Cotton Ginning

By: Karen Gerhardt Britton

Type: General Entry

Published: June 1, 1995

To attract settlers to his colony in Spanish Texas, empresario Stephen F. Austin advertised the richness of the lands along the Brazos and Colorado rivers as suitable for growing cotton as a cash crop. Jared Ellison Groce, one of the first colonists, moved to Texas from Alabama in January 1822 and bought land on the banks of the Brazos River near the site of present-day Hempstead. Groce's cotton crops far surpassed his expectations. When his son Leonard completed his education in Georgia in 1825, the young man brought home to Texas what is believed to be the first cotton gin used in Austin's colony. By 1828 there were four to five cotton gins in Austin's colony, and by 1860 there were approximately 2,000 in Texas.

Before cotton can be spun into yarn or thread and woven into cloth, the fibers must be separated from their seeds. In 1793 Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin, a shortened term for "cotton engine." Whitney's patented machine featured a wooden cylinder with iron teeth or spikes, a grooved breastwork of brass or iron through which the spikes could pass but the seeds could not, and a brush cylinder behind the breastwork to clear cotton fibers from the spikes. Ginned seed cotton, or lint, was carried in baskets or allowed to fall into a lint room for storage. The lint was then packed by foot or wooden pestle into a sack and taken to market. H. Ogden Holmes, a South Carolina mechanic, received a patent in 1796 for improvements to the cotton gin that included saw disks passing between flat metal ribs and continuous emptying of the roll box, ginning principles in use today. The cotton gin enabled a worker who had formerly cleaned five pounds of cotton a day by hand to "gin" fifty pounds of cotton a day. The success of the cotton gin led to increased production of short-staple cotton throughout the South.

In Texas, Austin offered land bounties to colonists willing to grow cotton and to blacksmiths and carpenters willing to build cotton gins. As early as 1825 primitive gin manufacturing took place near San Augustine. Gin manufacturing occurred in East Texas for two reasons: cotton production in the area made a local market, and the forests provided ample lumber for the construction of individual cotton gins, or "gin stands." Gin stands were placed on the raised floor of a two-story, frame gin house. In the open space beneath the ginning floor, horses or mules harnessed to levers walked in circles, turning a large horizontal drive wheel. A bevel gear connected the drive wheel to a vertical pulley wheel. A leather belt on the pulley passed through the floor and attached to a smaller pulleys on the gin stand that turned the saw and brush shafts, thus ginning the cotton.

Even with this technology, the ginning process remained labor intensive. Workers brought hand-picked seed cotton from the field to the gin house in baskets, where it was stored in bins or stalls on the ginning floor until time to be ginned. Workers then placed the seed cotton on a flat tray and raked it from the tray into the gin stand. The lint fell through a hole in the floor into the "lint room" at one end of the gin house, where it was stored until ready for baling. Cotton was not baled inside the gin house. Workers carried basketloads of cotton from the lint room to a yard press, which consisted of a wooden screw with a plunger to compress cotton inside the bale box. Mules or horses harnessed to long sweeps walked in a circle around the press to raise and lower the screw. Workers wrapped the bale with flour sacks or old clothes and tied the bale with ropes or iron straps, removed it from the press box, and placed it on the ground. The bales, which weighed between 400 and 500 pounds, were taken by oxcart, by raft, or by steamboat to such ports as Galveston or Velasco, where they were compressed into smaller bales for shipment to textile mills in New England and Great Britain. This process, with modifications to the gin stand, remained commonplace for almost a century.

During the 1870s the Blackland Prairie became the primary cotton-growing region of the state due to the development of a plow that would break up prairie soil, construction of rail lines, and heavy immigration from the Deep South and from Europe. Cotton flourished so well in the Blackland Prairie that customary ginning methods no longer worked. During the 1870s a condenser connected by a flue to the rear of the gin stand added a cleaning function and formed batts of lint for faster baling, but the overall process remained slow.

Robert S. Munger of Mexia, Limestone County, brought an end to "plantation ginning." Munger's continuous "system ginning," developed between 1883 and 1885, moved, ginned, and baled cotton faster than ever before. His fan-driven pneumatic system suctioned seed cotton by means of a pipe, or "telescope," from the wagon into an air stream. Cotton moved first to a separator, from which it dropped to a distributor, usually a conveyor belt, that carried it to feeders mounted above each of a "battery," or series, of three to five gin stands. Seed was dropped through a conduit or blown through piping to a seed house a few yards from the gin building. After it was cleaned, the lint was carried by air stream through a single flue to a master condenser, as opposed to individual condensers behind each gin stand, where the lint was formed into a batt. The batt then slid down a chute into the charging box of the bale press. Munger brought the bale press indoors, placing a double box on a turntable at one end of the ginning floor. As one box filled with cotton from the condenser, the other box, already full of cotton, was compressed into a bale. Compression in the first indoor presses was achieved by means of a screw, but hydraulic rams soon replaced the screws. The bale was wrapped with jute or burlap bagging, tied with iron straps, and secured with metal buckles. Workers then rolled each bale out of the box, weighed and tagged it for identification, and moved it to the bale dock.

Munger's revolutionary system used steam engines to power the gin plant. After about 1910, diesel engines replaced steam power. As rural electrification spread, electric motors took the place of diesel engines, and remain the power source used today. Munger kept the gin plant open at Mexia for research purposes but moved to Dallas, where he began manufacturing components for system ginning as early as 1887. In 1899 he united his company with others to form Continental Gin Company in Birmingham, Alabama. Texas remained a manufacturing center for ginning systems and auxiliary equipment until the 1960s, when most companies were absorbed by Continental Gin Company (now Continental Eagle Corporation) of Prattville, Alabama or Lummus Cotton Gin Company (now Lummus Corporation) of Columbus, Georgia.

Individuals could not afford to buy and install Munger's expensive system ginning outfits. Groups of farmers formed cooperative associations to sell stock, build custom gin plants, and offer a variety of services. During ginning season, which lasted from late August through late December, the gin operated eighteen to twenty-four hours a day. Farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers brought their hand-picked cotton to the gin in wagons, often lining the roads for miles. After the cotton was ginned, farmers sold their seed to the ginner to cover ginning costs and their crop to buyers. Cotton buyers cut samples from bales and classed the cotton according to grade, staple length, color, and character (smoothness and cleanliness). Classing determined the quality and thus the value of the cotton. Once the value and price were established, farmers settled their accounts with merchants and bankers. Tenants and sharecroppers settled their accounts with the landowner. During World War II, many farm workers moved to the cities. Those landowners who continued to grow cotton used tractors and various attachments to mechanize their planting and cultivating methods, transported their cotton to the gin in trailers, and adopted methods of mechanical harvesting. Rough harvesting by means of sleds made of fence slats began during the 1920s on the High Plains, where a shortage of laborers plus rapid changes in weather that could destroy an entire crop within minutes made faster harvesting essential. Based upon the such variables as rainfall, plant height, and degree of defoliation, two types of harvesters became commonly used. Cotton growers in the High Plains relied on "strippers," while those in the Rio Grande valley and Coastal Bend used "spindle pickers."

In 1971 Lambert Wilkes, working for the Texas A&M Agricultural Extension Service and Cotton Incorporated, authored the module concept of harvesting cotton. The module is a steel box on wheels that is placed at the turnrow. Harvesters strip or pick basket loads of cotton and empty them into the boxes, which can hold up to twelve bales. A tramper compresses the seed cotton tightly into the box. When the box is full, a tractor pulls the box away, leaving the module of cotton behind. A tarpaulin is placed over the top of the module. A specially designed truck carries the module to the gin, where it is offloaded intact. Because this cotton is very dirty, a great deal of auxiliary cleaning machinery is added to the ginning process. The press turns out bales of uniform density and size, thus replacing the compress, and automatic bagging machines prepare the bales for shipment. High volume instrument classing now grades cotton with more consistency, and marketing of cotton takes place by computer. However, the purpose of the cotton gin remains unchanged: to ensure the best-quality fiber possible. See also COTTON CULTURE, COTTON-COMPRESS INDUSTRY, COTTONSEED INDUSTRY.

Karen G. Britton, Bale o' Cotton (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). M. Rebecca Sharpless and Joe C. Yelderman, Jr., eds., The Texas Blackland Prairie: Land, History, and Culture (Waco: Baylor University, 1993). Elizabeth Silverthorne, Plantation Life in Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). Algernon L. Smith, Continental Gin Company and Its Fifty-two Years of Service (Birmingham: Continental Gin Company, 1952). Raymond E. White, "Cotton Ginning in Texas to 1861," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61 (October 1957).


  • Agriculture
  • Equipment and Technology

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

Karen Gerhardt Britton, “Cotton Ginning,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995