King Cotton

It’s in your clothes and even your money. Learn about Alabama’s cotton chronicles.

“Cotton, perhaps more than anything else, was the driving economic force in the creation of Alabama, ” reads the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

And if that doesn’t impress you, this will: In 1860, more cotton was shipped out of Mobile than any other port in the world other than New Orleans.

The story of cotton in Mobile and the state is so seamlessly woven into our history that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. From the initial cotton boom to the Civil War to the shrub’s resurgence and finally its destruction by the boll weevil in the early 1900s, no other plant tells the history of this place better than ol’ King Cotton.

So, the next time you’re driving along through the back roads of rural Baldwin County, allow your thoughts to linger for an extra second on those picturesque dotted fields of white. Because down here, cotton is more than just a plant, a crop, a means to your blue jeans. It is a time capsule all its own.

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Individual cotton fibers are called staples. A boll is a hard, protective case on a cotton plant that bursts open into chambered areas of cotton at harvest-time (usually in the early fall in Alabama). Cotton is measured in bales weighing around 500 pounds. And according to highly scientific and meticulous research, one cotton bale is enough to produce 2, 100 pairs of boxer shorts. Proving once and for all that cotton researchers don’t wear briefs. 

A cotton plant is a shrub that is native to tropical and subtropical regions such as Central America, Mexico and the Gulf Coast. Humans have domesticated the plant because it produces cotton, a cellulose material that is the most common natural fiber used in the manufacturing of clothing. 

Despite there being 43 species of cotton in the world, farmers in Alabama typically grow “upland cotton” (Gossypium hirsutum), a species with very strong cotton fibers typically used in the apparel industry. The upland species is a no-fuss cotton variety, flourishing in the summer heat and growing in just about any type of soil.

Cotton has a long growing season, requiring 180 to 200 days from seed to maturity. In Alabama, it’s planted in March or April.

Cotton’s usefulness doesn’t stop at fabric. Linter, the fuzz that remains on the cotton seed after ginning, is an essential ingredient in things such as film, explosives,  U.S. currency (made up of 75 percent cotton) and upholstery. Furthermore, oil taken from cottonseed can be found in soap, cosmetics and cooking supplies. 

Our history in cotton

  • Ancient civilizations were no strangers to cotton. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of “tree-wool” that was grown in India, and other ancient historians note its cultivation in Egypt, China, Africa, Italy and several Mediterranean islands. The word cotton comes from the Arabic “qutun” or “kutun” used to describe any fine textile.
  • Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, it was nearly impractical to grow upland cotton because of how difficult it was to remove the seeds by hand. When Eli Whitney invented the mechanical seed picker, however, it created a rush for cotton land that eventually led to the settlement and statehood of Alabama.
  • The implications of cotton farming on the state cannot be overstated. Alabama went from producing 3.7 percent of the nation’s cotton in 1820 to 22.9 percent of the national total (first in the nation) by 1849. Although the cotton trade brought enormous wealth to the state, this labor-intensive crop couldn’t have made such an impact without slave labor, a fact that would undeniably shape Alabama’s political and cultural future.
  • The year 1910 brought the boll weevil, a Central American insect that feeds on cotton, to Alabama. Although it devastated the state’s cotton production, some eventually praised the insect for forcing farmers to diversify their crops. In 1919, the citizens of Enterprise,  Alabama, happy about the diversification of crops (particularly peanuts), erected a monument to the insect.
  • The old days of cotton as “king” in Alabama are gone, likely never to return. But the plant still has an enormous impact on the state’s economy. Today, Alabama ranks seventh of the 17 states that produce cotton.

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