T-shirts, jeans, sheets, socks, Q-tips, towels, canvas, rope and even dollar bills are all made of cotton. The material is everywhere; it is indeed part of, “the fabric of our lives.”
But in South Carolina, cotton takes on an extra significance. The crop helped shape the very history of the American South.
It was the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (short for engine) in 1793 that changed the Southern landscape forever. Southern farmers already had been growing cotton, but the variety that grew best had seeds that clung stubbornly to the fiber and needed to be tediously removed by hand. The cotton gin eliminated the need for hand-cleaning, saving time and resources.
Soon cotton was the number one cash crop in the south. Before the invention of the gin, the U.S. was able to export less than 500,000 pounds of cotton; by 1910 that number had skyrocketed to over 90 million pounds.
Of course, as the production of cotton rose, so did the need for labor on cotton plantations. Unpaid slave labor made American cotton prices all the more competitive on the world market. The number of slaves in the U.S. rose from just over a half million before the invention of the cotton gin to 3.2 million by 1850. The number of slave states rose as well as farmers acquired more land on which to grow more and more cotton.
The South Carolina Cotton Museum takes you through the full history of the state’s cotton culture from the early days of the cotton boom to the modern cotton industry. Displays include original tools, textile machinery and even a contemporary crop-duster that hangs above the rest of exhibits.
Young visitors will enjoy digging their hands in piles of raw cotton and getting a look at a boll weevil. The real pests that devastated cotton crops in the 1920s were only about six millimeters long, but the museum features a boll weevil statue that is a terrifying three feet tall.
The South Carolina Cotton Museum is at 121 West Cedar Lane in Bishopville. It is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for senior citizens, $3 for students and free for children 5 and younger.
The museum is just one of the sites on the South Carolina Cotton Trail, which travels through the towns of Bennettsville, Bishopville, Chesterfield, Cheraw, Clio, Darlington, Hartsville and Society Hill on streets lined with real cotton fields. For more information on the South Carolina Cotton Museum, call (803) 484-4497.