for the US government and in doing so pioneered manufacturing processes with his interchangeable manufacture which came to be known as the ‘American System’.

Getting back to my ancestors, I am sometimes struck by the link between those 3 generations. So much of significance happened during their lives. I never knew my grandfather, but my older sister did. Thus there is only one degree of separation between her and the 18th century.  She is able to say, “I knew a man whose father was alive when George Washington was President.

24 thoughts on “War and Gin”

  1. ” (The word ‘gin’ came from India, derived from ‘engine’.)” Hm. I always beieved ‘gin’ came from ‘genever’, the Dutch word for the drink.

  2. In the seventies here one used to be able to purchase clothing of the most beautiful long staple, silky cotton grown on the East coast. Magnificent cloth. Now, you cannot buy it for love nor money. I don’t know where it goes but it surely is not here!
    Nearly all the clothing in the USA is short staple cotton, mostly I think from the Urumchi area of NW China, grown on meltwater from the Himalayas. Total crap, pills, bobbles, stretches and not suitable for more than dish cloths!
    Try buying towels made of American cotton! I gather there is only one mill left in NC even making them.
    I complain ritually in Macy’s with monotonous regularity.
    I suspect there is quite a pent up market for good quality here, now unobtainable.

    I understand your interest in your relatives having bridged such time gaps. My father fought in WWI, I was born very late to him. He could clearly remember the death of queen Victoria and the last Boer War! (1902-4)

  3. janus :

    ” (The word ‘gin’ came from India, derived from ‘engine’.)” Hm. I always beieved ‘gin’ came from ‘genever’, the Dutch word for the drink.

    Good morning Janus. There is no smiley thing in your comment, so I am not sure if you are being serious. The two gins are very different. There is another jinn (djinn or genie) that comes from Arabia. Maybe this influenced the Indian gin. Or maybe the Arabs were under the influence of Dutch gin?

  4. Hi Christina, I am not as luxury conscious as you are. Generally speaking, as long as a product does its job, I am not too worried. It does not have to do it in style.As long as the towel will dry me and my clothes keep me warm, dry and reasonably presentable, I am not too concerned about the material. But I do confess to enjoying good quality bed linen.

    As for Chinese rubbish, here in Zimbabwe that is all we get. The quality of all manufactured gods is absolutely atrocious. Even the most uneducated and unsophisticated of our indigenous brethren refer to such items as zing-zong – a byword for crap.

  5. CO/Sipu: the Chinese do make some very high-quality goods including cloth. To be able to find it requires knowing people with the proper connexions.I have some pieces of absolutely brilliant red sand pottery from China given me by a friend’s father who has both the money and connexions.

  6. A gin is (also) Australian (offensive) slang for an Aboriginal woman, still occasionally heard and perpetuated in a few place-names. The derivation is unfortunately obvious.

  7. Sipu :

    janus :

    ” (The word ‘gin’ came from India, derived from ‘engine’.)” Hm. I always beieved ‘gin’ came from ‘genever’, the Dutch word for the drink.

    Good morning Janus. There is no smiley thing in your comment, so I am not sure if you are being serious. The two gins are very different. There is another jinn (djinn or genie) that comes from Arabia. Maybe this influenced the Indian gin. Or maybe the Arabs were under the influence of Dutch gin?

    Please see my #2. 🙂

  8. Christopher, I am sure that the Chinese are quite capable of producing some very high quality products. They did not get to where they are in the world by being incompetent.But they also produce mountains of trash which, being so cheap, is what African countries tend to import and which gets resold at vast profit. Governments here,do not appear to have any concept of standards or consumer rights. As long as duties and taxes are paid, they don’t give a toss what sort of rubbish goes on sale. Add to that the special relationship that exists between China and most despotic African countries, (is there any other kind) China tends to get away with sins which Western nations would be made to pay dearly for.

  9. Sipu: the Chinese do what they can get away with. Ethics and integrity are merely nice concepts that do not fill an empty stomach in regards to those outside their inner circles. Even if Africans could afford higher-grade products many Chinese would be loathe to export them to the continent as they often see Africans as unable to distinguish grades of quality. Whatever we in the developed world might think of their general quality, that is their best in terms of mass production.

    To expand on a point I made on CO’s post regarding Japan — the Chinese will simply tell the PC lot to get stuffed. The only reason why the Japanese, Chinese, Russians and others get away with what we’d be attacked for is that they refuse to countenance the accusations. If we were to do the same, it would stop because the same lot that attacks us at all opportunities does try with the others if to no avail.

  10. Whilst all the above explains the rubbish in the international marketplaces, what the hell happened to the good stuff?
    America had the most beautiful cotton, now you cannot buy it for love nor money. Rhetorically where did it go? Who is using it?
    One used to be able to buy t shirts made of polished cotton, only long staple will do for this, now you cannot buy such anywhere, I have tried!! Swiss embroidered cotton yard goods, men’s good quality shirting, all these products appear to have disappeared and we are left with a welter of total chink crap! I have got to the point of only shopping for clothes/shoes in Wales where I can buy European made garments of reasonable quality.

    I really do not know how the chinese manage to make such a pigs ear of natural fibre these days . Everything they touch turns to dross. Comes to something when one wants a decent garment that I have to spin the fibre myself!!!
    Totally bloody beyond. (totters off splenetically)

  11. CO: America’s best cottons are usually exported to Europe and East Asia. Major American companies tend to look only at the bottom line and American consumers who are even more complicit in that are also to blame. So many wanted nothing but the most for the least. When most consumers either want or are content with something, the minority with discriminating tastes are ignored.

    The best part of living in California is having access to many high-quality clothing stores ranging from Italian suits to Japanese casual. I never had difficulty finding proper clothing there.

  12. janus :

    jazz606 :
    My maternal grandfather was practising law in 1890.

    My paternal grandfather was about to sign up as an apprenticed tanner, aged 13.

    Working class credentials ?

  13. Btw, said grandpa became MD of the tannery and was awarded the MBE for services to the country after WWII. Does that change my credentials at all ? 🙂

  14. jazz606 :

    janus :

    jazz606 :

    My maternal grandfather was practising law in 1890.

    Middle class credentials?

    However my paternal grandfather was a stone mason.

    My maternal G’pa was a coal miner. Crippled in a mining accident at the age of 46, which was more than a crisis for the family of five children.

  15. janus :

    jazz606 :

    janus :

    jazz606 :
    My maternal grandfather was practising law in 1890.

    Middle class credentials?

    However my paternal grandfather was a stone mason.

    My maternal G’pa was a coal miner. Crippled in a mining accident at the age of 46, which was more than a crisis for the family of five children.

    Oh well I suppose mining is the trump card. I posted the thing about my grandfather practicing law in 1890 to indicate the large generation span.

    I consider myself to be solidly middle class although I’ve done more manual labour than many so called working class folk – masons’ genes (?).

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