Tools and Technology

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Tools and Technology

The industrial revolution, which began so purposefully in eighteenth-century England, helped to spark a similar revolution in America. The application and use of power-driven machines in manufacturing inevitably produced greater quantities of commodities for a mass market at a cheaper price. In addition, it encouraged the growth of cities and urban areas, which was in conflict with the beliefs of the old Jeffersonian conservatives whose ultimate grand vision for America was the creation of an agrarian republic. Conservative Southern planters and politicians were committed to maintaining an agrarian social order based on slave labor. Some Northern industrialists argued that in a modern industrial economy, slave labor was inefficient and should be abolished. Others took a centrist approach, hoping that some compromise might leave the Southern social order intact while industrialization moved ahead in the South.

The reality is that certain segments in society, for various social, economic, or political reasons, are always unable or unwilling to take advantage of the progress that accompanies technological change. Because slaves were unable to enjoy the fruits of industrialization and because it did not create a better work environment, technological advancement was irrelevant in their daily lives. Moreover, there is a certain irony in that, to a large degree, the Atlantic slave trade fueled the growth of the industrial revolution in both England and America during the eighteenth century. Nowhere was America's role in the process more evident than in the cultivation of tobacco. Slaves in Virginia and Maryland planted, cultivated, and cured tobacco for export and domestic consumption. The trade in tobacco was extremely profitable for the English and many American merchants and investors in the North, although there were periods of overproduction and low prices. Much of the accumulation of capital that resulted was reinvested in modernizing technology, which then sparked a revolution in industry.

Many Southern tobacco planters used their profits to increase their slave populations, but years of growing tobacco had depleted much of the land in the Chesapeake, Tidewater, and Piedmont areas by the early nineteenth century. Moreover, around this time there was a significant decrease in the export of tobacco to European countries, which was partly countered by an increase in domestic consumption, even among slaves. It is impossible to know what impact this had on profits but, apparently, the use of tobacco was widespread among slaves. For example, a posting for the return of a runaway slave in the Virginia Gazette, dated May 2 through 9, 1745, describes the slave as a small mulatto man named Peter who "always has a great Quid of Tobacco in his Mouth." Nonetheless, agriculture in the upper South, particularly along coastal areas, continued to suffer from depressed market prices and the soil deterioration that resulted from one-crop farming. The removal of the Creek and Cherokee Indians from their lands in Georgia and Alabama allowed many small farmers access to better farmland in the lower South. Many large planters searched for new crops to replace the cultivation of tobacco.

The industrial revolution in England resulted in the invention of new kinds of mechanical, waterpowered spinning jennies and weavers that revolutionized the textile industry and led to the construction of new textile plants worldwide. In America in 1793, an invention that appeared rather primitive, but that was really a significant technological advancement, would save Southern agriculture. Unfortunately, it would also increase the demand for slave labor. In an effort to revive Southern agriculture some planters had experimented with growing cotton inland away from the coastal lowlands of Georgia and South Carolina. They achieved some success in cultivating a short-staple variety of cotton, but it was inferior to the long-staple variety grown in the lowlands and Sea Islands. While it could be cultivated productively in the interior of Southern states, the problem with the short-staple variety was that the cotton fibers stuck to its green seeds. This made it extremely difficult to prepare the raw cotton for manufacturing into cloth. To ameliorate this problem a young inventor, Eli Whitney (1765–1825), designed a simple machine that he called a cotton gin, which easily removed the fibers from the seeds.

The success of Whitney's invention almost immediately precipitated the spread of the cultivation of cotton across the lower South, where there was ample unspoiled land. This, in turn, led to the increasing need for large numbers of slave laborers. To meet their labor needs, plantation owners purchased more than 300,000 slaves from the Chesapeake colonies, which no longer required large numbers of enslaved laborers for cultivating tobacco. In addition, there was an illegal, but highly profitable and effective, Underground Railroad that smuggled slaves from other Atlantic slave populations into the lower South. It took only about ten years after the invention of the cotton gin for cotton to replace tobacco as the South's most valuable crop. Unlike tobacco, which slave labor cultivated primarily in Maryland and Virginia, planters and small farmers alike grew cotton all across the South. Soon the cotton plant would completely dominate the Southern economy.

As America entered the nineteenth century, Whitney's cotton gin was not the only technological advancement that helped to make cotton such an important agricultural product. There were several others, one of the most important of which was the invention of the sewing machine. Around 1840 Elias Howe (1819–1867), a textile worker who understood the mechanics of contemporary machinery, began to work on a design for a sewing machine. Howe, who had also worked as a precision instrument maker, finally succeeded in constructing a device that mechanically used an eye-pointed needle that could force a piece of thread through a piece of cloth to make a loop that, through a shuttle with another length of thread, passed through to make a lock stitch. Though it enabled a single seamstress to increase her productivity dramatically, Howe's sewing device was extremely expensive and did not sell well. Issac Singer (1811–1875), a mechanic and amateur inventor, added improvements to Howe's device and received a patent in 1851 to manufacture his machine. Like Howe's original sewing machine, Singer's, although much improved, was very expensive. One of Singer's business partners solved the dilemma by allowing the machine to be purchased on installments. This marketing innovation made the sewing machine available to ordinary users, which in turn created a mass market for the cotton that Southern farmers and planters cultivated using slave labor.

Although the plant itself had changed, little else had changed for the slaves who picked cotton. Masters still required slaves to work from sunup to sundown. In fact, all the major cash crops grown in the South, which included tobacco, sugar, rice, and cotton, were labor-intensive and required tedious, backbreaking work. Although the cotton gin allowed a single slave to process far more raw cotton, slaves still had to toil long hours in the hot sun picking cotton. In addition, they often had to drain ditches and clear land of trees, brush, and other debris to free up more land on which to plant cotton. Thus, the cotton gin did little to make life easier for slaves—though it certainly helped to increase cotton production for a growing international market, which meant substantial profits for the planters.

Those slaves who worked on tobacco plantations and farms had to clear large tracts of land with hoes, scythes, and an assortment of other small tools. The planting, cultivation, and processing of tobacco was tedious, took from dawn until dusk, and frequently required slaves to work under the most adverse conditions. The planting, replanting, weeding, topping, curing, and packing was all done by hand, but was nonetheless profitable for the planter or small farmer. A single slave working daily on a several-acre plot of cleared land could produce more than 1,000 pounds of tobacco, which could be sold at a 200 percent profit.

Slaves who worked on sugar plantations, which were located primarily in Louisiana, cut and hauled sugar cane to the mill, where they were also responsible for grinding and boiling the cane. After the cane had been cooked, refining equipment turned the juice into sugar. However, technology had little or no impact on easing the pain and exhaustion that the slaves suffered from working on sugar plantations. (Often slaves worked from sixteen to eighteen hours per day.)

Working on rice plantations, which were located primarily in the lowlands of South Carolina, was perhaps the most exhausting and dangerous work a slave could do. Rice cultivation required a system of canals, dikes, and gates in order to flood the rice fields. The lowlands were hot and humid, and slaves had to work hours on end in knee-deep, poisonous, snake-infested water and mud, while constantly flailing at disease-carrying mosquitoes. Technology also had little impact on the work of slaves in the rice fields. What did improve conditions for slaves was that Africans had brought with them a knowledge of rice cultivation that enabled them to plant and cultivate rice efficiently. Slaves were able to negotiate a work schedule called the "task system," which meant that they were assigned tasks to complete each day and once they had finished, they had the rest of the day to themselves. Slaves who toiled in the rice fields adamantly refused to work any other way.

For the most part, however, the duties of slaves were far from over at the end of a long day spent toiling in the fields, as Solomon Northup (b. 1808), an ex-slave who worked in the cotton fields, reminds us in his autobiography Twelve Years a Slave (1853). Once the fieldwork had been finished for the day the slaves still had additional chores on the plantation, which might include feeding the farm animals, collecting firewood for the master, or doing odd jobs around the master's house. Slaves then returned to their quarters to prepare their daily meal, which usually consisted of salt pork or bacon and cornmeal, and might be supplemented by other foods if the master allowed the slaves to have small garden plots. After preparing for the next day's work and socializing with friends and family for a while, it was off to bed for a few hours sleep.

Advances in science and technology during the nineteenth century had a significant impact on American society in general—especially in the North, where free labor, industrialization, and immigration were moving full-speed ahead. Lowell, Massachusetts, a town of about 17,000, was becoming a model city for the textile industry in the Northeast and cities such as Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, were emerging in the Midwest, as technology created more jobs and improved agricultural production. The South, however, remained firmly committed to maintaining a slave society as the Civil War (1861–1865) approached, and no technological advance could change that.


Bonner, James C. A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732–1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1964.

Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River in Louisiana. Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.

Reidy, Joseph P. From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Young, Jeffrey Robert. Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670–1837. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

                                            Donald Roe