Cotton was a small-time crop prior to 1793, due to the labor intensive requirement to separate cotton seeds from the cotton. For example, in the 18th Century, 25 farm hands working on 25 cotton bales often took 100 days to seed the crop.
While widely grown, cotton was a small crop intended for local use in
homespun cloth. There were small jenny mills, sometimes on plantations,
operated by hand, mules or oxen producing a crude yarn suitable for
As Moses Brown, who funded and owned the first powered spinning (Arkwright system of machinery) mill with Samuel Slater in 1791 in Rhode Island, said about Southern cotton: "The unripe, short, and dusty part being so enveloped with that which would be good, if separated properly at first, so spoils the whole as to discourage the use of it in the machines."
But the Eli Whitney Cotton Gin, invented in 1793, did the work of ten men. As the gin was improved and access spread, it encouraged North Carolina farmers to grow the crop, which could be easily sold. Crop was hauled overland or on river boats to access points (Fayetteville, Columbia, Charleston, Cheraw, etc.) to ship north to powered textile spinning mills.
Beginning about 1840, cotton became a leading cash crop for North Carolina farmers.
The lure of being near the fields caused many to think about creating a powered textile mill. (See textiles). But the demand for cotton, focused farmers primarily on growing the crop in the South until 1840, when the effort to create new planting areas slowed. This allowed more resources to be diverted to cotton processing. Plus, pioneering efforts proved that cotton mills could be highly profitable.
The first mill in North Carolina was established around 1815 near Lincolnton and operated until 1819. It was replaced by another Lincolnton area mill in 1819 which operated under different owners until 1863. Textile mills proliferated during the 1840s in Alamance and other Piedmont areas, reaching 45 mills operating by 1860.
Cotton farming increased until the Civil War. The North Carolina cotton crop began to grow between 1860 with 145,514 bales and 1870 with 203,000 bales (480-lb. equivalent bales). Cotton production continued its steady increase until the 1920s,
By 1880, North Carolina was growing 446,000 bales annually, placing the state in 8th place, behind Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Louisiana. But the price of cotton continued to remain low in the post-war era, creating massive hardships on farmers.
By 1900, North Carolina was producing 497,000 bales, which accelerated in the early 1900s to match the explosive growth of the textile industry. By 1925, North Carolina was producing 1,102,000 bales of cotton.
The Great Depression in the 1930s and the boll weevil began a downward trend in growing cotton until by 1980, the crop output was equivalent to the 1840s. But pressure on tobacco, insect-resistant cotton crop and a jump in cotton prices caused a renaissance in cotton planting in the state in the 1990s.
NC Cotton Crop*