Cotton Culture

By: Karen Gerhardt Britton, Fred C. Elliott, and E. A. Miller

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: October 7, 2020

Cotton was first grown in Texas by Spanish missionaries. A report of the missions at San Antonio in 1745 indicates that several thousand pounds of cotton were produced annually, then spun and woven by mission craftsmen. Cotton cultivation was begun by Anglo-American colonists in 1821. In 1849 a census of the cotton production of the state reported 58,073 bales (500 pounds each). In 1852 Texas was in eighth place among the top ten cotton-producing states of the nation. The 1859 census credited Texas with a yield of 431,645 bales. This sharp rise in production in the late 1850s and early 1860s was due at least in part to the removal of Indians, which opened up new areas for cotton production. The Civil War caused a decrease in production, but by 1869 the cotton crop was reported as 350,628 bales. The introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s and the building of railroads further stimulated the industry. In 1879 some 2,178,435 acres produced 805,284 bales. The 1889 census reported 3,934,525 acres producing 1.5 million bales. The cotton crop in 1900 was more than 3.5 million bales from 7,178,915 acres.

Additional factors contributed to the increase in cotton production during the last years of the nineteenth century. A specially designed plow made it possible to break up the thick black sod, and the fertile prairie soil produced as much as one bale per acre in some areas. Beginning in 1872, thousands of immigrants from the Deep South and from Europe poured into the Blackland Prairie of Central Texas and began growing cotton. Some of the newcomers bought small farmsteads, but most worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers for landowners who controlled spreads as large as 6,000 acres. Cotton planting began in the spring, cultivation occurred during the summer, and harvesting by hand-picking began in late August. Tenants lived in houses on the landowners' property and supplied their own draft animals, tools, and seed; for their year of work, after the cotton was ginned, they received two-thirds of the value of the cotton. The landowner received one-third. Sharecroppers furnished only their labor, while the landowner supplied animals, houses, seed, and tools, and at the end of the cotton season the sharecroppers received half the value of the crop. In both cases tenants and sharecroppers, whether White or Black, bought such goods as shoes, medicines, and staple food items from the landowners' commissaries, and the landowners kept the accounts. After the cotton was sold and the accounts settled, the tenant or sharecropper often had little or no hard cash left over. This socially enforced debt peonage, known as the crop-lien system, began after the Civil War and continued in practice until the 1930s.

Increased cotton production led to technological improvements in cotton ginning-the process of separating cotton fibers from their seeds, cleaning the fibers, and baling the lint for shipment to market. In 1884 Robert S. Munger of Mexia revolutionized the slow, animal-powered method of "plantation ginning" by devising the faster, automated "system ginning," the process in use today. Cotton compresses, huge machines that reduced 500-pound bales to about half their ginned, or flat-bale, size for convenience in shipping, were constructed along railroad rights-of-way in many towns. The relocation of compresses from port cities such as Galveston to interior cotton-growing areas allowed farmers to sell their crops directly to buyers, who represented textile mills on the East Coast, and the buyers to send the cotton directly to the mills by rail rather than by ship. As telegraph lines spread westward, cotton could be bought and sold on the world market faster than ever before. Not only were the fibers sold, but also the cottonseed was crushed for cooking oil, hulls were converted to cattle feed, and portions of the plant were used to make an early type of plastic.

Technology and a world demand for cotton products, however, could not offset the devastation of the boll weevil. Farmers first saw the ravaging effect of the weevil, which had spread northward from Mexico, near Corpus Christi during the 1890s. Within a few years, boll weevil damage affected crops throughout Texas and the Cotton Belt, the cotton-growing states of the Deep South. Farmers used calcium arsenate dust and other pesticides to reduce the damage from boll weevils and such pests as the pink bollworm. Agents of the United States Department of Agriculture and the county extension service, which was begun at Texas A&M College, set up demonstration farms and experiment stations and visited individual farms to show farmers how to improve their crops through better methods of cultivation. A high demand for cotton during World War I stimulated production, but a drop in prices after the war led many tenants and sharecroppers to abandon farming altogether and move to the cities for better job opportunities.

Factors that caused the decline of cotton production in the state after the 1920s were the federal government's control program, which cut acreage in half, the increase in foreign production (the state had been exporting approximately 85 percent of the total crop), the introduction of synthetic fibers, the tariff, the lack of a lint-processing industry in Texas, and World War II, which brought a shortage of labor and disrupted commerce. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many former tenants and sharecroppers returned to farmwork, but after the United States entered World War II in 1941, farmworkers moved again to the cities for work in war-related industries. After the war, when steel and rubber became available to manufacturers again, farmers began to mechanize their methods of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, thus eliminating the need for tenants and sharecroppers, many of whom did not return to farmwork, and leading to new practices in cotton production that remain in use today. Cotton culture is now characterized by fewer but larger farms, fewer farmworkers and increased use of machines, widespread irrigation, better pest and weed control methods, alterations to the cotton plant that make it easier to harvest mechanically, and greater cooperation among farmers for marketing.

The most notable change in the production of cotton in the twentieth century was the geographical shift from East and Central Texas to the High Plains and the Rio Grande valley. Large production in the latter areas was obtained by extensive use of fertilizers and irrigation. Cotton requires fertile soil for profitable yields. It should be grown only on naturally fertile soils or on soils enriched by inoculated and properly fertilized legumes, barnyard manure, or commercial fertilizer. If the land has any appreciable slope, it should be terraced or contoured to prevent soil erosion and conserve water. Legumes, both summer and winter, play an important part in building up soil fertility and in making cotton production more profitable. The time for planting cotton varies greatly in the different sections of Texas. It is best not to plant until the soil has warmed up enough to ensure quick and uniform germination. Planting too early often results in stunted plants, poor stands, and lower yields. One-half to one bushel of fuzzy seed or from ten to fifteen pounds of delinted seed per acre is usually planted, the amount depending upon the section of the state. West Texas farmers usually plant a smaller quantity of seed per acre than East Texas growers. In the eastern part of the state, cotton is planted mostly on medium-high beds to allow better drainage and to enable the soil to warm up quicker in the spring, while in West Texas and other sections with low rainfall, cotton is planted below the level of the land. The seed are planted from one to two inches deep, the depth depending upon the condition of the soil and the amount of moisture present at planting time. If the plants are too close together they are thinned when they have four to six leaves. Larger yields are obtained in Texas from early thinning than from late thinning. A good spacing is about twelve inches between plants, with one or two plants per hill. This spacing helps to make the plants fruit earlier than would a wider spacing and usually results in higher yields. Cotton should be harvested as early as possible because profits are often greatly reduced by allowing the open cotton to be exposed to the wind and rain. Bad weather causes considerable shedding of the seed cotton from the bolls and lowers the grade and value of the fiber.

Because of a shortage of laborers and the destructiveness of sudden storms, cotton growers in the Lubbock area developed a means of rough-harvesting cotton during the 1920s. The first mechanical harvester consisted of fence posts attached to a draft animal and dragged between rows to dislodge the cotton. The method also broke off bolls, leaves, and sticks and mixed them in the fiber. A wagon or sled with an open groove down the center of the bed proved to be a better device. Horses or mules pulled the sled through the fields to harvest the cotton. Though these methods were faster, however, they both resulted in cotton with a high trash content that brought a much lower price than hand-picked or hand-snapped cotton. Mechanical strippers, which followed, pulled the boll off the plant by means of revolving rollers or brushes. Strippers are used to harvest cotton in the Plains region, where plants are small and grow close to the ground. Another type of harvester is the spindle picker. This machine does not strip cotton from the stalk but pulls locks of cotton from the bolls by means of revolving grooved or barbed spindles. The spindles add moisture to the locks to make them cling to the barbs, and rubber doffers loosen the cotton, which is then blown into a steel basket. Spindle pickers are used in areas of high rainfall where plants grow tall before they are defoliated.

In 1971 Lambert Wilkes of College Station, working with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and Cotton Incorporated (a research division of the National Cotton Council), devised the concept of harvesting cotton by module. The steel module builder consists of a box large enough to hold 15,000 pounds (ten to twelve bales) of seed cotton, a cab, and a hydraulic tramper. Cotton from strippers or spindle pickers is emptied directly into the box, and an operator in the cab compresses the cotton with the tramper. When the box is full, a tractor pulls it forward, leaving on the turnrow a "loaf" of cotton that is eight feet high by eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long. The module is covered with a polyethelene tarpaulin and marked for field identification with a harmless spray. A specially designed module mover, a modified flatbed trailer, picks up the module and carries it to the gin, where it is unloaded into the cotton storage yard or directly under the suction telescope for ginning. In 1990, 74 percent of the Texas cotton crop was gathered by strippers and 26 percent by spindle pickers. Seventy percent of that crop was ginned from modules, and 30 percent from trailers.

Machines at the gin clean the trash from the fibers. The lint is baled in a universal-density press that eliminates the need for the old-fashioned compress, and the bale is packaged in synthetic bagging. During the baling process a sample is automatically removed. It may be sent to United States Department of Agriculture classing offices in various parts of the state. Increasingly often, however, high-volume instrument classing occurs at offices near the gins. Once the cotton grower or producer knows the class and value of his cotton, he sells it to buyers around the world by means of computers. A great deal of Texas cotton is exported, especially to Japan and South Korea.

Cotton has many uses besides clothing, linens, draperies, upholstery, and carpet. As early as 1813, nitrocellulose, or gun cotton, for explosives was made from raw cotton. In 1868 the combination of nitrocellulose and camphor made celluloid, an artificial plastic. Contemporary uses include fertilizer, paper, tires, cake and meal for cattle feed, and cottonseed oil for cooking, paint, and lubricants.


Karen G. Britton, Bale o' Cotton (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). Robert L. Haney, Milestones: Marking Ten Decades of Research (College Station: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1989). M. Rebecca Sharpless and Joe C. Yelderman, Jr., eds., The Texas Blackland Prairie: Land, History, and Culture (Waco: Baylor University, 1993).

  • Agriculture
  • Products (Plant)
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Great Depression
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Reconstruction
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II

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

Karen Gerhardt Britton, Fred C. Elliott, and E. A. Miller, “Cotton Culture,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 7, 2020