Cotton Pressing in Louisiana

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Cotton Pressing in Louisiana
A. Hill
Ballou’s Magazine, April 12, 1856
Wood engraving from sketches by A. Hill
Chicago History Museum

The process of growing cotton and preparing it for sale involved a great many steps requiring a great many people. This illustration shows one step in that process. After cotton was planted, tended, and picked, a machine called a cotton gin was used to separate the fluffy fibers from the seeds. The cotton was then moved to a cotton press like the one you see in this image. The enslaved men working at the cart on the left move cotton into the press. At the right, they walk in a circle pushing a lever, providing power to the press. In the foreground, men move the finished bales off of the press, watched over by what appears to be a white overseer, or boss (wearing a large-brimmed hat).  Innovations like the gin and press, along with the cheapness of slave labor, enabled some white Southerners to become incredibly wealthy. The enslaved people who worked the cotton fields did not profit from their labor.
In March of 1858, two years after this engraving was published in Ballou’s Magazine, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond gave a speech where he said “Cotton is King” and boasted that no one in the world would dare to make war on cotton because it was so important to the world’s economy. That phrase helps demonstrate how Southerners saw the crop as both their lifeline and their source of power. Through investing heavily in land and slaves, Southerners could not envision a future where cotton did not rule their economy.

1. What does this image tell you about the sort of work enslaved people were forced to do? How many people do you see working to make bales of cotton?

2. In 1856 Louisiana, the African Americans working on this cotton press were legally in the same category as the machine: property. How do you think that artist A. Hill shows this in the picture?  Give examples.

Further reading:
Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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