Cottonseed Industry

By: Mary M. Standifer

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 10, 2016

Cottonseed, which is separated from cotton lint in the ginning process, is considered a separate crop because of its distinctive uses and economic importance. The processing of cottonseed was one of the earliest large-scale industries to be established in Texas. By 1900 it was the second most important industry in the state in value of product, superseded only by lumber. By the end of the nineteenth century Texas had become the leading processor of cottonseed in the nation. Although the cottonseed industry declined in importance during the twentieth century relative to other industries within the state, it continued to maintain a significant presence. The many uses of cottonseed oil also helped to make Texas an early leader in the manufacture of such food products as cooking oil, vegetable shortening, margarine, and salad oil. In the early 1990s the cottonseed industry of Texas continued to lead that of all other states.

After cotton has been ginned, mills reduce the seed to four products-linters, hulls, cottonseed oil, and meal.Out of every ton of cottonseed received at the mill, hulls represent over 25 percent of the weight; oil, about 16 percent; and meal, 45 percent. In terms of value, oil is the most significant product, followed by meal, which itself is worth more than the combined value of hulls and linters.

Linters, the short fibers left clinging to the hulls after ginning, are almost pure cellulose. They are used in batting for mattresses and upholstery, industrial textiles, surgical dressings, and high-quality paper products. They also play a chemical role in the production of plastics, film, rayon, acetate, explosives, and other products. During World War II and the Korean War, almost all of the American production of linters was used in the manufacture of smokeless powder for artillery shells.

Hulls have been used to provide roughage in feed since the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In the early decades of the cottonseed-oil industry they were also used as fuel for the mills. The ashes of the hulls were useful as fertilizer and could be bleached to produce lye for making soap. Today, in addition to their use in feed, hulls are used as mulch, packing material, and raw material for various chemical industries. They are also useful in restoring potash and minerals in depleted soils.

Cottonseed oil, produced from the meat of the seed, is further refined for use in shortening, mayonnaise, salad oil, cooking oil, and margarine, as well as cosmetics, nitroglycerine, composition roofing, and other products.

Meal, the remains of the seed after the oil has been extracted, can be rendered as flakes, cakes, or pellets, depending on its intended use. Cottonseed meal has a high protein content and plays an important role as a supplement to livestock feed and natural forage.

Long before the Civil War, upland farmers east of the Mississippi River had used whole cottonseed as a fertilizer for wheat, oats, corn, and other crops. In Texas during the 1800s the seed was used almost exclusively as a supplemental cattle feed. One report exists of its use in 1875 to fuel a Texas flour mill, before the arrival of rail transport had made coal accessible and economical. For the most part, however, through most of the nineteenth century the seed was considered a waste product and a nuisance. It piled up in great quantities (two pounds of seed are separated out for every pound of cotton lint ginned), and it gave off a foul odor as it decomposed. It could not be burned, for heaps of it would continue to smoulder even after a rain storm. Various uses for the oil were known, but inadequate technology hindered production of the oil into the 1880s. The most challenging problems centered around removal of the linters and the hard hull.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, efforts to exploit cottonseed persisted in the United States from the late eighteenth century onward. The first commercially successful cottonseed-oil mill in the United States was built in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1834. The first mill in Texas was built by Leonard Waller Groce in 1836 near Brenham. Groce used the oil to make soap and paint, lubricate machinery, and fuel lamps. The first commercial oil mill established in Texas was reportedly at High Hill, three miles northwest of Schulenburg in Fayette County, in 1848. One or two mills are said to have operated in the state during the 1850s, and 1860 saw the incorporation of the Texas Cotton Seed Oil and Manufacturing Company. In 1867 a New York concern built a mill in Galveston, oriented to the export trade. An oil mill in Hempstead reported doing business worth $3,000 in 1869. In 1870 twenty-six mills were reported throughout the country; each of the two in Texas was said to be grossing $20,000 annually. In April 1871 the East Texas Cotton, Woolen, and Cotton Seed Oil Manufacturing Company received a charter to build a mill within three miles of Marshall. Other mills established in the state during the 1870s included one in Columbus (1876) and one in Dallas (1878). The number of mills in the United States had risen to forty-five in 1880, when Texas mills were located in Brazos, Dallas, Galveston, Grayson, Grimes, Robertson, and Waller counties. The Grayson County mill was grossing $100,000 annually, and the one in Waller County, $90,000. By 1882 fourteen mills were in the state, located in Brenham, Bryan, Columbus, Dallas, Galveston, Houston, Navasota, San Antonio, Waco, and Weimar and in Falls, Fayette, Jefferson, and Waller counties. The combined production of these mills amounted to some five million barrels or more, and the mill in Galveston ranked as one of the largest in the country. By 1885 the number of Texas mills had risen to twenty-three.

Between 1870 and 1880 cottonseed overtook flaxseed as the chief source of vegetable oil in the United States. The development of the cottonseed industry was propelled by improved technology in processing, which was notable from 1869 onward, and by the development of markets for cottonseed products. Demonstrated uses for cottonseed oil made the seed commercially valuable during the 1850s, and New Orleans and Mobile became centers of production. Hopes for using the oil as a lubricant for machinery and source of illumination were dashed, however, by the rise of the petroleum industry after 1859.

The first major market for the oil developed in the 1870s in Europe, where manufacturers had learned to mix cottonseed oil with olive oil to mask its flavor and then market the hybrid as olive oil. When Italian olive growers learned of the ruse, however, they succeeded in imposing a high tariff on cottonseed oil about 1881. United States exports, which had accounted for three-fourths of the country's oil production in the late 1870s, plunged. Luckily a new market was formed in the meantime with the invention of oleomargarine by a Frenchman in 1870; oleo was being produced in the United States by 1873. Soon cottonseed oil was being substituted for animal fat in oleo production. In 1886 the United States dairy industry was able to get a stiff excise tax imposed on oleo, but European markets continued to import large quantities of oil for their oleo industry. Another important market developed in the 1880s for a product known as compound lard, which contained a large percentage of cottonseed oil in place of hog lard. By 1890 the manufacture of compound lard consumed perhaps one-third of the cottonseed oil produced in the United States.

Because cottonseed is bulky and perishable, it has been more economical to locate cottonseed mills near the source of supply. That circumstance helps to explain the front rank that Texas took within the national cottonseed industry toward the end of the nineteenth century, for Texas had become the leading cotton-producing state by 1880 (see COTTON CULTURE). It remained the largest cotton grower throughout the following century, into the early 1990s. The development of the seed industry in the state was also encouraged by the rapid expansion of the Texas rail system between 1870 and 1900. In 1880 the cottonseed industry ranked twelfth in the state in value added by manufacture and fourteenth in value of product. By 1890 it ranked fifth in the state in value of product, and by 1900 it ranked second in that category. In the 1899 census Texas stood in first place with 102 mills, South Carolina ranked second with 48, and the nation as a whole reported 357. In 1902 Texas led with 142 mills, Georgia placed second with 70, and the nation as a whole registered 530.

The amount of seed crushed had risen dramatically, from a national total of 80,000 tons in 1870 to 1,000,000 tons in 1891, 2,000,000 in 1898, and 3,524,780 in 1902, when Texas mills alone crushed 872,985 tons. The proportion of seed being crushed had also risen significantly. Nationally, mills in 1880 had crushed about one-seventh of the total cottonseed production. In 1901 mills in Texas, Oklahoma Territory, and Indian Territory crushed an estimated 60 percent or more of the seed from that region.

Securing an adequate supply of seed in good condition was a perennial concern for mill operators. Poor roads and the expense of transportation contributed to the problem and tended to confine the buying area of the mill to the surrounding environs. Water transport, which was cheaper than rail, could extend the buying reach of the mill. Although railroads were used to some extent in transporting raw seed, they were especially important in shipping the oil and linters. Because the hulls and meal were the heaviest components of the seed and had less value than the oil and linters, it was more economical to sell them nearby than to ship them far away.

In the early 1880s mill owners in Texas and Arkansas formed syndicates to regulate the price paid for seed and so moderate competition. About 1884 these syndicates combined to form the American Cotton Oil Trust. By the fall of 1886 this group controlled 88 percent of the crushing capacity of the country. In 1888 Louisiana sued to have the trust dissolved, and in 1889 it was reorganized as a corporation, the American Cotton Oil Company. Its chief competitor was the Southern Cotton Oil Company, organized in New Jersey in 1887. The properties of the latter company were purchased in 1901 by the Virginia-Carolina Chemical Company. Smaller corporations and independent mills also existed. In 1949 it was estimated that half the mills in the country were owned by groups and half were independent.

With the establishment of the industry on a firm footing, trade organizations began to be formed. The Cotton Seed Crushers Association, whose proceedings were published in New Orleans, was established and holding meetings by 1879. The Texas Cotton Seed Crushers' Association was organized in Waco in 1894, and the Inter-State Cotton Crushers' Association was formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1897. In addition to addressing other matters of business concern, the Texas and interstate associations established publicity bureaus in the early 1900s to educate the public in the use of cottonseed products. Many of the uses enumerated, such as the lubrication of harness and making of laundry soap, quilts, and mattresses, suggest that individuals were buying products directly from the mill for household use. The Texas publicity bureau was aided in its work by the Dallas-based Farm and Ranch, whose editor-in-chief, John H. Connell, was a wholehearted booster of cottonseed.

One of the publicists' chief goals was to persuade local farmers to use meal, rather than the whole seed, as a feed supplement. For some years oil was the only cottonseed product that found a market in the United States, but meal was valued highly by European farmers, who fed it to their beef and dairy cattle. In 1906 it was said that Hamburg made the market for Texas meal just as Liverpool made the market for Texas cotton. By 1909, however, most of the hulls, cake, and meal were being used within the state, while much of the production of linters was going out of state and most of the oil was being shipped to Europe (some was going to China and Japan). The growing use of cake and meal by Texas ranchers contributed significantly to the state's cattle industry in the twentieth century, for the feed supplement helped cattle to survive drought and harsh winters and helped to make ranching in semiarid regions possible. As research advanced, the usefulness of cottonseed meal in horse and swine feed was also demonstrated, while later in the twentieth century progress was made toward adapting it for poultry feed.

Along with exhortations to "locate and foster markets," early association members in Texas were urged to advertise in their local papers and to make a special point of addressing women, who made most of the decisions about household consumption. In spite of these appeals, most oil-mill managers generally may have been like the one in Austin, who was reported in 1919 not to advertise at all. With the exception of the oil, most of the products of that mill were consumed locally, and inventory was seldom carried over from one year to the next.

If the mills themselves did not advertise, companies that used cottonseed products in their own manufactures did. Procter and Gamble, for instance, which already bought large quantities of cottonseed oil to produce Ivory soap, developed a vegetable shortening based on cottonseed oil in the early 1900s. When the new product, Crisco, was introduced in 1912, the company conducted a major advertising campaign. Producers of vegetable food products also sought to exploit public concern over conditions in the slaughterhouses and meat-packing industry by touting the purity and healthfulness of their products.

Research continued to develop new uses for cottonseed derivatives. Cellulose from linters became an important material in the manufacture of acetate fiber, one of the early synthetic fibers, by 1920 and a component of early plastics in the late 1920s. By 1929 a substantial amount of cottonseed oil was being used in prepared salad dressing. Research was also being conducted on the cotton plant itself. By 1939 A&M College had developed a strain of cotton that produced much seed and little lint.

The start of the season for cottonseed-oil mills varied by region according to the time of cotton harvesting. The season for the adless Austin mill usually began in August and lasted seven or eight months, with another two to three months spent on repairs. Although the repairs might have been finished in less time, the work was drawn out to provide continued employment for some workers and to serve as an inducement for them to remain in the area.

In 1909 most of the 194 Texas mills employed between five and fifty workers, 99 percent of whom were male. Laborers in cottonseed mills worked a longer week than in any other industry in the state, most of them clocking seventy-two hours a week or more. Ten years later conditions at the Austin mill seem to have been similar. Most workers there were unskilled Mexican and African Americans who worked twelve-hour shifts. Before World War I unskilled workers at the Austin mill had earned a dollar a day and skilled ones, two dollars. By 1919 those wages had risen to $2.25 and $4.50, respectively. Oil refineries required a more skilled work force than mills.

Between 1900 and 1915 the cottonseed industry in Texas continued its strong expansion, boosted by improved technology and the invention of new products. In 1915, its peak year, Texas had 233 of the 882 oil mills in the country. Soon, however, the number began a steady decline. By 1919 state mills were down to 200, reduced in part, perhaps, by the effect of federal regulations of the price of cottonseed during World War I. Also, a major cause of the decline was the fact that the industry had overexpanded, developing a crushing capacity that exceeded the supply of cottonseed. Some mills sought to offset the shortage of seed by crushing peanuts after the cottonseed season ended, while the Austin mill experimented in 1918 and 1919 with pressing dried coconut meat imported from California.

Despite hope that the expansion of cotton growing in Texas would alleviate the problem, overcapacity continued to plague the industry. The situation became even more severe after the Texas cotton acreage control law of 1931–32 reduced the number of acres that could be planted with cotton. While the number of mills dropped, however, the capacity of the remaining mills increased, and the industry remained a significant one in the state. In 1909 it ranked third among state industries in value of product. In 1930 it ranked second in that category, and in 1939, third, while placing eighth in the number of employees and ninth in the value added by manufacture. Cottonseed also ranked high as a cash crop for Texas farmers, trailing only cotton lint and sometimes wheat in the period 1937 to 1940. During the 1940s the added income from cottonseed helped Texas cotton growers withstand the competition from synthetic fibers.

Demand for vegetable-oil products soared during World War II. In the early 1940s Texas cottonseed mills, still faced with overcapacity, imported and crushed a large tonnage of northern soybeans. The demand for oilseed encouraged an expansion of peanut production in Texas and the development of flaxseed cultivation along the Gulf Coast. The Texas cottonseed industry sponsored oilseed research in cooperation with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, the Texas Research Foundation, and other organizations, and the Texas Cottonseed Crushers Association provided A&M College with an experimental mill. Research in the uses of other oilseeds and their expanded cultivation in turn presented cottonseed with oilseed competitors. By the late 1950s soybeans had become the largest oilseed crop in the country, although cottonseed continued to dominate the oilseed category in Texas.

From 1929 to 1955 the number of mills in Texas counted by the federal census dropped from 176 to eighty-nine. The number of persons employed by the mills also declined, as did the value of product and the value added by manufacture. During the mid-1950s hopes for renewed vitality in the industry rested on the development of new products, such as a recently developed meal processed especially for poultry and an ice cream substitute called mellorine, which replaced butterfat with vegetable oil and sold for about half the price of the dairy product.

A further decline in the number of mills was presaged by the advent of solvent extraction of oil. By 1949 five mills that used solvent extraction had been built nationally, including one in Abilene. Mills using this technology had a larger capacity than others and needed to operate year-round to achieve efficiency. In the mid-1950s, however, the ranks of Texas mills still included small, "cotton-patch" mills, which performed only the first stages of processing, in addition to the larger, "terminal" mills, which performed such further operations as refining the oil, mixing formula feed, and manufacturing other products. Although Texas mills were fewer in number in the 1950s, they had a larger total capacity than in the 1940s and were crushing, on average, close to 90 percent or more of the seed produced each season. Cottonseed remained an important cash crop in Texas, placing second after cotton lint in 1957 and 1958, with sorghum grain a distant third.

In the postwar years the center of the cottonseed industry in Texas shifted to the west, as cotton growing itself shifted from East Texas to the southern High Plains. By 1955 Lubbock had become the largest cottonseed-processing center in the world, a distinction it continued to hold in the early 1990s. Lubbock was also the site of the world's first commercial cottonseed-flour mill. The venture was unprofitable, however, and lasted only from 1973 to 1975; flour production remained an unrealized facet of the industry in the early 1990s. By the mid-1950s cottonseed oil refineries had also moved west and were in operation in Lubbock, Abilene, and El Paso, as well as other cities. By the late 1940s the manufacture of food products incorporating cottonseed oil had also become an important industry in the state. At that time the chief centers in Texas for the production of mayonnaise, margarine, shortening, and salad dressing included Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Sherman.

During the 1960s the shift in cotton growing to the western part of the state and from small farms to large irrigated farms continued. At the same time, there was a trend away from cotton growing and toward the cultivation of grain and other crops. In the early 1960s cottonseed ranked third as a source of cash farm income, behind cotton lint and sorghum grain. By 1965 it had slipped to fifth place, behind lint, sorghum grain, rice, and wheat. It ranked sixth in 1987–89.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century researchers continued to explore new uses for cottonseed derivatives. Cottonseed oil remained the most important component of the seed, being used extensively as a cooking oil and in a wide range of food products. Though soybean oil still dominated the vegetable-oil market nationally, cottonseed remained supreme among oilseed crops grown in Texas. Although the number of mills in the state had dropped to nineteen by 1983, Texas continued to be the leading producer of cottonseed products. In 1990 Texas mills crushed 2,049,000 tons of seed worth $239,686,000, and produced 48 percent of the cottonseed oil exported by the United States. For Texas farmers who were able to grow cotton profitably, it was often the added income from the seed that made the difference.

Cottonseed and Cottonseed Based Industries: Their Place in the Economy of Texas (Austin: Cotton Economic Research, University of Texas, in cooperation with the Cotton Research Committee of Texas, 1959). Alonzo Bettis Cox, The Cottonseed Crushing Industry of Texas in Its National Setting (Austin: Cotton Research Committee of Texas, 1949). Vera Lea Dugas, "Texas Industry, 1860–1880," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 59 (October 1955). The History of Cotton in Texas (Natural Fibers Information Center, Bureau of Business Research, University of Texas at Austin, 1989). Lynette Boney Wrenn, Cinderella of the New South: A History of the Cottonseed Industry, 1855–1955 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). W. D. Wright, "Cotton Seed Products in Texas," in Studies in the Industrial Resources of Texas: Studies by Texas Applied Economics Club (University of Texas Bulletin 3, Austin, 1915).

  • Agriculture
  • Products (Plant)
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

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

Mary M. Standifer, “Cottonseed Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 10, 2016