Cotton-Compress Industry

By: L. Tuffly Ellis

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 1, 1994

The cotton-compress industry developed in antebellum Texas because of the need to lower the cost of transporting cotton on sailing vessels. Before the introduction of power cotton compressors, or hydraulic compressors, workers known as screwmen used screwjacks to pack and stow bulky bales of cotton for shipment by sea. Compressors, which reduced bales received from cotton gins to roughly half their former size, were first acquired in port. By 1860 more than $500,000 had been invested in the industry at Galveston. Despite the innovation, however, workers by 1866 had established at Galveston a Screwmen's Benevolent Association, which in the 1870s became the largest and strongest labor organization in the city. As cotton culture spread into the Texas hinterland after the Civil War, compresses were built in many Texas towns in addition to the port cities. The development of communications and the extension of railroads into the state's cotton-producing regions revolutionized the Texas cotton trade. The compress industry was a major factor in this change because it made the long-distance transportation of cotton by rail economically feasible. Interior cotton markets developed and disrupted the old factorage system. Cotton compression became a major industry in Texas in terms of capital invested and labor employed. Hydraulic compressors replaced screwmen with teams who opened bales received at the warehouse, "spider" men who climbed into the compress to position each bale under its heavy jaws, and others who retied and packed the compressed bales. By World War I screwmen had largely disappeared.

When the Railroad Commission came into existence in 1891, it soon provided rules and regulations governing the movement of cotton by rail; thus the cotton-compress industry was one of the first to feel the effects of this regulatory agency. Measures adopted by the commission encouraged overdevelopment of the industry in the interior and intensified a struggle for control of cotton between port and hinterland interests. After the 1920s the geographical growth of the cotton-compress industry in Texas was westward and southward, as cotton culture shifted to the High Plains and the Rio Grande valley, and policies of the Commodity Credit Corporation became a factor in the movement. The most important influence on the industry, however, was the development in the 1890s of processes to compress cotton to a high density at gins and thus eliminate the need for cotton compresses. Cotton was initially compressed in two densities, standard bales for domestic mills at roughly twenty-two pounds per cubic foot and high-density bales for overseas export at roughly thirty-two pounds per cubic foot. Owners of the compressing processes at gins attempted to get the Texas Railroad Commission and the Interstate Commerce Commission to set carload rates for cotton so compressed. The commissions refused to do so because of a belief that such a rate system would revolutionize the cotton trade and result in great losses to small operators in the cotton industry. In the early 1970s, however, the National Cotton Council devised a universal density for a new twenty-four-inch-wide bale at twenty-eight pounds per cubic foot; this density could be used for all purposes. With the adoption of this new standard, gin-manufacturing companies created universal-density presses for packaging, and compressors at warehouses were almost entirely phased out or replaced by gin service. By that time, prospects indicated a continued deterioration of a once-flourishing industry, though as late as 1979 cotton contributed $1 billion to the state economy and made up 10 percent of all agricultural production in Texas.

Karen G. Britton, Bale o' Cotton (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). Louis Tuffly Ellis, The Texas Cotton Compress Industry: A History (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1964). Fortune, November, December, 1945. James V. Reese, "Evolution of an Early Texas Union: The Screwmen's Benevolent Association of Galveston, 1866–1891," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (October 1971). A. C. Taylor, History of the Screwmen's Benevolent Association (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1968).

  • Agriculture
  • Equipment and Technology

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

L. Tuffly Ellis, “Cotton-Compress Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994